Patronal Festival 2020: St Peter & St Paul - 28th June
Peter and Paul are names that go together. Like Morecombe and Wise, or Sue and Mel, or Ant and Dec, or Wallace and Gromit. Peter and Paul. They are always a pair. And like most good double acts, it’s their differences that make them powerful. Chalk and cheese. Salt and pepper. Double acts are no good if they are a pair who are the same.
Peter and Paul. They come as a pair. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. Paul, apostle to the gentiles, leader of the Churches beyond the boundaries of Israel. Peter and Paul, two giants of the early Church. In some ways very similar. In others, very very different. Becky’s hymn that we’ve just heard wonderfully outlines their different life histories; I love it when a hymn does my job for me!
First, then, to their similarities. Both were pretty fiery characters. Remember, Peter is the one who would jump into the water before the boat made shore or be ready to wield a sword at the drop of a hat. And as for Paul, well no one could accuse Paul of being half hearted in his approach to ministry; having been a persecutor of the Church, he became an equally passionate missionary, being prepared to face imprisonment for what he believed and not mincing his words for anyone.
Despite apparent similarities in character, however, there were often huge differences between the two men.
Peter was, if you like, the establishment figure. He understood faith in Jesus as an extension of the Jewish faith, so non-Jews caught up in the Jesus movement were expected to stick to Jewish food laws and to be circumcised, following the covenants of God with Abraham and Moses. If we think about it, this was perfectly reasonable. When people come to Church there is an unwritten rule that they conform to our behaviour. We may not intend for that to be the case, but if we are honest, it’s true. We have all sorts of expectations about how people will behave in Church, even if they aren’t written down. If Peter was around today, he would definitely be in a Church. For all his fiery temperament, Peter was someone who liked to know where he was, he appreciated structure and valued traditional ways of doing things. He wouldn’t want to see the baby being thrown out with the bath water as the Jesus movement grew. And the Church in Jerusalem flourished and daily people were added to their number.
Paul, on the other hand, although he was a Pharisee and so schooled in Jewish law, was a bit of a maverick. He went around inviting anyone who would listen to be baptised; from women to jailers. He didn’t see why these converts needed first to become Jewish, to be circumcised or change their eating habits; for Paul, faith alone was the beginning, middle and end. And he too was hugely successful, setting up embryonic Churches almost everywhere he went, Churches he kept in touch with via characteristically blunt and forthright letters. If Paul were around today, he probably wouldn’t be in Church; he’d be out and about, commenting on Twitter, establishing his own youtube channel, livestreaming – anywhere he could get his message heard, unconstrained by the requirements for parish share or faculties.
So, not surprisingly, these two men, Peter and Paul, with their different approaches, were very often at loggerheads. There was more than one occasion when they met in Jerusalem and thrashed out their differences. In a classic example of understatement, Acts 15 tells us: there was “no small dissension and debate with them.” No small dissension and debate. I think we can imagine what that might look like. Sparks flying and tongues lashing. At times things between them got positively vitriolic. But the things they had in common were in the end far more powerful than the things that separated them.
The things they had in common were:
A love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ
A passion to spread the good news, so that others could be caught up in God’s love.
In the end, the power of those two things was enough. Enough to establish common ground and common will, and to enable Peter and Paul to agree that there was more than one way of doing things, that they could each minister and preach and baptise and nurture new believers, each in their own sphere.
So what does all this mean on this St Peter and St Paul’s day in the middle of a global pandemic?
It means that we are human, as Peter and Paul were human. And because we are human, we will sometimes disagree. Because we are humans with different life stories, there will always be different perspectives. As we discern our approach to reopening for public worship, there will inevitably be differing views. That might be uncomfortable, but it is OK. It is OK because we share the same foundation, a love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and a desire to share in worship. So what unites us is far, far more powerful than the things that might divide.
The other thing it means this St Peter and St Paul’s day is that there is more than one way of being Church. Perhaps we’ve always know this, in Messy Church, Sunday Celebration, our Sunday Eucharist, but perhaps it’s clearer now. As Peter and Paul went to spread the Word and nurtured faith in different styles of Church, so must we. I use that word advisedly. Must. What we have learnt in Lockdown is that as well as being gathered in the Church building, we must gather now online. We must continue to worship with those who are unable to gather physically because of illness, age, work patterns, family commitments. We must continue to find ways to nurturing their faith and form Church family beyond the walls of Church.
I am proud, proud to be Vicar of St Peter and St Pauls, named after two men with the courage, imagination and faith to enable different sorts of Churches to flourish. More, I am proud to be the Vicar of this particular St Peter and St Paul’s, to be part of this Church family, which has faced the turmoil of the last few months with courage, imagination and faith. Just as Peter and Paul built the community of faith in their own day, so we will continue that legacy, and continue to build faith and build Church fit for our day and futures days to come.