Sunday, 27 June 2010

Patronal Festival Sermon: Peter AND Paul

Patronal Festival 2010
Galatians 2.1-14, Matthew 16.13-19

Today we celebrate our two Patron saints – Peter and Paul – and, as you might know, we don’t celebrate them alone. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to exchange greetings with as many other churches dedicated to Peter and Paul as I could find. And there are plenty of them. In the end I managed to get, I think, 21 replies on the special blog I set up with some help from the young people’s group. I’ve put them up on the board at the back too, so you can see them if you don’t “do” the internet.

I was a bit limited in those I could contact. I was doing all this by email, so if they didn’t “do” the internet either I couldn’t do much about that. Language was a limitation as well. I managed a few in my best, rather rusty, French, and one of the recipients responded, so it can’t have been that bad, but most of the greetings are from English speaking churches. And, of course, because I was looking for churches dedicated to saints, we haven’t heard from churches in traditions where they don’t normally call their churches after saints. But even with those limitations, the replies are full of diversity. There are Cathedrals – Sheffield Anglican Cathedral and Roman Catholic Cathedrals in Nantes and in Goulburn, Australia. There are little rural churches like Muchelney on the Somerset Levels, and churches in towns and cities too. I’ve had greetings from the youth groups in Gravesend, in Pickering in North Yorkshire and in Abington in Northamptonshire, and I’ve had greetings from people who, I’m guessing, are at the other end of the age scale.
There are high churches, which today they will, I am sure be filled with incense, and low churches who’ll be celebrating with informal worship. But they all wanted to say hello, to reach out across the divides of geography, or denomination, or culture, and celebrate the faith – and the dedication to Peter and Paul – which we hold in common.

One of the reasons why I wanted to do this – apart from the fact that I thought it would be fun – was that it is actually pretty strange that any church should be dedicated to Peter AND Paul at all and I thought it was worth pondering. They were hardly best buddies, in fact they were almost permanently at loggerheads in their lifetimes. There were bitter arguments between them and their followers about which one had really got the message of Jesus right.

In our first reading we heard Paul’s account of one round of their squabble. It’s always a bit hard to get a handle on other people’s rows, especially when you’ve only got one side to go on, but basically what was at issue was how Jewish this new Jesus movement was going to be, and who had the authority to set the direction it would go in.

Peter was sure it ought to be him who made the rules, and it’s easy to see why. He’d been one of Jesus’ closest friends. He’d been with him throughout his ministry from start to finish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Paul, by contrast, had never met Jesus at all, unless you count seeing him in a vision on the road to Damascus, but it hardly compares.

Not only that, Paul had been a staunch opponent of Jesus and his followers before that vision changed his life. He’d wanted this new movement strangled at birth, and although he had changed his mind you could see why the old guard might be a bit sceptical. What did he know about anything? Who was he to be throwing his theological weight around?

Peter and the church in Jerusalem managed to forgive him for the fact that he had tried to have them all killed, which is quite something. But they weren’t so sure they could stomach the message he was preaching, which seemed to be taking the church away from its Jewish cultural roots.

Peter and Paul were both Jewish, of course, but Peter was a fisherman from Galilee, who had lived his whole life surrounded by fellow Jews, in the Jewish homelands of Galilee and then in Jerusalem. Tradition says that he eventually made his way to Rome, where he was martyred, but actually there’s no evidence for that – and according to the Bible, he doesn’t seem to have travelled much at all. His knowledge of the world and its diversity was probably very limited.

Paul on the other hand, had been brought up in Tarsus, a town which is now in Turkey. He was Jewish, but he lived in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan society – he was a Roman citizen himself. Though he grew up to be zealous for Judaism, he was bound to be more aware of the faiths of others and their ways of life. Inevitably he had a wider experience of the world than Peter. During his ministry he was constantly on the move, travelling through many different cultures, among people who knew nothing about Judaism, and cared less. They couldn’t see what the old Jewish Law had to do with them, and why should they? Why not eat pork? Why be circumcised? What was all the fuss about? It was all completely alien to them, nothing to do with the message of Jesus that they should love one another, which was what they had responded to.

Paul had had to think hard about the Gospel he proclaimed to these people. He had to work out what was essential, and what was really just cultural window dressing. And he came to the conclusion that if Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem didn’t want to eat bacon butties, that was up to them, but rules like that only got in the way when you were in Galatia, or Greece, or Rome, where bacon butties were the staple food.

To Peter and to the Jerusalem Christians this was all very worrying. They thought Paul was just preaching a make-it-up-as-you-go-along faith, bending the faith of their ancestors so it would be easier for people to accept it. Once you started going soft on things which felt to them so instinctively wrong, like eating pork, what would be next? Where would it end?

The arguments rumbled on for many years. Peter had a much more natural claim to leadership than Paul, the “Johnny come lately” apostle who was working out there on the fringes, but in the end it was Paul who won, though perhaps more by accident than design. In AD 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The church that met there was scattered along with all the rest of the Jewish population and it never really recovered. Peter had all his church’s eggs in one basket, so to speak, and when that was gone that was it.
Those who had heard the Gospel from Paul, though, were widely spread out around the Roman world, so his church was much less vulnerable to local disasters. And because the faith he preached was adaptable and flexible, it was much better equipped to survive changing times and situations. Peter’s legacy wasn’t lost – he is still considered to be one of the most important founding figures in Christian faith - but it was the outward facing theology of Paul which really shaped the faith we know in the West today. He is the reason why Christians don’t have to follow Jewish laws. I rather doubt the Gospel would have spread as far as it has without the leaps of imagination and faith he made.

But what have these ancient arguments got to do with us? In a sense, nothing. We aren’t very likely to feel today that we ought, really, to go back to eating kosher food. But I suspect that Peter and Paul represent a continuing tension in the church, and in our wider society that has never gone away, and never will, and it is one we all face.

Peter says, “Tradition matters – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we forget where we came from, we forget who we are and we risk losing the hard won lessons of our ancient wisdom. Then we’ll just have to learn them all over again, probably the hard way.” Paul says, “The world moves on. Different times and situations need different responses. One size doesn’t fit all and if we aren’t prepared to evolve and adapt, we’ll die.”

If you had to pick one which would you go for? Peter or Paul? Guarding the old traditions or wanting to innovate? It’s not just in church that we face those choices. At work, at home, in our neighbourhoods, these two viewpoints are often in conflict. That conflict can be very destructive, with each side caricaturing the other - one side are stick in the muds, and the other side just want to make the rules up to suit themselves. But it can be a constructive tension as well, if we respond to it with generosity. It is pretty rare for one side to have all the truth and wisdom on their side, and though it might not always be possible to come up with a solution to the arguments we face which suits everyone, it enriches us all if we remember that none of us has a monopoly on the truth.

A church that is dedicated to Peter AND Paul ought, above all churches, to be able to help us think about the tensions we face creatively, to find strength and wisdom in diversity. We need old wisdom. And we need new ideas. We need one another, even when we don’t agree – perhaps especially when we don’t agree, because without the challenge of people who are different from us we don’t have to think about what really matters to us at all.

So today I pray that whether we are Peters or Pauls by nature, preferring to hold back, or to rush on, we’ll remember the “and” in our church’s name – that little reminder that those who differ from us also reflect God’s love and wisdom, and come to us as his gifts and his blessings.

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