Yesterday the Church observed the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. These are two interesting figures in Church history because they are so flawed… Peter, faithful disciple, denies he knows Jesus… not once, but three times. And Paul, also known as Saul, was one of the most enthusiastic persecutors of the Church – throwing folks in jail and worse, for being followers of Jesus.
These two are among the most flawed and destructive folks in the early Church. So, it makes sense that they share a feast day… but why are they honored at all, let alone with a major feast?
These are two of the earliest figures in Christian tradition – Peter and Paul are contemporaries of Jesus. John the Baptist and Mary may be the only major figures in the Christian story to pre-date Peter and Paul. There are other contemporary figures – most of whom would seem to be better candidates for major feasts… in fact all the other disciples with the obvious exception of Judas, would seem to have a better claim. These two, Peter and Paul, are uniquely bad, yet they get a Major Feast while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are honored with lesser Feasts.
Of course, the Gospel is understood as good news for sinners. And Peter and Paul are obvious sinners… So, one of the reasons for celebrating a feast in their honor is to remind us that the Gospel is for folks like then, like us… God does not call people into service because they are perfect. God works through very flawed people. This doesn’t start in the New Testament. Moses is flawed. Noah is flawed. Adam and Eve are flawed. Scripture seems to offer us no perfect people. God has always worked through flawed, that is to say human, people…
Peter and Paul both face tough questions from Jesus. For Peter the question is: “Do you love me?” Asked not once, but three times in the lead up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Peter adamantly insists that of course he loves Jesus. But in a short while Peter will just as adamantly insist that he does not even know Jesus, let alone love him. For each time that Peter has professed his love for Jesus, he has cancelled that profession.
For Paul, or Saul, the question is much more dramatic. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Saul is travelling to Damascus with arrest warrants from the Temple authorities to arrest any followers of Jesus that he may find. A blinding flash of light causes Saul to fall to the ground and then the question thunders out: “Why do you persecute me?” Who is asking, Saul wants to know… “It’s me, Jesus” is the thundering answer.
The flash of light has apparently blinded Saul. So, his travelling companions lead him on to Damascus where his sight is restored, and his life is transformed. It is easy to think that this is where the story of Saul the Persecutor ends, and the story of Paul the Apostle begins… But it will be a few more chapters before the name Paul appears. It probably has more to do with a change in his ministry than a change in his life. Paul is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Saul… Greek was the Gentile language and Paul is called as Apostle to the Gentiles.
There are good scholarly reasons to doubt that this story of Paul’s Road to Damascus conversion can literally be true. Paul left lots of letters and told lots of stories, but this story comes from the Acts of the Apostles, from the Author of Luke. And the author of Luke seems to have loved nothing more than a story of great symbolic meaning. But Luke was no journalist.
It’s doubtful that the High Priest in Jerusalem could issue blank arrest warrants for Saul to use at his own discretion. Roman justice surely had its weak points, but due process was not one of them.
But the symbology of this story is deep and wonderful. Saul’s hatred for Jesus and his followers is so great that it is blinding. When confronted with the question of why his hate is so great, his world is transformed – the thing he hated becomes the thing he loves. It is, in a way, a story of death and rebirth. Among the powerful miracles that attest to Jesus’ power is making the blind to see – and here is blind Saul with his sight restored. Love wins.
Paul isn’t just able to see again, he becomes one of the great visionaries of the Church. From persecutor to truly the first theologian; and all through the power of God. The rejected becomes a cornerstone.
I’ve got to be honest; Luke, the master storyteller, does a much better job telling Paul’s story than Paul does. This passage from Acts, where we essentially meet Paul, is gripping, exciting, archetypally resonant. Paul, in his own words, in many letters that make up much of the New Testament, can spill out quite leaden prose. He can be astonishingly pedantic. Luke’s stories get made into movies. Paul’s stories – not so much.
But surely part of the reason for celebrating Peter and Paul is that we can relate to them. And that means examining how we do on those two big questions – do we love Jesus and why do we persecute Jesus?
At first glance, it is rather easy to dismiss the question of why I persecute Jesus. I don’t persecute Jesus. But keep in mind that Jesus tells us whatever we do to one of the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him. Allowing someone to go hungry, allowing someone to be homeless, allowing someone to die from lack of basic health care, these could all be understood to be persecuting Jesus.
As I look at a world full of needless suffering it becomes much harder to maintain that we, that I don’t persecute Jesus. How the poor and the meek are treated in my home country, the US, is notorious. But here in South Africa, the poor also suffer. In the US, there is a large group largely driven by racial hatred is happy to inflict suffering . That is also part of the story here in South Africa, but another piece is that here there is such a high degree of corruption which deprives many of justice; that leaves many suffering.
Our persecution of Jesus these days is vicarious – but it still leads to suffering. It is still persecution. When we do it to one of the least of God’s children, we do it to Jesus…
Let’s face the question that Peter faces; do we love Jesus. We’re here this morning because we love Jesus. But Peter didn’t need that question when things were going well. He needed that question when chaos was ravaging his world. In the dangerous, crazy aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion Peter needed to be reminded of his love for Jesus, and more importantly, of Jesus’ love for him.
We’re told that Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him because Peter will deny Jesus three times. It’s easy enough to think that this is Jesus’ way of showing what hypocrite Peter is… not once, but three times.
But as I face into these questions, aware that my own answers are no better than those of Peter and Paul, I become more aware that Jesus’ purpose in these questions was not to remind Peter and Paul of their failings. And my facing these questions is not a call to wallow in my failings and infirmities. It is to remind me, to remind each of us, of Jesus’ unwavering and constant love.
Jesus calls Saul to his true life, which is found in serving Jesus as a builder of the church. The full question might be why are you persecuting me when I love you? Your life will be better if you let me love you.
Peter responds to Jesus question by insisting that, of course, he loves Jesus. But he never asks the next and obvious question – does Jesus love him back?
There is no point in Peter asking because he knows without doubt that Jesus loves him. But that is no reason not to ask it. Perhaps the whole reason for keeping this feast with these two troubled folks at the center is so that we can keep their questions as well. Why do we persecute Jesus and do we love Jesus.
But I suggest that we not leave the unspoken question out – does Jesus love us. And I suggest that every time we ask and seriously listen for an answer, we’ll hear something like that old Sunday school hymn – yes Jesus loves me… the bible tells me so.