Peter and Paul

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 — Week of Proper 8, Year One

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)

EITHER the readings for Sts. Peter and Paul (p. 998)

Morning Prayer: Psalm 66; Ezekiel 2:1-7; Acts 11:1-18

Evening Prayer: Psalms 97, 138; Isaiah 49:1-6; Galatians 2:1-9

OR the readings for Wednesday of Proper 8, p. 972

Psalms 119:145-176 (morning) 128, 129, 130 (evening)

1 Samuel 12:1-6, 16-25

Acts 8:14-25

Luke 23:1-12

I chose the readings for Saint Peter and Saint Paul

“Come and listen, all you who fear God,

and I will tell you what God has done for me.” (Ps. 66:14)

We celebrate two of our great founders today, Peter and Paul. The iconography of their friendship is an image of unity in diversity as well as a picture of reconciliation after conflict and, maybe, competition.

Peter was an uneducated fisherman from Galilee who was a close friend of the earthly Jesus. Paul was a well-educated urbanite who persecuted the church before his encounter with the risen Christ. On occasion, Paul rebuked Peter for his non-inclusive behavior toward the Gentile Christians. It seems they found a way out of some of their conflict by defining separate markets — Peter becoming the apostle to the Jews; Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Yet, when the time for decision came in the meeting of the Apostolic Council, Peter came through for Paul and for the Gentiles. His story of the vision of clean and unclean animals helped turn the tide for Paul, giving “official” authorization for the ministry Paul had already initiated among the Gentiles.

For me, the key to understanding Paul was that Christ gave him freedom from his crippling anxiety about his own performance. He was a scrupulous and observant Jew. He tried to do his best. He tried to be perfect. But he found it only left him anxious and self-absorbed. Am I really right? Am I really righteous? He was left haunted by the push of perfectionism, feeling rebellious toward God whom he regarded as an ever-demanding and unblinking parental judge.

Paul could point to his discipline and accomplishments, but they gave him no satisfaction. He was always just one slip-up from failure. Trying to measure up only left him feeling anxious.

Enlightenment knocked Paul down and left him blinded by a new realization. Justification — a right relationship with God — is a gift, a free gift from God. We need do nothing to earn it — in fact we cannot earn it. It is given to us with no strings attached, except that we accept the gift. Accept the fact that you are accepted. This is the gift that Christ gives to Paul and to all. Relief from anxiety. Peace. Deep appreciation. Through God’s prevenient loving acceptance, we are freed — free to do good and to love because we have been loved first. We can be confident and empowered because we have already been given everything we need as an unearned gift. This is Paul’s gospel.

Although he had been an observant Jew, Paul was quick to recognize that this gift of acceptance transcended Judaism. He found a responsive audience among the godfearers attending synagogue — Gentiles who were attracted to the moral teaching and monotheism of Judaism, but who were unwilling to undergo circumcision or practice kosher laws and some other traditions peculiar to the Jews. Naturally, Paul encountered resistance when he began to steal these Gentiles from the synagogue. Many of these Gentiles were prominent in civic life and generous in support of the Jewish community. These conflicts occasionally became violent.

Paul also had the complication of uniting within the Christian fellowship people who brought with them very different traditions and practices. Many Jewish Christians observed kosher and other dietary laws as well as some Jewish holidays and other practices. Gentile Christians brought different scruples and opinions. Many of Paul’s letters deal with the conflicts and complications of melding these two traditions into a coherent community.

Peter’s defense of the inclusion of Gentiles was a crucial turning point in the early history of the Christian movement. The vision of clean and unclean animals that God gave Peter changed his inherited paradigm. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When Peter recognized the gifts of the Holy Spirit manifested among the Gentiles, he immediately included them into the Christian fellowship through baptism.

That was a profound act. Standing over against Peter’s experience was the witness of scripture and centuries of tradition. Yet, the Apostolic Council confirmed Peter and Paul in their testimony on behalf of inclusion of the Gentiles.

In our generation, we’ve faced similar issues. Are women to be fully included? Are gay and lesbian and transgendered Christians to be fully included? Happily, our apostolic council seems to continue to follow the example of our ancestors. We continue to hear the words, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When we have seen the Holy Spirit manifested in these others “just as it had upon us at the beginning.” Our church has confirmed those who have testified on behalf of inclusion of these “others.”

The gift of acceptance that Paul so profoundly articulated in his Gospel is our message as well. God loves us, frees us from anxiety and self-centeredness, so that we can confidently live generous and loving lives. The icons of Peter and Paul, the embrace of two very different men and the synergy of their passions, is an image of unity, reconciliation, and energy for us today. They show us how to transcend our scruples and differences with the inclusive power of the Holy Spirit.

Happy Saints Peter and Paul day!

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