Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Peter Church and a Paul Church

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 (transferred from 6/29/06)

The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton

2 Timothy 4:1-18, John 21:15-19

May only God’s word be spoken.

May only God’s word be heard and believed.


Peter and Paul were so different it is a miracle the church ever got off the ground. If Nero had not had them executed, they probably would have done each other in—if it weren’t so blatantly uncharitable. Here they were, rivals at times, feirce competitors, on each others case and at odds over fundemental issues, and yet we celebrate them together. Strange that God should give us this feast on this day, at this moment in our history.

I just read you the story of Jesus giving Peter, who denied Jesus three times, a chance to confess his love of Jesus three times. But even though Peter denied Jesus out of fear his affirmation will not save Peter’s skin. His confession, the Gospel says, foretells Peter’s own martyrdom.

The epistle you just heard is thought to be the Apostle Paul’s valedictory on his way to his own martyrdom. Paul changed from a persecutor of the church to the church’s first important theologian and apologist. He was a visionary who took the fledgling sect of Judaism into all the world in ways that no one thought possible.

These lessons sum up so well the differences between the two men.

You could not find more different men if you tried. Paul was a scholar, a Pharisee, and a worldly citizen of Rome who could imagine taking the Gospel along the Roman roads to the corners of the known world because he took for granted that one could go anywhere one wanted.

Peter was a working stiff from a small town, who may have never left his small town except for perhaps a pilgrimage or two to Jerusalem before meeting Jesus. He may not have been the smartest or most observant Jew in town, but he was a fervent believer. He became so wedded to the idea that Christianity and Judaism were one and the same that it took a vision of angels and unclean meat—and the haranguing of Paul—to change his mind.

Paul was a scholar with a heart for the political and really Big Idea. Peter was guy with a heart of gold and, occasionally, a head of brick who believed with all his heart and lived his faith, as far as we can tell, from his gut. Peter resisted change. Paul lived for it. Peter denied Jesus and cut off a slave’s ear. Paul talked for so much that once a guy fell asleep and fell out the window and Paul had to resuscitate him so he could finish his talk. Peter was a first generation Christian, Paul was second generation. Sometimes they fought like cats and dogs because Paul had his Big Idea and Peter lived from his gut.

They were both martyred in Rome during Nero’s persecution in 64. Despite their different temperaments and approaches, they were drawn together in Christ. It was not anything they did, at least not under their own power, that drew them together but their distinct yet similar encounters with Jesus Christ that changed them both.

I have to apologize to you today, because my brain is still not entirely here. My brain is still back in Columbus, Ohio someplace, sorting out the Big Idea of what God is doing in the Church. My heart is here with you all, where the warmth of your company reminds that God is here with everyday believers. So you’ll pardon me if I see Bigger Things at work even in this small gathering?

You may have read about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflections on the Anglican Communion yesterday. And I have to tell you, I am not a very happy Deputy. My head wants to wrap around his theology and vision for the Communion, which seems to be bigger and more complex than mine. The other part of me feels as if I have had the legs cut out from under me.

Based on what I have read so far, the Archbishop is floating the idea of a two-tier communion. One for those churches that want to decide things together, and one for churches that want to do things their own way. Now I have to slow down here, because I know this Anglican Covenant idea is still new, and he may only be running up the flag pole to see who salutes. What happens may be very different a decade from now, but just the same I don’t like all this talk about two-clap-two communions in one.

Bishop Katherine spoke to us at Convention with the image of conjoined twins not quite healthy enough to be surgically separate. Now Archbishop Rowan talks of a two-tiered communion. I am reading people on the left and on the right saying the time has come to make a stand, let’s split (oh, and you go first). Well I don’t like it. Not one little bit. These words, images, threats and missives do not jive with my experience at all.

We seem to seeking two churches—A Peter Church and a Paul Church. The Peter Church, would be a church of firm doctrine, closely held tradition and crystal clarity. And a Paul Church, would be the worldly-wise, intellectual, Big Idea Church. Maybe the Peter Church lives in the Southern US and in parts of Africa and the developing world. Maybe the Paul Church lives in the US Coasts, the big cities and in Canada, New Zealand and Europe. Great Britain will have to flip a coin, I guess. The Paul Church and the Peter Church seem to be so different in temperament and style and ways of thinking that maybe, we are told, we should gently cut the cord and get it over with.

Well, I am not ready for us to be divided up into Episcopal Church-Missouri Synod in one corner the Episcopal United Church of Christ in the other—although at this very moment it seems as if people are rushing to do just that! Paul himself said that the church should avoid choosing up sides according to their favorite apostle. He said that there is to be no Apollos and there is to be no Paul—and by implication, there is to be no Peter—there is only Christ. The one we follow is not our favorite idea but Jesus Christ.

An Episcopal priest and former US Senator, John Danforth reminded us that no gives a hoot about gay bishops are whose side wins in our little internal battle. What matters is that we have the tools to be the reconciling church. Think about Peter and Paul—it took the Risen Christ, and, in a perverse way, Nero to obliterate their differences. The shared remembrance of their martyrdom teaches us that it is in the crucible of everyday faith lived in the real world, that the cost of following Jesus is most clear.

And do you know who teaches me that? You do. There are plenty of Peters and Pauls and Marys and Marthas and Stephens and Priscillas in this community right now. How do we do it? How do we stay together? It’s not easy, and sometimes we screw up, but we come back and try again. We do the best we can to pray and grow and worship and serve and make a little difference in our little corner of God’s kingdom right where we are.

There are some very smart people trying to find a way through this mess. There are some very earnest people who seem to want this mess for some Big Idea that only they see. How can this ying and yang of a Peter and Paul church be held together?

In the end, it is ordinary Christians like you in ordinary parishes like this who figure out how it can be that Jesus is revealed in both Paul’s Church and Peter’s Church at one and the same time as we live the gospel in the real world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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