Saturday, July 05, 2014

Summer of Saints: Peter and Paul

Today we begin our sermon series: “A Summer of Saints." It’s a good day to do so, not just because it’s the second Sunday of the summer, but more importantly, because it is also the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul—two apostles who replaced Romulus and Remus as the founders of Christian Rome and its empire. Ordinarily, when a feast falls on a Sunday (even a major feast) it is postponed, but during the green seasons, these feast days may take precedence.

The importance of the pivotal figures cannot be overstated. Pope St. Clement I called them “the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church.” St Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that each of them had special apostolic vocations.

As the leader of the Twelve, Peter was also the leader of the church after Pentecost. Under the Holy Spirit’s direction, Peter welcomed the first Gentiles into the Church. Yet, in a strange turn of events, it was Paul who was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while Peter remained the apostle to the Jews, bringing both together in one Church of Christ—Peter laboring from the inside (as it were) and Paul from the outside.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Peter alone deserved to represent the entire Church. And because of that role which he alone had, he merited to hear the words: “To you I shall give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” . . . [because Peter] represented the unity and universality of the Church.”

Paul clearly recognized that leadership and that authority vested in Peter, yet at the same time, as a brother in Christ and a brother apostle, Paul did not hesitate to hold Peter openly accountable—even rebuking him at Antioch for his mistreatment of Gentiles.

These two men began as unlikely heroes. In Mt 16:18, Simon became one of those few people in scripture God whom renamed. Instead of Simon, Jesus called him “Peter” (or “Rock”). It must have seemed like a strange choice, for he was anything but. Simon was not steady and immovable. He was impulsive, hot-headed, unreliable. But Pope St. Leo the Great said Peter was made firm by the strength of Jesus. For God, our future is more important than our past. God did not name him for the simple fisherman he was, but for the great fisher of men God called him to become. (Interestingly, in Rev 2:17, it says we are all given new names one day.)

Paul (who was once called Saul) was not given a new name. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name—a common habit at the time. But Saul, a well-trained rabbi and “Hebrew of Hebrews” as he said, was a persecutor of the church, who by God’s grace became Paul—the apostle to the Gentile world, planting churches far and wide after his roadside encounter with the risen Lord.

Peter and Paul, unlikely heroes who somehow came to labor together for Christ also both ended up in Rome, dying in his Name under Nero’s persecution. And we must point out that both men went willingly to their deaths. Circumstances provided a way out, but neither of them took it, preferring instead to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

Peter’s leadership in the Church took him first to Antioch (where we were first called Christians) and then later in about the 50s to the imperial capital of Rome. The Emperor Nero unleashed a vicious persecution in 64, blaming Christians for the great fire of Rome. At this point, Christians were rounded up and thrown in prison. Some were thrown to the lions in the games, some crucified. And some were burned alive as human torches to light the imperial gardens at night. Those who could, decided to flee the city. Among them was Peter.

But departing by the Appian Way, Peter saw a familiar face on the road. It was of a man who is not fleeing, but walking toward the very heart of Rome. Echoing Jn 13:36, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (or “Where are you going, Lord?”). Jesus responded that he was “going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Jesus had once appeared to Peter after the resurrection, urging him to be a pastor. “Do you love me? If you do, then feed my lambs, tend my sheep.” Peter had once said he would follow Jesus to death, but then denied him three times (see John 13:37-38).

When Jesus restored him, he told Peter that one day, men would tie him up and take him where he did not want to go—alluding to Peter’s death. Peter decided there on the road he would follow Jesus, even back to Rome. Peter was one chosen to be crucified, but because Peter said he was not worthy to die like Christ, they crucified him upside-down and buried him there on Vatican hill.

In Acts 21, Paul was at the center of a temple riot and arrested on false accusations. Because of his Roman citizenship, he exercised his rights of appeal. Years later, the Jewish complaint about the incident had died down and the Romans wanted to be rid of him, but at his own insistence Paul continued to be shuffled around in the judicial system.

At one point, Agrippa remarked to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32). Paul himself said he feels guided by the hand of Providence, but does not know the ultimate reason why until an angel tells him that Paul is under divine protection on his journey to Caesar.

If he stayed the course, Paul could be guaranteed an audience for the gospel. With that opportunity, he could either glorify God by Caesar's conversion or by Paul's own martyrdom. Historically, God would grant both. Paul fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith. He glorified God by a martyr’s death in Rome, with a merciful beheading according to his rights as a citizen and was buried there outside the walls.

Just about 250 years later, the Roman Emperor was led to his own conversion by an event similar to those which changed the lives of Peter and Paul on the road—a vision in the heavens and a message from the Savior of men.

1 comment:

dopel said...

You are a very good teacher through your sermons