Today is the feast day for two troubled men who had great influence on the early church.
Most of us can recognise a troubled person when we meet one, even if we are not sure why. Troubled people have been there all through history, but sometimes the overlays of time and heroic reputation can make it difficult to recognise them - and stories enhancing their reputation are what come to give character and substance to these people - they become 'larger than life'. That is, I think, what has happened to Peter and Paul. We have stopped recognising them in all their troubled confusion and complexity and come to see them primarily as heroes of the early church - with a modicum of greatness flung around their shoulders: men of inspirational, heroic mana!
Today it seems important to me to see them for who they were; to bring them back to earth and restore their humanity - for there lies their strength, and our encouragement. They were just men!
We know Peter was a fisherman, who lived with his wife, in his Mother-in-law's house; he was a man in whom Jesus saw great promise and 'solidity'. According to the writer of Matthew's gospel, the story was that, Jesus called him 'the rock' on which I will build my church. He was the one who dared to stick his neck out - when Jesus was not at all popular amongst leaders of synagogue and state - and declare he was the messiah, (the one they were waiting for) son of the lively and life-giving God. But, sometime later, this same man of promise and proclamation, denied ever knowing Jesus; he denied ever being his friend, at the very time when, perhaps more than ever, Jesus needed a friend. He said he 'never knew him' in those awful hours when Jesus was being judged, condemned, and led off to execution.
And Paul, well, as those of us who went to Sunday school know, he was a Roman citizen by birth, as well as a Jew, well educated in the pharisaic school, and a persecutor of those who listened to the teachings of Jesus, or professed to follow his way. His name was Saul, he was in the employ of the Roman occupation in Judea and identified with the oppressors who made life so hard for the local Jewish population. From our perspective, he was a man who didn't seem to like women very much - though he was prepared claim some as 'friend' and to use them if he thought they could help him establish his credibility! Women through history ever since have struggled to overturn the attitudes he shaped toward women, and to overcome the restrictions he imposed way back then about what we could do and what was proper!
Yet both of these men, troubled and conflicted as they were, came to be key figures in the development of the early church. Without Paul's letters and Peter's proclamations we would unlikely to be sitting here today.
But, sit here we do, you and me. And I don't want to talk much more about Peter and Paul. It is easy to look over our shoulders and make judgements about them, but if we dare to admit it, most of us are 'troubled' people too:not sure what we believe, not sure if this 'Jesus Way' we hear about is worth the struggle, confused about a church that now seems increasingly irrelevant to our lives. And, we too often fall short of our own best intentions: struggling with our families, out of tune with our children, worried about the mortgage and our health, putting our individual wants before the needs of others. We can be disappointed in ourselves, even ashamed.
Sometimes we 'take it out' on ourselves and compromise our mental health, sometimes we 'take it all out' on those who are a bit different from us.
Sometimes we take it out on others in our family who have less power that we do - women, children, the elderly. It is usually people who can't answer-back, or retaliate, who become the ones we 'beat up on'.
We see the outcome of this 'taking it out, this 'lashing out' in anger, all too frequently - we see it in our hospitals, in women's refuges, on the streets, in schools (like last week), and in the car-parks - people being violent toward one another, even killing ordinary people because they can or because their victim has what they want. The death a week or two back, of the dairy owner in Henderson, Mr Arun Kumar by a thirteen year old boy and his friend an illustration of just how troubled we all are. That children can stab each other with scissors and even kill another person (whatever the motivation - fear, addiction, greed) is an indictment on us all for the way our society is spiralling into dysfunction. The violence in our society is not only physical however, that is the tip of the iceberg! Violence is present any time there is a misuse of a power differential, any time a person is not paid a living wage, any time another person is treated disrespectfully, any time we fail to acknowledge the humanity of those who are different from us - sexually, culturally, racially or in faith tradition - any time our Something needs to happen to change this situation.
Something needs to happen urgently.
Something needs to happen in the same way something happened to Peter and to Paul.
We don't really know what happened to them... there are stories of course, told to try to explain the strangeness of the shift in direction, to try to make sense of the change their friends experienced.
Those who knew them seemed to think only an action of God was serious enough to explain why Paul stopped persecuting the Jesus-followers and started supporting them - even working to expand the number of 'Jesus communities' that were to become the church. In other words to become a missionary for the cause of justice and inclusivity.
And Peter, it would seem he did not fall into despair at his inability to live up to his own expectations of himself, or Jesus' expectations of him. He came to recognise, through a 'dream', that God could be seen in all people not just Jews. Apparently, so tradition says, he went on and become a foundational member of the church in Rome itself!
It seems they
· Caught a vision of how the world could be if the teaching of Jesus about love, transformation, inclusion and community were taken to heart.
· Caught on to the courage and capacity for compassion that people who know they are loved can embody, and
· Caught a glimpse of how a community of people, committed to the vision of a world in which respect for persons across differences, enables mutual care about how they relate to one another, and pushes communities towards more equitable sharing of resources.
These men were not perfect, and neither are we, and it is no use waiting till we are before we try to grasp more securely the vision of a sustainable, hopeful, respectful future such as the image of 'heaven here on earth' brings to mind - and its implications!
Like them we can decide to pause in the busyness of our everyday lives and listen for the 'voice' deep within ourselves that invariably stirs us to recognise both pain and joy. And hearing it we have choices to make.
It is a conversion that most of us could do with to guide the choice; a shake up; a change of heart, one that propels out of the 'normalcy' we have settled into. Together we can insist on positive change in church and society, and together we can be courageous enough to act for that change however we can - there is an election coming up!
It is time for us to accept that it is us, you and me, that have to get on with the work of proclaiming in words and getting on with the work of honouring difference, advocating for the need for workers to be paid enough to live on, promoting the importance of safe, affordable housing for the vulnerable elderly of our city, and lifting our children out of poverty. These are troubling times, and we need to be troubled people who are prepared to step into the 'Jesus Way' that both shook up and then consumed the lives of Peter and Paul. Amen.