St Stephen, Lewisham
29th June 2003
St Peter & St Paul
Peter & Paul (not forgetting Mark!)
Today we commemorate two of the great New Testament heroes, St Peter & St Paul. At the end of Mass we shall process to their icons in the north and south isles and say a special prayer of thanksgiving.
Many people imagine, quite wrongly, that the Christians of the New Testament period lived in a Golden Age of mutual love, respect and agreement. If you think that just read again the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of Peter, Paul and James and the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation and you will realise that it was nothing of the kind.
Yes, it does contain records of astounding courage and faithfulness, not least that of our Patron, St Stephen. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what everyday life was like for first-century Christians in their local church you’ll discover that it was much the same as our experience of church-life today.
More difficult for them because they lacked the two thousand years of experience that we can draw on to deal with some of the problems which they, no less than we, had to face.
Take the case of St Peter and St Paul. Both were gifted church leaders but so different from one another in background, education and temperament that in some of the churches at least – most notably Corinth – people were divided into several rival parties depending on whether they preferred Peter or Paul or those who called themselves "The Real Christians" implying that nobody else really Christian at all.
Let’s look at these two men and see what made them so different from each other.
Paul was a graduate of one of the Oxbridge Universities of the day, Tarsus. He had been tutored by the famous leader of the Hillel School of Rabbis called Gamaliel. He knew the Scriptures inside-out and he was someone who lived every minute of his life by the Jewish Law. He could speak Greek fluently and probably get by in Latin. Most importantly he had spent his early years persecuting the Christians, so he had the experience of being able to see things from both sides, Jewish and Christian.
Peter, by contrast, was someone whose formal education had ceased probably at what we’d call the Elementary stage. He was a fisherman, married with a family, and he had the enormous privilege of having known and worked alongside Jesus during his earthly ministry. A simple, kind-hearted man, chosen by Jesus to lead the other apostles, he was nevertheless impulsive by nature and often said and did things without thinking about them first. You have only to compare his letters with those of St Paul to see that he was someone who, whilst passionately sincere in his love for our Lord, found it difficult to put things down in writing.
So it’s easy to see why Peter and Paul didn’t always "hit it off" with each other. We know for a fact that the two had a blazing row in Antioch, described by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians. It concerned the vexed questions of whether Jews who became Christians should be allowed to continue to eat separately from their Gentile brethren, even though it had been agreed that in matters of diet, for instance, the Gentiles were not bound by the Jewish Laws.
Paul was in favour of making this a matter of principle. Jews and Gentiles should eat together whether they liked it or not, because he saw quite plainly that if they didn’t you would soon have two Eucharists, a Gentile and a Jewish one in every church, and from there it was only a short step to rebuilding the division between Jew and Gentile which Jesus, through his Cross and resurrection, had broken down.
Peter, on the other hand, felt genuinely sorry for those Jewish Christians in Antioch who were expected to abandon the habits of a lifetime the moment they became Christians. So, perhaps in a moment of weakness he agreed to eat separately with the Jews, no doubt saying to himself "well it’s only just for this once, and they’ll understand in time", even persuading Paul’s closest friend Barnabas to join him.
You can see how easily it all happened and how, acting from the best of intentions Peter and Paul came to see each other as "letting the side down". It was many years before they made up their differences.
Tensions like this have always been part and parcel of the Christian Church. On the one hand there are those who, like St Peter, kind and generous by nature, want the Church to be a place which is welcoming, and where everyone gets on with everyone else. On the other hand there are the counterparts of St Paul who realise that if the Truth which is in Jesus Christ is allowed to become obscured or disregarded in the cause of being kind, generous and inclusive, then you end up with a church which becomes more and more like a Club for the Kind-Hearted, and less and less like the Living Body of Christ on earth.
Curiously enough, it seems to have been a third person who, quite unintentionally, brought Peter and Paul back together again. That person was called John Mark.
John was a young man who had thoroughly blotted his copybook by abandoning Paul and Barnabas very soon after the start of their First Missionary Journey. We don’t know why he left them – all sorts of reasons have been suggested like homesickness, dislike of Paul and his preaching, or simply boredom. The fact is that Paul was so angry with him that he refused to take him on his Second Journey. Mark’s behaviour may even have influenced St Paul’s attitude to Peter at Antioch a few weeks later. He’d been badly let down once; this time he wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from anyone.
Well, Barnabas took Mark with him and perhaps was instrumental in recommending him to Peter. What we do know is that when St Peter went to Rome around the year 60AD, someone he calls "my young man Mark" joined him there.
But we also know that Paul, writing to Timothy from Rome said, "Pick up Mark and bring him with you for I find him a useful assistant". So something seems to have happened during the intervening years to persuade Paul that Mark was worth it after all. Perhaps it was meeting him in Rome plus the fact that Peter had taken Mark on as his secretary that persuaded Paul that Mark was a changed person.
What we do know for certain however is that not long afterwards a great persecution broke out under the Emperor Nero in Rome, following the great fire in AD64 which Nero himself had probably started but blamed on the Christians. In this persecution both Paul and Peter were put to death, but not before, according to tradition John Mark, on the information given him by St Peter, had written the earliest of the four Gospels, the one which bears his name and which, because it is the evidence of someone who had actually known Jesus personally, is of particular importance. What we also know is that Peter by the time he wrote his Second Letter had come to realise the importance of Paul and vice versa.
Now it may of course be that the various people called "Mark" who are mentioned in the New Testament are all different people. For my part I believe that they were all one and the same person and that he, without realising it, was instrumental in rebuilding the bridge between two such different but essential members of the first century church as St Peter and St Paul.