Saturday, June 28, 2008

Feast of Sts Peter and Paul

If at around five o’clock in the afternoon any day during the last three weeks you had been out walking somewhere between here and Bentley Hospital, you might have seen a very strange sight – your parish priest being pulled in two directions at once by two good-natured but very determined and very large dogs.  One of these dogs, of course, is Mary, whom some of you have met – Mary, who lives with Alison and me, is a delightful animal who has inherited some of the highly-strung temperament as well as the ball of muscle get-up-and-go of the greyhound side of her family (as well as a big dose of Labrador loveableness).  Mary just loves to run, and when she is on a lead, she loves to run with me keeping up as well as I can.  A walk with Mary is 45 minutes of heart-pounding, calorie-burning, power-walking fun.

But over the last three weeks, we have also been dog-sitting Mary’s cousin, a totally unflappable, determinedly friendly, placid, enormous lump of a Rottweiler puppy named Maddy.  Alison and I promptly renamed this dog Maddington Bear, because as she waddles along in no particular hurry to get anywhere, that’s exactly what she looks like.  You can probably imagine what walk-time has been like?  Mary powering on out ahead and Maddy dawdling along behind, doing me an enormous favour by bothering to come along at all.  The irresistible force and the immoveable object.  I worked out eventually that if I joined their two leads together they’d pull against each other instead of pulling me in two, and by Friday night – the last night of Maddy’s holiday with us, we even worked out on a compromise pace that got us all home more or less at the same time.

This image of two large animals pulling in opposite directions, doing their own thing but – whether they like it or not – having to cooperate because they’re on the same lead – sums up pretty well the dilemma for the Church’s top two apostles.  Being dead, of course, they can’t complain, but there’s a certain irony about them having to share a feast day when, for one thing, all the other saints and martyrs seem to get one to themselves, even the obscure ones like St Etheldreda on the 23rd of June or St Thomas on the 3rd of July whose main claim to fame was that he wasn’t so sure about all this resurrection stuff.  Sts Peter and Paul have to share today, and the only other time of the year when we think about them separately, the Confession of Peter on 18 January and the Conversion of Paul on January 25, they also get roped together as the start and finish of the Week of Christian Unity.  Which is especially ironic since Peter and Paul – well, let’s just say they didn’t quite get along.

Competition and personal agendas and personality conflicts between people on the same team are a fact of life – in politics, at work, even in the Church – maybe that should be, especially in the Church.  Human nature being what it is, we sometimes find it difficult to get along even when we are all trying to follow Jesus’ way of reconciliation.  What I’d like to suggest, though, is that in the story of Sts Peter and Paul, in the way the New Testament both reveals and reconciles the tension between them, there is a ....

