The Church is honouring today two of its great preachers and missionaries – St Peter to fellow Jews and St Paul to ‘the nations’ (Gentiles).
Both suffered martyrdom under the reign of the Roman Emperor, Nero. Following the great fire (64-67AD) that destroyed much of Rome, Nero persecuted Christians. Peter was crucified on the Vatican hill and is reputed to have asked to be hung on the cross upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Paul, because he was a Roman citizen, was not crucified but was beheaded outside the city of Rome. The basilicas that bear their names – St Peter’s in the Vatican and St Paul’s (Outside the Walls) were built near the places where they were buried.
Peter was a fisherman from Galilee. As we heard in the Gospel, it was his profession of faith in Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ that led Jesus to found the Church on him. Peter was the first leader (or Pope) of the early Church – as bishop of Jerusalem and then Antioch before moving to Rome where he was martyred.
Paul was a convert from Judaism (although he never stopped being a Jew) who travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe preaching the Christian message. He wrote 14 Epistles or Letters in the New Testament of the Bible and when you add these to the 17 chapters in the Acts of the Apostles that are given over to him you could argue that, after Jesus, he is the central figure of the New Testament. His influence and dominance was such that some give him the title ‘The Founder of Christianity’ (meaning that Christianity would have remained a small sect within Judaism were it not for Paul’s preaching to pagans).
So just who was this difficult and passionate figure called Paul who taught the non-Jewish world the teaching of Jesus?
The first thing I note about Paul is that he was not a well person. He suffered what he called a ‘thorn in the flesh’, possibly epilepsy but most likely depression. It made his life and his work very difficult and nearly destroyed him: ‘we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength so that we despaired even of life’ (2 Corinthians 1:8). Those words could accurately describe what some of us experience in various forms of poor health or other afflictions today.
Paul experienced strong opposition from locals in the cities he visited, like Ephesus in Turkey. He would preach to Jews first who, invariably, would turn on him, sometimes violently. Such rejection by his fellow Jews pained him all his life.
Paul had other problems too – his appearance was anything but impressive and his oratory was poor. The Acts of the Apostles tells of how a boy fell asleep and tumbled out of a window while listening to one of Paul’s speeches. We know the feeling, don’t we!
The late 2nd Century work “The Acts of Paul and Thesla” contains the following unflattering description of Paul:
A man of little stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness.
Despite Paul suffering poor health, the Lord achieved much through him. It’s a reminder to us, perhaps, that most of God’s best work is done by people not in the best of health or ‘not feeling so good’. Poor health or other afflictions do not restrict God from doing good things through us either. We can still be kind, compassionate, encouraging and supporting others even if we are weighed down by our own problems.
St Peter was a flawed man – the Gospels record him being impetuous, unreliable and even betraying Jesus. Yet Jesus chose him to lead the Church. As Peter was to discover, so may we – Jesus does not judge by appearances; he knows that we are better than our worst mistakes; and where others might write us off or even condemn us, Jesus does not – as Peter and Paul knew only too well.
Holy Name, Jesmond
28 June 2020