Usually, when we gather on Wednesday to celebrate a feast day, it is somebody most of us, myself included, have never heard of. Today, however, we celebrate two of Christianity's three most famous men. Jesus, the obvious pick for number one, is celebrated everyday, of course, but today we remember the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, numbers two and three (and the order probably flips depending on who you talk to.
Paul, a well-educated Pharisee and Roman citizen was late to come to the party. As we all know, his conversion happened only after he was a persecutor of the Church. Peter, an uneducated fisherman from Galilee was with Jesus almost from the beginning. As the Church began to form after the Day of Pentecost, Peter and Paul had several well documented spats over the inclusion of Gentiles in the Way. Paul writes several times of his need to rebuke Peter who continually called for Jewish exclusiveness, or, to use my favorite seminary term, Judaizing, the need to follow Jewish law in order to be a follower of Jesus.
It might be one of the best lessons for the modern church that we remember both Peter and Paul on the same day. Despite their disagreements that touched to the core of what they believed, their common faith in Jesus as the Messiah led them to work together for the glory of God. Their belief led them both to Rome where both were martyred during the persecutions of Emporer Nero in 64AD. Paul was granted the right of a Roman citizen and beheaded while Peter was crucified upside down.
In the year 96, Thirty-two years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, Pope Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians says, ““Let us come to those who have most recently proved champions; let us take up the noble examples of our own generation. Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and competed unto death. Let us bring before our eyes the good apostles—Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy endured not one or two, but numerous trials, and so bore a martyr’s witness and went to the glorious place that he deserved. Because of jealousy and strife Paul pointed the way to the reward of endurance; seven times he was imprisoned, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a preacher in both east and west, and won renown for his faith, teaching uprightness to the whole world, and reaching the farthest limit of the west, and bearing a martyr’s witness before the rulers, he passed out of the world and was taken up into the holy place, having proved a very great example of endurance.”
I could go on for hours with the history of these great two saints, but I'll spare you the details and instead focus for a moment on the example they left for those of us who two-thousand years later are still doing are best to follow the Way of Jesus. The first comes from Paul's second letter to Timothy. Writing from prison in Rome, his death not far away, Paul calls on young Timothy to take on the mantle of a teacher, leading new believers along the pathway of righteousness. And while it seems like this letter might be intended for pastors, I think these words apply to us all, “proclaim the message, be persistent, convince, rebuke, and encourage... and carry out your ministry fully.” As Paul talked about elsewhere, each of us has been given gifts of the Spirit, and in faithfulness we should exercise them for the good of the Kingdom.
The second example comes from the mouth of Jesus himself, after the resurrection, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus gives Peter his marching orders: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Much ink has been spilled to decode what Jesus is saying here, but it seems simple enough to me: If you love Jesus, take care of one another, serve one another.
In the two thousand years since Peter and Paul were martyred, we've done a lot to make Christianity complicated, but when it comes down to it, the lessons we learn from these great Fathers in the faith are sufficient: love God, love neighbor, and use the gifts God has given you. Now, go and do likewise. Amen.