The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
The Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul
Solemn High Mass with Father-Daughter Baptisms
John 21:15-19; 2 Timothy 4:1-8
Those of you who are familiar with the liturgical calendar may recall that January 18th is the feast of the Confession of St. Peter. A week later, January 25th is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Today, we remember the martyrdom in Rome of both apostles, even though they were not martyred together. It’s as if the Western Church had designed its liturgical calendar following the Federal Communication Commission’s “Equal Time” rule for political candidates. And it’s true: there was a bit of rivalry between Peter and Paul, reflected in the book of Acts and elsewhere in their respective epistles. In Acts, Paul recounts with pride how he opposed Peter “to his face.” My favorite indication of what Peter thought of Paul comes in Peter’s second epistle, where he writes, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Can you catch the passive-aggressive tone? The uneducated fisherman, Peter, resents the fact that Paul comes from the intellectual elite tradition of the Pharisees, yet he gives him his apostolic seal of approval nonetheless.
Picking up on this sibling rivalry, the Church has consciously chosen to honor their martyrdoms on a single day. Indeed, in his Sermon 295, St. Augustine of Hippo writes, “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.” St. Augustine’s point is well taken: no matter the differences in personality and style between the two apostles, they both served the same Lord, and they both were willing even to die for him.
So much for the liturgical context. The scriptures appointed for this celebration are just as illuminating as to what apostleship means, both for them and for us. This morning’s Gospel may feel a bit like déjà vu, because on the Third Sunday of Easter, a mere eleven weeks ago, we heard this same lesson from John chapter 21 in the context of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. As those of you who were present on April 10th will doubtless recall, I pointed out that there are two charcoal fires in John’s gospel: “The first is the charcoal fire around which Peter huddles when Jesus is brought before the High Priest after Jesus has been arrested. It is at that charcoal fire that Peter denies Jesus three times. In this morning’s gospel, Peter is invited to another charcoal fire, where Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. For each denial, Peter is given the opportunity to proclaim his love for Jesus. For each sin Peter committed against Jesus, he has an opportunity to experience Jesus’ redemptive love.”
So in John’s gospel we see a twofold action, of forgiveness and of commissioning: Jesus forgives Peter three times, one for each denial, and three times he commissions Peter to “feed my sheep.”
This twofold action of forgiveness and commissioning is a pattern we also see in Paul’s life. When he famously encountered the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, he had the blood of Christian martyrs on his hands. He was called to repent of persecuting Jesus in his persecutions of the disciples, and after he was healed and forgiven, he was commissioned to make disciples of all nations. What we are hearing from Paul in this morning’s epistle, therefore, is the end result of one who has experienced the same sort of forgiveness and commissioning as his brother Apostle, Peter. When Paul writes to Timothy, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,” Paul is taking his victory lap after crossing the finish line, whereas in the gospel, we see Peter at the starting block.
Allow me to take Paul’s metaphor of the race and run with it a bit. Just as a track and field official will say, “on your mark, get set, go!” before the runners set off, Jesus’ three-fold commission puts Peter on notice that he has a great race to run. On your mark. Get set. Go!
So too, in the epistle, Paul puts us on notice that we are to be on our marks when he writes, “endure afflictions,” to get set when he writes, “do the work of an evangelist,” and to go when he writes, as another translation renders it, “carry out your ministry fully.” Just what this means will be different for each one of us, but we all need to be ready to run the race that is set before us.
In high school, I was a runner. I remember well the nervous excitement I would feel before a race. I was never full of Petrine bluster, like some of my teammates, who would predict that they would run the best race ever that day, but I shared their aspiration to do my best. Nor did I get to savor a lot of Pauline exultation at the end of a race. I knew that I was not the strongest member of the team, but I also knew that I could hold my own and do my part. In the same way, you and I don’t need to be of the stature of a Peter or a Paul to run our race. But like them, Jesus calls us to be his on his team, so that in word and deed we may go out into the world and share the Good News. Ready? Set. Go!
This “Ready? Set. Go!” message is one I wish to convey personally to our newest disciples, Christopher and Ainsley. In Baptism, we proclaim that you have been forgiven your sins by dying and rising with Christ, and you are immediately commissioned, no matter what your age, to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” I add that proviso, “no matter what your age” on purpose, because both of our candidates are coming to the sacrament of Baptism from very different points in their lives. Christopher, no matter what your age or how smart you are (and with a BA from Brown and an MBA from Harvard I know you’re a pretty smart guy), Baptism has a way of knocking you off your high horse, just as Saul was knocked off of his before he became Paul. You may not be temporarily blinded a great light or hear a voice from heaven today, but my prayer for you is that as you continue on your journey of faith, you will find the same boldness about your faith that you demonstrate in other areas of your life. For if you do, you will be a powerful force for good in the church and in the world.
And Ainsley, I understand your seventh birthday was just yesterday! Happy Birthday! As we talked about before, when you are baptized, we say that you are “Born Again.” From this day forward, you will have back-to-back birthdays, and I hope you celebrate each birthday with that same joy that we have come to associate with your winning personality. And don’t forget to follow the example of your classmate, Andrew, who simply by inviting his friends to do what he loved led you to this day. Just as he was an apostle to you, now you are called to be an apostle to others. This may not be the easiest thing for you to understand today (it’s not easy for me, either), but as you live into the grace of your baptism, my prayer for you is that you will discover just how God is calling you to live out your faith in ways that are natural, and fun, and joyful.
Ready? Set. Go!