If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm really into this thing called hagiology, which is the study of saints. In Lutheran theology a saint is nothing more than a sinner redeemed by God's grace; nevertheless, the Augsburg Confession reminds us
“...our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith.” (AC XXI.1)
Although we don't insist on some big, fancy procedure for declaring someone a saint, we still love to tell the stories of the men and women whose lives provide us with inspiration. This Sunday we take a break from Ordinary Time to remember two of the big heavy-hitters of Christianity, Peter and Paul.
These two cats are so important that they each get an additional feast day in January (The Confession of Peter on January 18 and The Conversion of Paul on January 25). Some time ago, however, the church decided to consolidate the festivals of their individual martyrdom (formerly June 29 for Peter and June 30 for Paul) into one holiday. I think that's a pretty cool idea, because if you look at these old boys side-by-side you see how very different they were and you can appreciate God's sense of inclusiveness in choosing witnesses to the faith.
You've got to love Saint Peter. He's just such a big dufus. He's a lovable, blue collar dude with absolutely no filter. If it comes into his head, it's out his mouth. No sooner does he make the Good Confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” (Mt. 16:16) than he misconstrues the whole thing and is rebuked by Jesus (Mt. 16:22-23). He is endearingly humble. When confronted by Jesus' miracle of the great catch of fish in Luke chapter five, he begs Jesus to leave him saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk. 5:8) In John's gospel, Peter will refuse to allow Jesus the indignity of washing his feet (Jn. 3:8). Church legend has it that Peter was so humble he begged the Romans to crucify him head downward because he felt he was not worthy to die in the same way Jesus had been killed (Thank you, St. Jerome and 16th century historian John Fox for keeping that tale alive!).
Peter's not an educated guy. He sort of acts on impulse and often reverses himself. When he sees Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14), he calls out and asks to be allowed to do the same. Unfortunately, when he sees the huge waves, he chickens out and begins to sink, calling for Jesus to rescue him. He swears faithful allegiance to Jesus, but when Jesus is arrested, Peter denies three times that he even knows him. He graciously agrees to welcome gentiles into the fellowship (Acts 10), but back-peddles in Antioch when Jewish legalists give him gas about inclusiveness (Gal.2:11-12).
How can such a fellow—whose weaknesses seem to be dripping out of his pores—be the Rock upon which Christ built the church? I'd say it's because Peter's very weakness is the foundation of Jesus' strength. In the gospel for this Sunday (Jn. 21:15-19), Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him—three chances to reverse the sting of his three denials. The gospel tells us the sentimental Peter was wounded by the repetition of this question. Yet this encounter, heartbreaking to Peter, exemplifies Christ's endless desire for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Saint Paul is a different sort of fellow. He's learned, articulate, fluent in Greek, and, when we first encounter him in Acts, violently legalistic. He loves the law and hates Christians and gentiles. Unlike the impulsive Peter, Paul is won to faith by solid evidence of Christ's mercy. He is loved and cared for by the very people he despises (Acts 9).
Paul is an able debater, but he is not without his faults. His letters indicate that his temper gets the better of him often. In his argument to the Galatians over the issue of circumcision, he rages, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12) He proudly declares that he got up in Peter's face and accused him of hypocrisy. (Gal 2) It also doesn't take too close a look at Paul's letter to Philemon to see that the apostle is not above a little emotional blackmail.
Paul's relationship with gender equality leaves a bit to be desired, too. In spite of relying on capable women such as Phoebe and Lydia to promote the gospel, he adjures the Corinthian church to prevent women from preaching (1 Cor. 14).
But you've still got to love Paul for his bravery in both proclaiming the gospel—which often results in his being jailed, beaten, and once shipwrecked—and in evaluating himself. He never complains about suffering for Christ's sake, and he is always brutally honest about who he is and what he's done. He never hides the fact that he had once been a persecutor of the church, nor does he pretend that he is not still a sinner.
“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19)
But for all his faults, it is Saint Paul who most clearly taught us that the road between God and humanity is a one-way street down which God's goodness, love, and forgiveness travel to us, and no contribution of our own can make the journey the other way.
So which saint are you? Are you the emotional and impulsive Peter or the intellectual and articulate Paul? In both of these giants of the faith we see an abundance of brokenness, faults, and weaknesses. All the same, God chose them as instruments of divine reconciliation, as servants of the gospel of Christ's love. They remind us in all their humanness that we, too, are called as vessels of grace. If God could use Peter and Paul, God can certainly use you!
God bless you, my saintly friend. Thanks for reading.
PS – Church tradition has always held that Peter was the first Pope. Why don't we give his current successor an opportunity to be a saint, too? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, please sign my petition for Eucharistic sharing. Let's make a little history ourselves. Just click here.