29 June 2008
Saints Peter & Paul
10.30 Communion – Appledore
Readings: Matthew 16: 13-19, Acts 12: 1- 11, 2 Tim 4, 6-8, 17, 18
May I speak in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am still smiling from yesterday’s ordination – it was an amazing service and the support I had from so many people, including people who are here again today, was both overwhelming and humbling – thank you very much.
Part of me can’t believe that this moment has arrived; that I am actually here, standing in a pulpit, dressed up, wearing a clerical collar and preaching to you good people on the feast of saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of this Church. When I told my fellow students that I was preaching today, that it was Appledore’s patronal festival and that the whole cluster was gathering for the occasion a number of them seemed to go white with fear and a few comments were made about ‘jumping in at the deep end’. – So this is me jumping into the deep end – head first – mind you, wearing these robes I just hope there are some qualified life guards around!
Just so that you know where I am going with this sermon this morning I will be thinking about two main points – the first is about why the church celebrates saints Peter and Paul together, and what that joint celebration may have to teach the church today. And the second is to think about what being a saint actually means and what lessons we can learn from these saints for ourselves. There were actually lots of other things I wanted to say but Vivienne gently reminded me that I am going to be with you for four years so I don’t need to try and say everything today.
So why is it that two such great Saints are celebrated on the same day and why are they the joint patron saints of this church when so many other, perhaps more obscure, saints get a whole day or a whole church patronage to themselves?
Do we celebrate them together perhaps because of their similarities?
On the contrary it seems that they were actually very different people. They had quite different backgrounds and personalities, they came to be followers of Christ in different ways and they sometimes had marked differences of opinion about what it meant to be a Christian.
Peter was a fisherman who left his boat and his nets to follow Jesus. He was one of the first disciples called by Jesus, he was with him at all the important moments throughout his ministry and became a leader of the Church following Pentecost. As we just heard in the gospel Peter was the first disciple to acknowledge Jesus as the promised Christ and Jesus said that he was the one on whom the Church would be built. He was by no means the perfect disciple, and we will look at that a little further in a moment, but Jesus saw in him a rock-like character on whom the church could be founded. If we met Peter today we would probably call him the ‘salt of the earth’.
Saint Paul, or Saul as he was called before his conversion, could not have been more different. He was a scholar of Judaism – he was advanced beyond all his peers in the study of scripture, he travelled widely and he had Roman citizenship. In many ways he was a much more sophisticated and metropolitan character than the fisherman Peter. Unlike Peter, Paul was never a disciple during Jesus’ earthly ministry and he was so zealous in his Judaism that he was active in persecuting the early church as he viewed them as dangerous heretics; he certainly witnessed and possibly oversaw the stoning to death of saint Stephen, one of the first deacons. As someone who has just been ordained deacon I am slightly ambivalent about that.
During the course of their different ministries Peter and Paul did not always get along. I think it is true to say that there was some tension between them. The Jewish-born Christians based in Jerusalem, which included Peter, had some real concerns about all the gentiles and their non-Jewish practices that Paul’s efforts were bringing into the church. There may well have been a residual element of suspicion attached to Paul’s earlier persecution of the church or even a sense of superiority on the part of the Jerusalem church that they had known and followed Jesus prior to his crucifixion – one certainly gets a sense from some of Paul’s letters that he is quite defensive about his late-calling to be an apostle. In one of his letters Paul actually tells us that he opposed Peter ‘face to face’ about whether Jewish food laws applied to Christians – in other words they probably had a stand up row about what it meant to be a Christian.
But, and this is the really important part, despite these differences in character and outlook they ultimately recognised each other as both following the same Christ, they met together in a spirit of compromise at the Council of Jerusalem to find a solution to their differences and they are now known as ‘the pillars of the church’. Tradition has it that they were both martyred in Rome, Peter by being crucified upside down as he did not wish to be thought equal to Christ and Paul by being beheaded.
St Augustine said of Peter and Paul:
“One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles [that is today 29 June]. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one.”
I would like to suggest that Peter and Paul are celebrated together precisely because of their complementary natures and perhaps we today can learn a valuable lesson from the fact that the church was built on pillars that were not afraid to disagree with one other and yet continued to talk and walk together in the interests of unity. This joint celebration of Peter and Paul may help to remind us that being a Christian does not mean being in a club with people who believe exactly the same things on every issue, rather being a Christian means first and foremost being a follower of Christ and recognising that other followers of Christ may have different opinions without being any less Christian.
I now what to talk briefly about the idea of saintliness itself. What does it mean to be a saint?
Well first of all the word itself simply means ‘Holy”, as it comes from the Latin ‘Sanctus’ – so when we talk about Saint Peter and Saint Paul we are really talking about Holy Peter and Holy Paul. I suppose that raises the question ‘what does Holy mean?’ Well it does not mean someone who does good things and it certainly does not mean someone who is ‘holier than thou’! It actually comes from the same root word as ‘Whole’ (that is whole with a W) and ‘holistic’, which probably makes you think of alternative medicine, which again concerns wholeness, again with a W. So when we talk about the saints we are actually talking about people who have been made whole by God – so we could talk about ‘Peter and Paul, people made whole by God.’
I will go back to using the word ‘Saint’ as it is useful shorthand but you may want to think about ‘people made whole by God’ in the back of your mind.
I suspect there are two common mistakes that are made about saints – the first is to believe that saints are somehow superhuman. I don’t know if anyone has been watching the television program Heroes – it is based on the idea of a new race of people being born who have altered DNA which gives them superpowers – the ability to fly, to heal themselves, to become invisible that sort of thing. If you were born with this altered DNA then you have superpowers – but if you were not born as a Hero then you will never have those superpowers so there is no point trying. In the same way it is easy to believe that if you were not born with Saintly DNA then saintliness will be forever out of reach – one can listen to stories about the saints in the same way that you may watch programs or films about super heroes but only ever as an observer.
The equal and opposite mistake is to believe that there is nothing special about Saints at all – that the saints of the church are only people exactly like us and that everything at all miraculous attributed to them is either well meaning elaboration or even superstitious nonsense – but this de-sanctification of the saints has the same end result as an over-sanctification of them – it removes the imperative to aspire to saintliness – and I say imperative because I believe that all Christians are called to holiness, to saintliness, to wholeness – and that the example of saints Peter and Paul should encourage us to realise that saintliness is not beyond reach for any of us – because the wholeness of God is a gift freely given by God regardless of our own abilities, characters or shortcomings.
As I mentioned earlier the zealous Paul had no qualms about witnessing the stoning to death of a deacon (I can tell that some of you may be feeling the same about now and I can promise you that I am nearly done) yet God through the person of Jesus could stop him dead in his tracks and transform him into someone whose life had the marks of saintliness. In many ways Peter’s life gives us many more examples of his human failings – although he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ in the reading we had today we also know that during his time with Jesus he was sometimes impetuous, he sometimes lost his faith, he sometimes said entirely the wrong things at the wrong time and shortly after the crucifixion he denied even knowing Jesus 3 times. And yet after the resurrection Jesus forgave him and at Pentecost Peter was anointed by the Holy Spirit and the church was built through him and through the evangelism of Paul. So if you have ever lost your faith, denied Christ, thought murderous thoughts about deacons or just been a little impetuous from time to time the good news is that you are not beyond saintliness – and neither is anyone else here – despite our failings we can all become whole people by the grace of God – and we may find ourselves in the company of a host of saints here on earth.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the life and witness of your Saints Peter and Paul and for the life and witness of your Church that is built upon those pillars. Through your grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ your Son we ask that you would transform us both as individuals and as a church into a people made whole by you and for you.