Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Feast of St Peter
and St Paul

July 1st, 2007
A patronal festival in Edinburgh

Peter and Paul – they go together, like ham and eggs or like Romulus and Remus or Morecambe and Wise.

You might call the two towers of your church Peter and Paul, or so name two bells in one of those towers.

My mother had a little song about two small birds sitting on a wall - one named Peter and one named Paul. There’s a certain ‘twoness’ there – a symmetry.

In an icon the two saints are each depicted holding an edge of a basilica and supporting it. All is well. All is as it should be.

See how our lintel is supported by two strong posts. See how they share the weight. Stability and peace.

It’s what two apostles should do. It’s what Luke is eager to demonstrate in the Acts of the Apostles as he describes the Jerusalem conference. Peter - he will minister among the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Paul - he will work among the Gentile believers.

Two individuals – each with his own trajectory for Mission meeting together and ‘agreeing’. Agreeing at a formal meeting. Agreeing in the presence of witnesses. Agreeing not to get in each other’s way – agreeing that their separate missions are in fact two sides of the coin – two peas in the same pod.

What would you think were you to find such a written agreement between two individuals promising to work in concert with each other without getting in each other's way? You might entertain the cheeky thought that significant disagreement had already taken place, no?

Are we always so suspicious? The box says ‘tasty’ but we look at the back to see what the ingredients are. We remind ourselves that the woman feeding this stuff to her happy children on the television is a paid actress. She conjures up that smile for money.

The actor and his new wife appear on the red carpet looking positively glowing But maybe the tabloids have it right: He hit her once. She has another love interest on the side. She has trouble maintaining her weight.

If Country Life is telling the story of an agreed stable apostolic ministry aiming in two directions then we can be assured that the News of the World is not far behind wanting very much to scratch the surface and find what lurks there beneath the symmetry – behind the rosy picture of unity and stability.

We do not have to go very far beyond today's second reading to find sharp and suspicious words in the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul first describes his agreement with Peter and the others in today's Epistle in a way not unlike Luke's version of events in the Acts of the Apostles.

“They gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”

Public agreement - the recognition of different missions - to Jew and Gentile. But if we carry on for a few verses beyond where this morning's lectionary reading ends we find evidence of a significant 'falling out' when Peter comes to visit the mission of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch.

Showdown in Antioch - screams the tabloid headline. I needed Peter and Peter bailed out. Maybe just a single word headline - hypocrite!

The trouble? Ah! The usual, I'm afraid. Who is in and who is out - What are the limits of God's reach? Does he maintain a small circle of friends or should we, in his name, open the door wide. - remove the door from the frame and the frame from the wall. Do we take the walls down.

And if creative and inclusive ministry is good for us when we're alone and far from home is it equally good for us when the Bishop visits? Is it as much a feather in our cap when the 'men from James' come to visit - representatives of a very conservative leader back in Jerusalem who might end up compromised if word of the goings-on in Antioch were to reach his opponents. Fear conflicts with grace - prudence undermines boldness.

Conflict. We've seen it all before. Maybe you're here because you landed in it in another church. Maybe the possibility of conflict in the Church has kept you off vestry. Maybe you hunger for the sort of Church where pastor, pope or primate speaks with the sort of eclat that doesn't allow for opposition or serious critical analysis. It makes life a lot easier. I think of how many fine young people I was at seminary with who, in search of something solid and unambiguous locked themselves away in every more inflexible patterns of ministry.

I had occasion, recently, to participate in my parents' Golden Wedding celebrations. Everyone was there - all the cousins - uncles and aunts. I have snapshots. The shutter opened and shut and revealed a family that is really quite well - at this particular moment in time - almost all of them.

What made that fact remarkable is that it has not always been that way. It's a 'scarred wellness' rather than an innocent and virginal intactness with my family. Like I said, I have the snapshots.

You move your finger from left to right and when you arrive at each face in the picture you can tell a story. Ten years ago this happened. Those two brothers weren't talking for a while. There was an addiction. Here was a betrayal. It very nearly ended that marriage right there and then. How did he ever get a job? He's kept the same one now for nearly five years - that's some kind of record.

They've not so much leapt from crag to crag as they have climbed out of the swamp onto a safe rock. And the fact that they are now comparatively well is not so much in opposition to what they once were as it is the harvest of what they once were.

Some of them, anyway, would say that it was all worth it. They could do with better knees and a few more teeth. But the struggle was part and parcel of the life they now lead.

If Peter and Paul are the authors of the grace which they preach then their struggle and disagreement is fundamental and a scandal to be concealed and glossed over. Splits in the Anglican Communion, divisions in the parish, the Reformation and its sequelae in like manner diminish the quality and effect of our ministry if we are the authors of the grace which we preach - which we are not - there is another. Peter and Paul are martyrs - witnesses - they stand in the presence of something greater than themselves and point to it.

What was Peter told in the Gospel I read a few moments back? That life and ministry would exact a terrible toll on him. He would be mastered. He would be taken and led - taken somewhere he did not want to go.

Clearly he understands all this for he is possessed, for a moment, by an instinctive childishness. In words which, again, are just beyond the reading from today's lections he points to John the Beloved Disciple, there beside Jesus, and asks about him. What about this one? he asks - your favourite disciple. Die in his bed, will he then? Old and full of years? Why just me? Why must I die in service and not him?

And Paul? What is Paul told by God when, at some subsequent point in his ministry, he cries out to be relieved of a 'thorn in his flesh' the exact nature of which we are never privy to - some weakness or vice, some infirmity of flesh or spirit. Three times he appeals to God to have this taken from him and is told 'My Grace is sufficient for you for my strength is made perfect in weakness'.

We know that truth is something struggled for and not simply possessed and then preserved. Not only because we believe that the truth is arrived at through a process of assertion, negation and the arrival at some new unity. Conflict is at the very heart of its discovery and acquisition - conflict with a world slow to recognize love, conflict with a self reluctant to submit to mastery and martyrdom. Peaceful worlds are so frequently small and lonely worlds.

The lintel is held up by, among others, these two strong posts. When we examine them closely, however, we notice that the wood is not without character in its substance. It has been rough hewn. Scraped and chipped. It bears the marks of its children, the marks of seasons, the weak parts healed over, bitter winters and scorching heat. Its rings and circles bear witness to times of both fatness and leanness - effective mostly because it has been tried and in the long run found to be sound and strong.