10th Sep, 2003

A Sermon by Canon Jeffrey John

[The following sermon was preached in Southwark Cathedral on the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs, by the Rev. Canon Jeffrey John on the first Sunday following his terminating his nomination to be a Bishop in the Church of England.]

Peter and Paul

Peter and Paul are an odd couple for the Church to celebrate together. Usually when the Church remembers two saints together it’s because they worked together like Simon and Jude, or died together like Cosmas and Damian. But as far as we know Peter and Paul only met three times, they never got on with one another, and the third and last time they met they had a blazing stand-up row.

We just heard about Peter and Paul’s big row in the reading from Galatians chapter 2. The situation was this. After he’d been converted Paul had gone up twice to Jerusalem to meet Peter, James and John in order to sort out a strategy for evangelism. At the second meeting they decided together that Paul should go out and preach to the Gentiles, while Peter and the rest would stay in Jerusalem and look after the mission to the Jews. At the same time they also agreed that certain Jewish rules and regulations – in particular the rules about circumcision and eating kosher food – shouldn’t be imposed on Gentile converts to Christianity, though Jewish converts could carry on with them, for old time’s sake, as it were.

So: this agreement was all set up and Paul went off happily converting people all round the Mediterranean while Peter and the rest stayed put and looked after the Jews in Jerusalem. And that worked fine. But then, a few years later Peter and Paul bumped into one another again at Antioch. And Paul discovered that contrary to their agreement Peter was now refusing to eat with Gentiles, and pressurizing them to observe the Jewish food laws and get circumcised. So Paul, who was never one to mince his words, publicly exploded. “I opposed Peter to his face” he says, “because he stood condemned”. He had sold out the truth and freedom of the Gospel, because he was scared of the Jewish traditionalists, who still wanted to keep the Law and basically didn’t want Gentiles in the Church anyway. So Paul publicly wiped the floor with Peter in front of the whole Antioch congregation.

Now you might find this quarrel surprising; I find it encouraging. It just goes to show how little has changed in the Church between then and now. In fact we know from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which was written around 50 A.D., that there was already a serious split in the Church in Corinth along similar line, between followers of Peter on one hand and followers of Paul and Apollos on the other. In Corinth too the quarrel was basically about the same question, how Jewish or Gentile – or to put it more broadly – how conservative or radical – this new Christian religion was going to be. In fact anyone who studies the New Testament soon becomes aware just how much space that issue occupies in its various writings. The disputes at Antioch and Corinth were symptoms of a much wider difference of opinion which spilled over from the New Testament into the history of the Church and in a sense is still very much with us today.

That basic difference is very neatly symbolized in the figures of Peter and Paul. Peter, you might say, stands for the law, for the conservative view that not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away. Jesus made Peter the Rock of the Church; he stands for tradition, order, hierarchy: in a word, the Rules. Paul on the other stands for the Church’s openness to new ideas and new members; he’s all for changing the rules if that’s what the situation demands. It’s Paul who says, “the letter of the law kills, the spirit gives life”, it’s Paul who preaches the freedom of the spirit, freedom of conscience, salvation by grace as opposed to law.

It’s no accident that many of the heretics down the centuries who have left the mainstream church saw themselves as followers of Paul. The Gnostics were the first: they wanted the Church to abandon the Old Testament altogether. Then there was Montanus who founded a charismatic sect like the Pentecostals, and gave first importance to prophecy and speaking in tongues and miracles. Later on Luther was also convinced that he was following the authentic Pauline Gospel of justification by faith, as opposed to the hierarchy and legalism of Peter’s See in Rome. All of these compared their stand against the mainstream Church with Paul’s stand against Peter at Antioch. It’s the age-old clash of two different approaches to Christianity: Law versus the Spirit; obedience versus freedom; tradition versus conviction; order versus inspiration.

It’s the same clash of approaches that underlies any Christian debate today, whether in ethics or doctrine or what have you. And it’s remarkable – or it seems remarkable to me – that this clash not only arises out of the Christian faith but is actually embedded in it, right at the start. Anyone who studies the New Testament soon realizes it wasn’t only a quarrel between Peter and Paul, you can see evidence of it in all the Gospels and epistles; it’s there between Matthew and Mark, or between James and John, so that at one moment we are seeing Jesus through a more conservative, legalistic pair of glasses, and at another through a more radical, libertarian pair. And since it is so, I can only assume God intends it to be this way. There must be something in this clash, symbolized by Peter and Paul, that is necessary for us,something that makes us grow.

I realize that sounds a crashingly dull and Anglican sort of conclusion, but I don’t mean by it that there has to be a sort of bland consensus that nobody cares very much about. Creative tension is different from compromise; and it probably means you still have to have rows. Peter and Paul tried a compromise at their second Jerusalem meeting and it’s quite clear they didn’t keep it. Peter backed down from it, as Paul indignantly reminds us. But actually Paul didn’t keep to it either, because if you read the Book of Acts you discover he didn’t only preach to Gentiles as he promised he would, he preached to Jews all over the place too, and you can bet he wasn’t telling them to keep the Law.

So it looks as though both of them just got on with what they thought was right, and somehow it worked out in the end; because there’s no doubt that in the end it did pay off. Despite the rows, they never separated. Peter and Paul both gave their lives as martyrs in Rome. They died for the same Lord, and as apostles of the same Church. In fact if you go to the Church of St John Lateran in Rome you can see their two apostolic skulls, perched together above the high altar, in a glass and gold case. I like to imagine that when the lights go out at night and the Church is locked, they start bickering all over again…

But there they are, together. If not a compromise, there must have been at least a reconciliation of tensions between them, and with miraculously fruitful results, because after their deaths the Church exploded into growth. But that could only happen because they stayed in the same Church. It would have been so easy for Paul, after he had created the Gentile Church almost single-handed, to have said “push off” to Peter: “I’m setting up on my own”. But he didn’t. And Peter for his part too, didn’t presume to declare that Paul wasn’t a real apostle and have him kicked out. By the grace of God the Church that was founded on these two antagonistic giants somehow stuck together – traditional and radical, hierarchical and charismatic, disciplined and free.

Within the Church there have always been real differences, sometimes of quite basic beliefs. As Paul himself said, as parts of Christ’s body we are not all ears or eyes or noses. Perceptions vary. And of course we’ll have rows from time to time, just like the apostles. BUT in such circumstances, Paul says, the nose does not say to the eye, “I don’t like you, I’m pushing off”; nor does the eye to the ear. They tolerate one another’s different perceptions, because all the perceptions are needed for the body to live and grow.
We say in the Creed we believe in one Catholic church, and the word Catholic after all means all-embracing, total. The true ideal of unity isn’t complete agreement but creative tension, where real differences are reconciled by dialogue, not by blackmail and threats of walking out.

Peter and Paul together symbolise that proper, strong, fruitful unity. And since we are facing a pretty basic quarrel now in the Anglican Communion, now is a good time time to pray, that just as God managed somehow to keep those two impossible men together in the embryonic Church, he’ll work the same miracle for us. Let’s pray he’ll bring good out of our rows too, and give us the same fruitful unity in our church, according to his will.

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