My sermon about Peter and Paul
Today we celebrate the lives of two Saints, two Saints who were quite different from each other, two Saints who were very important to the fledgling Church, two Saints who were Apostles and Martyrs, two Saints who gave their all for their Lord. They are examples of two people who took up their cross and decided that Jesus was more important than their families. They came from different backgrounds, they had different methods of evangelism, and they didn’t always get along very well, but they were so important to the emerging Christian faith.
Simon Peter was a fisherman, a large, burly, solid guy who was nicknamed Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, or “Rocky.” He was inclined to open his mouth without thinking, and he would often say things which would come back on him. He was a down-to-earth person, not really given to mystic visions. Although he certainly received his share of visions he didn’t always understand what was going on; when he witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ, he wanted to build little huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and he didn’t seem to really understand that Jesus was revealing his divinity. If the Twelve were the Inner Circle of Jesus’s disciples, Peter was in the “Inner Inner Circle;” he was present at all the events in which Jesus had just a few special persons with him. Peter was the one who confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One, and he claimed that he would follow Jesus anywhere. When Jesus was being arrested by the soldiers, Peter pulled out his sword and lopped off a servant’s ear, but not too long later he denied Christ three times; at the moment when Jesus really needed him, he, like the rest of the Twelve, was no where to be found. But Peter was the first of the men to see the empty tomb, and he was commanded by the Resurrected Christ to “feed my lambs.” When the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, Peter was the one to speak to the crowd. He became the leader of the Apostles, the leader of the Twelve, but he was not the leader of the Church; Jesus’ brother James was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, but Peter was a leader of the Church. He may have been the bishop of the Church in Rome, but the Church in Jerusalem was considered THE Church in those days. Rome didn’t become such an influential and important Church until the third century. Peter was the greatest miracle worker of the Apostles, he was involved in many healing miracles. Jesus told Peter that “someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go,” and Peter went to a lot of places that he didn’t want to go; I’m sure he didn’t want to be the one on the roof seeing a sheet full of un-clean animals being lowered and told “Kill and eat!” and I’m sure he didn’t want to be the one to feel Paul’s wrath regarding circumcision and other Jewish practices which were part of the earliest Church. I’m not sure that he particularly enjoyed being caught in the middle between Paul and his fights with the Hebrew faction of the Church But he willingly went to his martyrdom, crucified head down in the Colosseum in Rome according to tradition, and he was the Rock on which the Church was established, tradition stating that he started the church in Rome and was even the first Bishop of Rome.
Saint Paul was quite a different person than Peter; he was an educated man, a Pharisee educated by the great Rabbi Gamaliel, and a Roman citizen. He was not one of the Twelve, in fact, he persecuted the Twelve, as Saul he witnessed and may have even been the ring-leader at the stoning of Stephen the Deacon, but he became one of the greatest of the Apostles. He was very much given to mystic experiences, in fact, his conversion on the Damascus Road is the result of a vision of the Resurrected Christ, and he remained blinded for several days as a result of this vision. Paul also claimed to have visited some “higher heavens,” and he articulated many of the more mystical aspects of Christology. Paul was a persistent persecutor of the Church by his own admission, but once converted, once he “saw the light,” he was one of the most ardent devotees of Jesus, he traveled the so-called “known world” and brought the Good News to the Gentiles. He was chased out of town, he was arrested, and he would preach to anyone who would listen. He founded churches throughout the Greco-Roman world, and he may have traveled as far as Spain on his missionary journeys. He would fight with the Hebrew faction of the Church, and he always seemed to think that Peter was easily led by whatever faction he happened to be with at the time, but even though he was not always in good stead with the Home Office back in Jerusalem, he gladly raised money for the poor and the Jerusalem Church. He was a prolific letter writer, (just imagine what HE would have done with e-mail) and his letters, even when chiding, were so beloved by the churches that they were shared with the rest of the faithful, and Paul’s epistles became the very first Christian scriptures, before any gospels were written and before the letters attributed to John and Peter. Tradition tells us that Paul, like Peter, was martyred in Rome, and that he was be-headed. The relics of Peter and Paul became powerful symbols of the Church in Rome, and they were moved from their original resting places to a catacomb in Rome where a basilica was later erected over their remains. Paul’s teaching on grace, on salvation, and on the resurrection of the dead formed the earliest theology of the Church, and it is not too far off the mark to call him the founder of Christianity.
These two mighty Men of God are proof that God can work through anybody. The fact that someone like Simon Peter, a brash, thick-headed fisherman, inclined to say what ever popped into his mind with out thinking, and a well educated but irritable Pharisee, a persecutor of the Church and later its great champion, could both help spread the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God, that these two extremes could allow the Holy Spirit to work through them and help spread the message of Christ throughout the world is proof that God can work through each one of us here as long as we are willing to answer “yes” to God’s call. Jesus stood on a beach and asked Peter to follow him, later, the Resurrected Jesus stood on a beach and asked Peter to feed his sheep. Peter said “yes” both times. Jesus appeared to Saul in a blinding light and called him to end his persecutions. Saul answered yes to Jesus’ call and became Paul, a great missionary and the first theologian. Very few of us have such experiences, but Jesus calls all of us to follow him. Jesus calls each one of us to follow him, to care for the hungry and the sick and the poor and the prisoner and the stranger. Jesus calls each of us to love one another, and Jesus calls all of us to serve each other as we serve God. God worked through men like Peter and Paul, and God can work through each one of us; all we must do is answer “yes” to God’s call and then allow the Holy Spirit to move and work through us. May we all take the examples of Peter and Paul, and answer “yes.”
Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
Thursday, June 22, 2017
The Feast of St. Alban, First English Martyr
Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Alban triumphed over suffering and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember him in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain. As usual, we don't really know very much about Alban, and there is some disagreement between sources about what we do know. Some believe that Alban was a Roman born in England, while others believe that he was a Roman soldier stationed in England. He lived in Verulamium, a town which is now called St. Alban's, in Hertfordshire, which is about twenty miles northeast of London. He was a pagan, and probably not really aware of Christianity. However, a persecution of Christians in Briton had broken out. Tradition, and the Venerable Bede, early historian of the Church in England, teach that is was the Diocletian persecution of the year 305, but now scholars believe that this was the persecution during the reign of Septimus Severus, around the year 209. One day during the persecution, a Christian priest who was fleeing from his persecutors sought refuge at Alban's house. Alban sheltered him for several days. He heard the priest's story and was moved by his humility and piety. Alban was so influenced by the priest's prayers and teaching that he became a Christian and was baptized by the priest. A few days later the army discovered the priest at Alban's house. They came to take the priest away, but Alban changed clothing with the priest so that the priest could escape, and Alban was brought before the judge. (According to tradition, the priest met his martyrdom a few days later when he was captured and stoned to death).
The Christians of those days believed that the Roman gods were actually demons, so the Venerable Bede's account of the martyrdom of Alban has the judge "offering sacrifice to devils," which possibly means that he was offering incense to the Roman gods and most probably to the emperor. When the judge saw Alban, he was furious that Alban, a Roman, would put himself in such danger by trading places with a priest. He ordered the soldiers to drag Alban before the altar and said, "Since you have chosen to conceal a sacrilegious rebel rather than surrender him to my soldiers to pay the well-deserved penalty for his blasphemy against our gods, you shall undergo all the torture due to him if you dear to abandon the practice of our religion!" But Alban, who now freely confessed himself a Christian refused to obey this order. The judge demanded, "What is your family and race?" Alban answered, "How does my family concern you? If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and carry out Christian rites." The judge demanded to know his name. He answered the judge: "My parents named me Alban, and I worship and adore the living and true God who created all things." This really angered the judge, who said, "If you want to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice at once to the great gods." Alban responded, "You are offering these sacrifices to devils who cannot help their supplicants, nor answer their prayers and vows. On the contrary, whosoever offers sacrifice to idols is doomed to the pains of hell." This response, of course, did not help matters at all. The judge ordered Alban to be flogged, but when he noticed that no torture would break Alban or make him renounce Christ, the judge ordered Alban's immediate decapitation.
Alban was to be decapitated on a hill top. Many people came out to witness the decapitation, in fact, there were so many people there that the soldiers and Alban could not get across the bridge since all the people filled the bridge and prevented their passing. Alban walked up to the banks of the river, and since he desired a speedy martyrdom, raised his eyes to heaven and said a prayer. The water dried up and they were able to walk on dry land. When the executioner saw this miracle,
he was so moved that he ran to meet Alban at the place of execution. He threw down his sword and fell at Alban's feet, begging that he might be thought worthy to die with the martyr if he could not die in his place. The other executioners were unsure of what to do, and were reluctant to pick up the sword. Alban continued to the top of the hill, where, being thirsty, he asked God for some water. Immediately a spring bubbled up at his feet, a sign to all present that it was the martyr's prayer
that dried up the river and now produced a perennial spring. At the same time, the river began to flow again. One of the other executioners picked up the sword and struck the fatal blow and beheaded Alban. According to Bede, "the man whose impious hands struck off that pious head was not permitted to boast of his deed, for as the martyr's head fell, the executioner's eyes dropped out on the ground." Bede also writes: "The soldier who had been moved by divine intuition to refuse to slay God's confessor was beheaded at the same time as Alban. And although he had not received the purification of baptism, there was no doubt that he was cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven. Astonished by these many strange miracles the judge called a halt to the persecution, and whereas he had formerly fought to crush devotion to Christ, he now began to honor the death of his saints." Bede says that a church worthy of Alban's martyrdom was built on the spot and that many sick folks were healed there and that frequent miracles occur there. Since Alban was martyred on a hill, churches which bear his name are located on hills, just like St. Alban's in Paraíso.
Alban was only a Christian for a few days but he felt so strongly about his devotion to Christ that he was willing to suffer death on Christ's behalf. He was willing to take the place of the priest and face the tortures and punishments reserved for the Christians of that time. His witness brought about the conversion of both his executioner and the judge who sentenced him to death. His witness most probably helped spread Christianity throughout Britain and the British Isles. We are all called to serve Christ but we aren't all called to the same ministries. We aren't all called to celibacy, we aren't all called to poverty, and, thank God, we are not all called to martyrdom. All of us are called to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God and we are all called to tend the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. We are all called to love one another as Christ loves us, and we are all called to proclaim the love of God for all, and to tell others of God's forgiveness and unconditional love for all of humanity. Alban's life is a powerful example of how devotion to Christ can make someone so completely selfless that they are willing to die for others. Jesus said that a true friend is willing to die for a friend, and just as Alban was willing to die in the place of the priest, Jesus was willing to die for all of us. Jesus calls all of us to such lives of selflessness, even through he does not call all of us to face a martyr's death. May the lives and witness of the martyrs continue to inspire the Church and may we all acknowledge Jesus before the world.
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