This past Thursday, January 18th, was the feast day marking the Confession of Saint Peter the Apostle. On that day, we remembered the gospel story (Matthew 16:13-19) of Peter proclaiming the identity of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” The gospels portray Peter as an ordinary guy, a fisherman, who didn’t have any special theological training. He was likely illiterate. But his connection to God was such that he could see Jesus clearly through a divine gaze, seeing the Christ, the anointed Messiah, the Son of the living God. Even after this experience, Peter still struggled to understand fully Jesus’ message about the Kingdom or Realm of God. And yet, Peter went on to fully become a pillar of the Church, the rock on which it is founded.
Next Thursday, January 25, is the feast day of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, when we will commemorate Christ’s call to Paul (then called Saul of Tarsus) to follow him and proclaim the gospel. We learn through the book of the Acts of the Apostles as well as in his letters that Paul was a Roman citizen, well educated in the art of rhetoric, and a Pharisee who was a zealous persecutor of the followers of “the Way” (the early Christians). While Peter was a close friend of Jesus, Paul never met him in the flesh. But Paul had an experience of Christ which temporarily blinded him and set him on a new course building up Christ’s Church. This “Road to Damascus” story is so iconic that we find it recounted three times in the scriptures ─ twice in Acts, and also in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
These two men who are polar opposites in many ways, are so crucial to Christianity that they also have another feast day when they are celebrated together, on June 29. It marks a day sometime around 258 CE when the martyred remains of both men were moved to keep them safe during a time of persecution under the emperor Valerian. The differences between Peter and Paul are a good reminder that the Church needs all sorts of people with a variety of gifts. Whether you’ve been a life-long follower of Christ or a more recent seeker; whether you have less or more formal education; whether you come from a small town or a major urban area; whether you gravitate primarily toward acting or talking or writing or praying; you are vital to the Jesus’ mission!
Despite all their differences, Augustine wrote of the similarities of Peter and Paul in his Sermon 295, “Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.” May these apostles’ similarities, and their differences, inspire us to each bring all that we are to building up the Realm of God here on earth!