Peter and Paul

Peter and Paul

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

April 4, 2004

 Scripture: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

“And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”  Acts  9:20

Today we have two readings that tell us about the founding, and hence the foundation, of the church. It seems good to me at this time for this congregation to try to be clear about the nature of the church for which it is now seeking new pastoral leadership. We might be asking questions like, “How is a church different from a club, and especially a community church, how is it different from the other institutions of the community, the recreation department of the city, the civil government, the county department of social welfare?” “What does the church offer that no other institution offers, and how far are we willing to be the church rather than a club, or a compromising ‘all things to all people’ affair?” It is impossible to achieve a pure identity in this imperfect world, nevertheless, it
is worth being clear about the ideal. At the very least this will help us stay on the same page in the long discussions that lie ahead. I hope that those discussions will not absorb so much of your energy that the active and successful outreach of this congregation withers on the vine.  

The Bible is very clear about the nature of the church: it is the community of those called and commissioned by the risen Jesus. This means that it is not the school of those who try to follow the moral teaching of the historical Jesus – whoever that might have been. (I should tell you here that I was a founding member of the ‘Jesus
Seminar’ who split from them quite early on over methodological questions,
that is, I do not think the evidence is there for a reliable reconstruction of
the Jesus of history). The church is founded on the resurrected Jesus and its
most precious treasure is the most precious treasure that there is in any case,
namely eternal life. AYSO can provide healthy competitive sport, the Boy Scouts
can provide outdoors experience and group education, schools provide knowledge, bazaars and sales provide community solidarity and a little money, dances introduce kids to the opposite sex in a semi-controlled way, yoga classes give exercise etc, etc, but only the church gives access to eternal life. The church
of Christ offers the utterly stupendous possibility of eternal life. The church
is the place and the people where the risen Jesus meets with forlorn sinners
doomed to death and transforms their misery into radiant hope. So as you look
for a new pastor, look for a competent professional who knows what the church is and not just a nice guy. You would not want a surgeon whose grasp of human
anatomy is faulty to operate on you just because he or she is a nice guy, so you
do not want clergy who do not know or worse, know and do not believe, that the
church is the company of those who believe and receive eternal life from the
risen Jesus just because he or she is a nice guy.

For this reason the lectionary on the third Sunday of Easter points us to the two greatest church founding passage in the Bible, the recommissioning of Peter and the conversion of Paul.
In the history of the church Peter might be taken to stand for the Roman
Catholic tradition and Paul for the Protestant tradition, and John, who actually
narrates the Peter story, might stand for the Orthodox tradition. Peter, Paul
and John, are the three great founding Apostles, and for that reason I’m sure
the last two Popes, representatives of Peter have named themselves John Paul. So
let us look at the two passages and see what we learn:
and as we do, I remind you again that they are both accounts of what the
resurrected Jesus does to found his church, that is, the church is the creation
of the resurrected one, it is part of the new creation, an instance of the new
birth from above.

Seven disciples go back to their old jobs as fisherman. The are Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Thomas our heroic doubter of last week, Nathanael and two unnamed others. Peter felt
terrible; he had lied in public three times that he did not know Jesus, and so
at breakfast on the shore Jesus makes him undo his lies, makes him confess three
times that he loves Jesus. “Simon son of John do you love me more than these?
Yes lord you know I love you (Not at all Peter, last time I heard from you, you
were swearing loudly that you didn’t even know me).” Three times Peter must
remake his confession, and three times he must accept the task of pastor,
“Feed my Lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep.” There are several points one
might make if one were to spend a week on this text – Jesus feeds the Apostle
first before he asks him to feed others, Jesus’ identity is elusive like it
was to Mary in the garden, showing that he is transformed and not merely
resuscitated, and why are there precisely 153 fish? I am going to leave all that
aside and go to the heart of the message. Peter was a traitor, he had denied his
Lord; he had been ashamed of Jesus; he failed. Nevertheless, on such a one Jesus
founds his church, and for what reason? Well, the real answer lies deep in the
heart of God, but as far as we can see, this situation makes it absolutely clear
that the power of the church, the gift of eternal life, comes from Jesus alone
and not from any virtue and fortitude in us. If Peter the first Apostle is a
lying coward and Jesus wants him to feed his lambs, then the rest of us lying
cowards must get on over to Jesus right away and hang very close. The rest of us
lying cowards must get out of the way so that Jesus risen and victorious can
build his church through us, and can give the precious gift of grace to those
who want it. We don’t need to be pillars of society here, or super sweet, or
real nice guys. After all, the first Christian Apostle was a lying coward.

The second Apostle in rank if not order was a murderous zealot. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to arrest
Christians in Damascus when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding vision
and asked, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” You know the rest of the
story well; it is the paradigm of what came in Protestant circles to be called
conversion, and it has been a powerful cultural dynamic in the West. Let me just
mention in passing, that the paradigmatic narrative of someone changing his
religion is startlingly out of tune with culture as usual. To this day Jews who
convert to Christ are considered mentally unbalanced by many of their fellow
Jews, and Muslims who try it are killed. Anthropologically speaking human
culture is constructed for continuity not conversion. Ancient Egypt endured for
3500 year through 20 plus dynasties hardly changing a thing. My colleague
Jonathan Z Smith points out how anthropology has been distorted, because it was
pioneered by Christian missionaries, whose interest was in change rather than in
continuity. So, for instance, the literature used to be full of information
about how one becomes a shaman etc, not telling us that 90% of shamans did not
go through an ordeal of initiation but merely inherited the status. Missionaries
look for change, culture looks for continuity. I think the accounts of Paul’s
conversion in the NT, (Acts 9, 22, 26; Galatians 1: 11-24) may be the most
powerful cultural documents in the formation of the western sensibility. We are
for change, progress and conquest. The dark side of this of course is the goofy
imperialism of the Christian Right and the Neoconservative Jews currently
guiding the ship of fools (I mean ship of state) in Washington. Our President
thinks that because Jesus changed his heart the US military can change the
Middle East, that because he was once a drunk and now is, well what – a dry
drunk? the Muslims of the Middle East who once wanted to rule themselves
according to their indigenous political culture will now allow US Christians to
democratize them. This is the dark side of the Pauline influence, rampant
because of a persistent incompetence in interpreting the Bible by some woefully
inept Protestant clergy.

Let me close: the church’s one foundation is the living presence of the risen
Jesus, its treasure is eternal life, which it mediates to all who accept the
resurrected Jesus as Lord and Savior. Whatever you do here in the future, make
sure that it is focused, centered, founded and built on the call of the living
Jesus received in faith, believed in hope and lived in love. These are
challenging times; I often ask myself the question the Lukan Jesus asks, “When
the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth (18:8) ?” I am even more
pessimistic. I ask will he find faith in the church? Let us take our closing cue
from our opening text. When Paul recovered from the temporary blindness, we are
told, that he wasted no time but proclaimed immediately in the synagogues that
Jesus is the Son of God. He is the paradigm of the good preacher, while Peter
might be seen as the paradigm of the good pastor; but both of them are merely
servants of the one risen Jesus, and they were once broken and are now repaired,
living by grace alone in the only power there is, the power of eternal life in
the resurrected Jesus.