The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Two of the greatest saints who have ever lived are commemorated together on Tuesday’s Feast. Simon Peter, the acknowledged leader of Christ’s disciples and impetuously inclined ‘Prince of the Apostles’ is joined in today’s great celebration by a man who was, in so many respects, his polar opposite: Saul of Tarsus, a fiercely observant Pharisee, scholar and one of the most creative and original theologians to ever live, who became St Paul. We join with the Church through the ages in honouring two of the ‘Apostolic men’ who gave the Church its initial missionary impetus and zeal.
Reading through the Scriptures, we can very easily be struck by just how different these two men were in background and education. One was a fisherman from Galilee, although we need to dispel a few misconceptions here. Peter was neither poor (he owned at least one wooden boat – a costly item – and was in business) nor illiterate (his First Letter of Peter, though written much later, betrays sufficient fluency in Greek for that to clearly not be the case. As for Paul, he is too often characterized as bigoted, a hater of women and harsh even towards his converts. Yet even a cursory reading of his letters shows that such views are based on a lazy and uninformed caricature. Yes, Paul was a man of firm convictions and passionate faith, but he was harshest on himself and was only strict with others because he understood the crucial importance of living a life in accord with the Gospel. In this he was following the example of his Master, for Jesus himself was no milksop, but instead made radical demands on his followers and stressed the importance of repentance when one falls short, rather than soft peddling the demands which faith in the Biblical God entails.
Although two very different men, both were absolutely committed to the Faith, and both had evidence and ‘religious experience’ to back up their belief in Jesus. For Peter, his faith was firmly based on three years’ experience of being beside Jesus in his ministry, witnessing first-hand his miracles and being with him after his resurrection from the dead. The ‘religious experience’ which confirmed his faith was the undeniable personal experience, shared with the other close followers of Jesus, of eating, drinking, touching and talking with the Risen Lord. Reinforcing this was the Pentecostal experience of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, talking in foreign tongues and experiencing the Spirit’s descent in fiery tongues. Peter’s whole life since his meeting the Lord was one vast religious experience!
Paul had not personally known Jesus. However, his experience on the road to Damascus convinced his of the reality of Jesus’ divine nature and this was reinforced by further experiences later, as well as by the authenticity of Peter’s testimony and that of the other disciples. For Paul, the Jewish Roman citizen, there could be no doubt as to the reality of the Christian claims and, so convinced was he, that he was willing to give up everything to follow Jesus wherever the road led – and, with Peter, that was ultimately to execution in Rome.
Although these two men differed vastly in both temperament and life experiences, each was able to play, through the grace of God, an absolutely fundamental role in the early decades of the Church’s life. Each had different, although overlapping, gifts; each wrestled with his own human weaknesses and failings, but each allowed Jesus to work through them to the greater glory of God. Although Paul is absolutely clear that we each have different gifts and these are all given by God for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church, the same can be said of their personality types. Although we can see in these men two very different personalities, both made outstanding contributions to the Church and its nature.
The same is also true of each of us. We are not only possessed of different gift, but also of personalities and whatever they are they have something to contribute to the life of the Church. Many people think that Christians should necessarily by overtly joyful, and many Christians actually are. They bring a freshness and vitality to the community, a clear sign of God’s own joyful self-giving to the world. If you are this type of person, be assured that your presence brings something incredibly uplifting to the life together in Christ. Yet this does not mean that those of us who are, by nature or experience, less overtly cheerful but are more inclined to be dour, any less a gift to the community. Very often it is these people who are able to act as a bridge to those whose own life experience has been disappointing or even bitter, for they can truly empathize with the suffering of others. This gift, often manifesting itself as ‘the gift of tears’, is not to be despised, though it is often a burden to the recipient. The Church would be a poorer place without either of these personality types and both have their distinctive contributions to make.
So, as we celebrate these two great saints, let us remind ourselves that, although very different, each had a personality which contributed much to the Church. In the same way, provided we allow God to work with us and through us, our own personality makes a vital contribution of itself, quite apart from any specific gifts with which we might be endowed. Let us celebrate the great diversity with which God endows the members of his Church as we rejoice in the examples of his great saints.