... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 2 Year A
Message June 29, 2014

Feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul

Text: John 21

St. Peter and St. Paul

Every time we say one of the creeds we confess our belief in the ‘communion of saints’. This term often means the holy people of God or the commonality of all who profess to have been numbered within the Christian body. Some take the term to mean the collective activity of Christians from the very beginning and still others see it as a reference to those few who through extraordinary lives lived or acts performed stand out as paradigms of Christian character. In this latter sense the Anglican Church has always had a rich history of remembering and celebrating those extraordinary people. So it is that June 29th is the date for celebrating Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

And this in itself is extraordinary: first the usual trend is to assign one date to one saint; second St. Peter and St. Paul were two men often at odds with one another and third one was one of the twelve, the other a later comer and not one of the inner circle. Yet both shared a common fate; both were martyred in Rome around the year 64 CE. While there are some traditions which affirm they were martyred on the same day, this cannot be stated as fact. We do know St. Peter was crucified being nailed to an upside down cross and St. Paul as a Roman citizen was most likely beheaded.

The link however which assured their celebration on the same day probably stems more from Luke’s overarching theme in the Acts of the Apostles on the succession and spread of Christianity from a small band of close followers of whom after the crucifixion Peter was acclaimed leader to the gentile world by which Paul came to prominence. As Stephen Reynolds states, Peter and Paul were like runners in a relay race where Peter carried the Gospel during the first lap and then handed it to Paul for the next one.

The parallel lives of these two saints can be followed more closely as one reads the Gospel and Epistle accounts more closely. Peter and Paul have undesirable qualities of leadership but both have quite different styles. Paul the thinker and Peter the doer; Paul the reserved, Peter the impetuous; Paul the interloper Peter the acclaimed. Yet despite these differences they worked for the spread of the Gospel and when push came to shove united in the common good. But the similarity of their lives outweigh their differences. Peter and Paul carried a burden of the guilt of betrayal and despite the shame were able to be opened, transformed and guided into great service in the Christian Church and spread of the Gospel.

As we listen to the Gospel passage for today we note first and foremost it is solely about St. Peter. Yet by extrapolation much can be also said of St. Paul. And to better appreciate the story we need to place it in the context of the whole chapter. This chapter in many ways seems incongruent with the rest of the Gospel – as if written by someone else or appended as an afterthought or as an epilogue to address some issues circulating in the early church. In this final chapter of John’s Gospel there are three scenes – the first finds the disciples led by Peter returning to their former lives and occupations having perhaps retreated to the familiar in the stress of the crucifixion and resurrection. Such a very human reaction to stress! We all do it – as things become overpowering in our lives, as the stress mounts up, as the pressures of life take their toll, we withdraw to that which gives us comfort – for some it might be drugs or alcohol, for others eating comfort foods, and still others getting immersed in work. We retreat in order to recharge the batteries and if you happen to be a Myers-Briggs proponent you might even be able to predict what any given person might do according to her or his Myers Briggs scoring. Either way peter and his companions return to the fishing nets and guess what – they encounter the same results as before – all night and nothing in the nets. Again the risen Lord appears to them and commands them to cast the net in a specific spot and lo! A full net. Not only do we focus on Jesus as the one who knows and directs, we also learn the lesson of obedience – the first step of discipleship on the way to faith. It was only after the disciples had obeyed Jesus – and we might say without question – the disciple who had been loved by Jesus recognized him. And where he recognized – Peter sprang into action. The interesting dynamic is that one recognized and the other acted. The usual expectation is that such a dynamic would be expected by the one individual. Perhaps the author was playing on the personalities of each or was implying that for true faith the many gifts of the whole community need to work in concert. Such an epilogue could well have been needed in the early church either following the immediate years after Christ’s crucifixion or in the years of persecutions at the end of the first century.

The second scene commences as the disciples reach shore to find Jesus has already prepared breakfast and invites the disciples to eat. The scene is without a doubt a Eucharistic interpretation of the promised banquet of the Kingdom of God in which fish and bread are the elements rather than bread and wine.

The third scene – the one we hear today concerns mission – the divine mission to leadership and service. Yet deeper still is the movement from guilt and shame to reconciliation forgiveness and true discipleship. Three times Jesus challenges Peter concerning his love and commitment. And not one of us can help miss the significance of the three-fold question in light of Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in the courts of Caiaphas. The burden of guilt must have stung Peter as Jesus asked him, “Do you love me more than these?” But with each reminder Jesus overcomes Peter’s shame with a commission to feed tend and feed again. In a very real way Jesus is forgiving Peter and setting his feet on the original path of his calling. He is to be leader of the small band but at the same time servant. He is never to forget his calling – to follow.

Paul’s call from persecutor to evangelizer rings a similar chord – forgiven and commissioned both as leader and follower. Where Peter’s call was to feed and tend, Paul’s was to gather and convert. Together the spread of the gospel would be accomplished as had been intended. And in the end both saints would share a common fate – martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. Each having been forgiven; each commissioned; each being true disciples each would give the ultimate price.

And so we remember and we celebrate; and as we do let us also dedicate ourselves, our lives, to be obedient to Christ, faithful to God and open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we might also gather and convert, tend and feed so that the gospel might once again spread to all the earth and all people come to know God in and through Christ Jesus. Amen