Sunday, June 22, 2014

St Peter and St Paul

The feast of St Peter and St Paul puts us in touch with the early witness for Christianity. Peter is the leader of the disciples, an eye witness of the resurrection, the first pope, the first member of the new church to do a miracle in the name of Jesus, the first to be arrested, the one to pronounce the first excommunication, etc.

The gospel describes Peter and Jesus in probably the most intimate encounter anyone has with the risen Lord. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Something gets lost in translation. Jesus uses the word “agape” in his question. Peter responds with “phileo.” Agape is a much stronger word for love. Jesus is asking Peter if He has supernatural love. Peter is saying, “you know” referring to the incident where he denied Jesus 3 times. You know I have a brotherly love for you. You know I said I would die for you and I chickened out. You know I love you but you also know my love is not that supernatural love you deserve. My love is something less than that but it is something.

Jesus accepts Peter’s love. It is less that it should be but it is the best he can give right now. What is more, he knows it is less than it should be. He is humble about it. He has been humiliated but at least he has learned the lesson. Jesus’ response is to restore him as leader of the church. Jesus has said Peter was the rock on which He would build the church. Now get busy. Take that imperfect love and go do the job I have asked you to do.

Jesus then tells him that his love won’t always be inadequate. He says you are going to face the test of martyrdom one day and you will pass it. Give me the imperfect love you have and I will transform it into that supernatural love you wanted to give. Your failure won’t define you. My grace will redefine you. You won’t be Peter the chicken but Peter the martyr. I am not through with you yet.

We need to latch onto this. When we feel the love we can offer God is pretty pathetic we need to understand God can do amazing things with that. When we honestly tell God I am so not a saint but I want to be. That is where every road to sainthood must start. Lord, you know everything so you know I am trying to love you and mostly failing. Great! Now get to work.

Caravaggio's Conversion of St Paul
on the Road to Damascus
Then we come to St Paul. His story is so different. In the second reading he tells us he got the Gospel directly from Jesus. When he did he did not immediately head off to the apostles and get all the details. He spent 3 years in Arabia and Damascus probably receiving revelation from God. Then Peter and Paul spend 15 days together. That is pretty much the extent of the cross pollination until he returned to Jerusalem 14 years later. His point is that his witness is completely independent of Peter and the other apostles. The same Jesus revealed the same gospel but to different people in a different way.

This is important because when people are trying to explain away the evidence for the Gospel they have to come up with a completely different explanation for Paul’s story. If Peter was lying or confused about the resurrection and somehow got all the disciples to believe him that would not explain it. You would have to suppose Paul told the same lie or experienced the same confusion independently.

Of course there are many witnesses to the Gospel. All the disciples saw the risen Lord as did many others. The healing of the beggar at the gate called Beautiful is also important. Beggars sat at the same gate year after year. Many people would remember him. To heal a man who was such a fixture for such a long time at such an important gate was a big deal. Yet it is not independent of the resurrection accounts because it involves some of the same people at around the same time.
St Peter and St Paul give us two streams that both flow back to Jesus. They are different but not contradictory. They complement each other and both bear the fingerprints of the divine. They end up being brought back together in Rome. The blood of their martyrdom became the seed for the Roman church.

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