You may not have realized that yesterday was a very significant day in the life of the Christian Church. But if you were in Rome yesterday, where the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul is a civil holiday, you would have known that something was going on because all of the shops and businesses were closed for the day. If June 29th had fallen on a week day, schools would have been closed as well.
As early as 258 AD, the church marked June 29th as the day for the Christian church to give thanks to God for the apostles Peter and Paul, who stand as the two pillars of the New Testament Church.
As familiar with these two men as we are, it’s always good to refresh our knowledge of such important people in our life.
We begin with Simon, a fisher of fish by trade, whom Jesus called saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.” And he did. And over the course of about a year of following Jesus, listening to His preaching and teaching, seeing the miracles He did, and witnessing the compassion Jesus had for all people regardless of who or what they were, Peter slowly grew to understand and then confess with his lips that this Jesus is none other than the Christ, the Son of God, as we heard in our gospel reading.
Jesus gave Simon a new name – “Peter”, which means ‘rock,’ saying, “upon this rock,” that is, this confession that Jesus is the Son of God, “I will build my church.”
But Peter is far from the ‘perfect disciple’ of Jesus. No sooner does he confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, than he actually scolds Jesus and wants to convince Jesus that ‘persecution and crucifixion’ and “THE CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD” are two things that simply do not go together.
Then later, as Jesus is undergoing the suffering that will lead to His crucifixion, Peter tries to convince himself that “persecution and crucifixion’ and “disciple of THE CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD” do not go together.
Rather than FOLLOWING JESUS, Peter disassociates himself from Jesus, denying not once, or twice, but three times that he knows the man. But then, sometime shortly after Easter Sunday, Jesus again comes to Peter while Peter is fishing. Recognizing that it’s Jesus, Peter jumps out of the boat and swims to shore. And then, AFTER A MEAL, Jesus reconciles Peter to Himself, not twice, but three times, repairing what Peter had broken, and saying to him, “Peter, feed my sheep.”
In the book of Acts we read that after the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit, Peter immediately begins “feeding the sheep” with the gospel, the good news, that Jesus Christ has reconciled you to Himself and in Himself with the Father.
To the Jews who were in in Jerusalem, who like Peter, had no doubt just stood by in silence rather than risking the persecution and suffering that would undoubtedly come their way for speaking up for this INNOCENT MAN… Peter proclaims that “this Jesus Christ, whom you crucified…” is the One who FORGIVES YOU ALL OF YOUR SINS. Now come and be baptized every one of you, and receive YOUR NEW NAME – the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament includes two letters by Peter by which he “feeds the holy flock” of Jesus – exhorting and encouraging the sheep to remain steadfast in this one, true faith and continue to grow stronger in it, which he insists comes, not by the denial of suffering and persecution and even death for the sake of Christ, but by the denial of ourselves and the embracing of God’s Holy Word.
Would you take out your bible and turn to 1st Peter 1:3-9 (page 1014). Just follow along as I read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)
History tells us that Peter eventually traveled to Rome where he was arrested for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this time, when he was asked if he is a disciple of Jesus, he CONFESSED AND DID NOT DENY. And for his good confession, he was sentenced to be crucified, which he accepted gladly, only insisting that he be crucified upside down, not being worthy to die for His Lord as His Lord died for him.
Paul, who is also known as Saul, is a very different person than Peter, with a very different background and conversion to faith than Peter’s. And yet, through the one faith in the one Lord, there is no distinction between these two.
Paul was a highly educated Jew who was a standout among Jews. He was a Rabbi and a Pharisee, which means that he was not only highly learned in the Scriptures, but he was zealous for living according to God’s Word. And who could fault anyone for that.
But, as so often happens, in his love of God and his zeal for living according to God’s Word, Paul was correspondingly furious with those who were Jews, but who were buying into the nonsense that a new cult was preaching, which was that a man named Jesus Christ, a Jew, had kept God’s Word so perfectly, that God was so pleased with Him, that now, anyone who put their faith in this Jesus, God counted as having kept His Word perfectly.
For Paul and a lot of zealous Jews like him, this was absurd, because it meant that a person was not accountable for his own salvation before God but rather, God held ONE MAN accountable on behalf of all men and women. And now, all men and women were either acceptable in God’s sight through faith in this ONE MAN, or condemned by God by their rejection of this ONE MAN.
And here’s the thing that was utterly unacceptable for Paul and those like him. That this ONE MAN was a criminal, who was crucified…to say that this CRUCIFIED CRIMINAL was GOD’S MESSIAH, THE CHRIST OF GOD, was nothing less than heresy. And for a Jew to actually confess that this ONE MAN is GOD’S SON was blasphemy. And Paul’s zeal for God’s Word led him to root out this heresy and punish this blasphemy.
One day, Paul set out from Jerusalem with armed guards from the Temple to go to the city of Damascus to stamp out another one of those heretical and blasphemous fires. Turn to Act 9:3 (page 917) and follow along as I read.
“Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, master?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “HE IS THE SON OF GOD.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 9:3-21)
Through his epistles to the church, Paul preaches and teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone. And that faith is created in a person through the HEARING OF THE GOSPEL – “for the WORD OF THE CROSS is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:16). “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for IT IS THE POWER OF GOD FOR SALVATION TO EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES, to the Jew first but also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16)
Paul wants nothing to do with preaching ‘political correctness’ or a ‘watered down gospel’ that wants to adapt to the culture of the day. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed…. O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 1:6-8, 3:1)
Just as Paul in his zeal for Judaism hunted down Christians, so those zealous for Judaism would hunt down Paul. Like Peter, Paul will also eventually go to Rome where history tells us, he was beheaded in the year 67 AD, just because he confessed and would not deny that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The early church father, St Augustine, wrote in a sermon in 395 AD for this day in which he says, “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”