June 29, 2017: Feast of Saints Peter & Paul
St Paul looms large in the Christian imagination. There are a number of reasons for this. Paul’s letters make up a significant portion of the New Testament. The Pauline epistles are so important that St John Chrysostom devotes some 250 homilies to them.
Nor should we discount, for good and ill, the influence of the Reformation, and especially Martin Luther. For many Christians, St Paul’s writings have come to matter more than the Gospels. It is not uncommon to meet Christians who, while they know Paul, are unfamiliar with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Yet as important as he is, without Peter there is simply no Paul.
As with Paul, our view of Peter is as skewed by later developments in Church history and their supporting polemics. Specifically, I’m thinking of the role St Peter has come to play–again, for good and ill–in the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the role fo the Bishop of Rome in the life of the Church. Just as it can be hard to see past Luther to Paul, it can be hard to see past papal polemics (pro and con) to see Peter.
These concerns aside though, the difficulty in finding Peter is that at least relative to Paul, we hear so little from him in the New Testament.
Even while though debate the implications for the life of the Church, Peter’s prominence in the Gospels is unquestioned. But when we step back and look at the whole New Testament we see so little of him. We really meet Peter only at the beginning and end of his ministry.
By the time we meet him in the epistles bearing his name, the brash and at times fickle disciple has become a man of sober faith. It is surprising to realize that is the impulsive young man of the Gospels, is the same person who now, at the end of his life, tells us
…gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16, NKJV).
Over the course of his life as a disciple and apostle, Peter changes. He becomes more thoughtful, discerning, more sober and disciplined.
We begin to see evidence of this transformation when Saul, now called Paul, approaches the Church in Jerusalem. Peter listens carefully to Paul and it is through him that God’s will for the Church is made clear. Despite internal disagreements and external opposition, the Gospel is preached to the Gentiles. The Apostle Paul’s ministry is affirmed. The Christian faith and the life of the Church aren’t exclusive to the Jews; they are for all people.
But, and here we need to avoid the temptation to polemics, Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles is confirmed precisely because it is an extension of Peter’s, earlier, call: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7, NKJV).
We need to always keep in mind that the charismatic and prophetic dimensions of the Church are not opposed to the hierarchical and traditional dimensions. In fact, and here we can appeal to Acts of the Apostles, it belongs to the hierarchical and traditional dimensions to confirm the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
For us as Orthodox Christians, this means that while we must always remain open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the work of grace in the human heart, these cannot be opposed to what has gone before. Not only doesn’t Paul trump Peter, it belongs to Peter to bless and confirm the ministry of Paul.
Again, the witness of Paul is dependent upon the ministry of Peter. It belongs to the hierarchy of the Church, to the bishops who profess Peter’s faith and who, as successors of the Apostles sit on the Chair of Peter, to “bind and loosen.” This is not an arbitrary power for the bishop to do as he pleases. It is rather the freedom by grace to do as he ought: To “rightly divide the word of truth,” to discern the will of God and to defend and nourish the bonds of charity that are the life of the Church.
My brothers and sister in Christ! As we celebrate the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, let us not neglect one for the sake of the other. Rather, let us see in each the fulfillment of the other. Because while there is no Paul without Peter, Peter without Paul remains an unfulfilled promise.
Having now received the fulfillment of God’s promise given from before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1:4), let us join hands with Peter and Paul and fearless and with joy bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and the liberating power of His Gospel!