Luke, writing ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ a generation or so later, seems deliberately to have chosen to steer the middle ground, carefully balancing the importance of Peter and Paul’s missionary careers.  First we get a summary of Peter’s early preaching and the growth of the early Church, then the conversion and missionary travels of Paul.  Nobody who reads the Acts of the Apostles can fail to notice how Paul’s story gets cut off in mid-career – the ultimate cliff-hanger with Paul, at the end of the story, arriving in Rome to go on trial for his life.  Less obvious is that Luke also cuts Peter’s story short, because we never hear what happens to him after the two apostles meet at the explosive Council of Jerusalem.  It seems as though Luke is suggesting that the lives and careers of even these heroes of the faith are important only in the way they reveal God’s Holy Spirit at work.  The martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Luke seems to be suggesting, is not the main point.  The main point is how their lives point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Right in the middle of the Acts of the Apostles is the powder-keg.  Peter and Paul meet at the Council of Jerusalem, that hugely significant meeting that determined nothing less than whether the Way of Jesus was going to remain just an in-house Jewish sect, or get transplanted into foreign soil, be exposed to the smorgasbord of cultures and languages and philosophies that made up the Empire.  For those of you who have ever been at Synod, think the biggest, most divisive factional debate you ever heard, then multiply by about a hundred.  Interestingly, Luke reports the outcome in terms that make it sound almost peaceful.  The Acts of the Apostles doesn’t even report what Paul said, but has Peter make a speech that sounds more like what Paul would have said – in effect supporting Paul on the issue of whether non-Jews can follow the Way of Jesus without first having to adopt all the religious rules and customs of Judaism.  This was a hot topic, and Peter’s struggle to accept an inclusive version of Christianity is described in the Acts of the Apostles in the famous story of Peter’s dream about the clean and unclean animals all being lowered together in a sheet.  Eventually, the way Luke tells it, there is a compromise found with a kind of separate development for Jewish and Gentile churches – each group is given some breathing space to grow in the way it needs to grow under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s own account of the meeting, in the letter to the Galatian church, reveals a bit more about the acrimony and the competitiveness between the two men, telling us how even after the compromise agreement Peter still couldn’t accept the Gentile churches and refused to share table fellowship with non-Jews.  ‘I opposed him to his face’, Paul writes in the familiar language of self-justification (Gal 2.11).  We know St Paul had a pretty impressive temper – immediately after Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem he goes on to tell us about Paul’s bust-up with his closest friend, Barnabas.  Probably the argument between Paul and Peter was never fully resolved in their lifetime – for the rest of his career Paul fights a running battle with the Jewish faction and his second trip to Jerusalem ends in disaster and betrayal.  In the second Letter of Peter – probably written towards the end of the first century not by Peter himself but by a disciple–the argument is still simmering with the back-handed compliment to Paul’s wisdom and writings that are ‘hard to understand and easily misinterpreted’ (2 Pet 3.16).

Whatever the tensions between Peter and Paul, the early Church as a whole found a way to accommodate the creativity and the God-inspiration of them both.  Peter continues, as Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, as the ‘apostle to the circumcised’ while Paul continues his mission to the non-Jewish world.  The two men seem to have recognised the danger of allowing their rivalry to gain a life of its own, with Paul telling off the church at Corinth: ‘don’t use slogans or join factions, saying things like, “I am for Paul”, or “I am for Cephas”’ (the Hebrew form of Peter).  ‘Has Christ been divided?’ he asks rhetorically.  ‘Or was Paul crucified for you?’  (1 Cor 1.12-13).  Sometimes conflict is unavoidable – but here, Paul gives us a good model for how to recognise and renounce the temptation to fan the flames of factionalism for the sake of personal reputation.

Actually, this is not just an interesting excursion into Church history, and the fact that we are celebrating the feast of the Church’s original odd couple today is a real God-coincidence.  Because right now the factions of our own Church are at it hammer and tongs and more or less for the same reasons – can the Church accommodate differences between the cultural values and practices of different groups, or does the Bible have to be read in a way that is hard-edged, that excludes people whose sexuality is different or that finds no ground for dialogue with other faiths? – and right now, in fact, right this week, some Australian priests and bishops are taking part in the so-called Global Anglican Futures Conference in Jerusalem, deliberately and provocatively timed to conflict with the Lambeth Conference that historically has been one of the instruments of unity in the Anglican Church.  Instead of resolving conflict and creatively uniting the gifts of opposing viewpoints, as we see at the Council of Jerusalem, what we are seeing today is the strategy of sharpening and hardening conflict and factional positions.  The odd couple of conservative evangelical and progressive orthodox Anglicanism don’t seem to have noticed that they are on the same leash, pulling against each other in a way that is futile and destructive – and they don’t seem to have noticed that they need each other, that to be truly the Way of Jesus the Church needs to creatively accommodate the different charisms, the gifts and insights of both ends of the spectrum.

It’s up to St Ireneaus, the Church Father of the second century whose name means something like, ‘peace-maker’, to get the last word on Peter and Paul.  Diplomatically, Ireneaus credits both of them with founding the Church in Rome, and is probably also the one responsible for starting the tradition that they died on the same day, executed in Rome by the Emperor Nero – a bronze medallion dating from the second century shows the heads of Peter and Paul on the same side, joined together for all time.