Peter and Paul
The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles
June 29th/30th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
As many of you already know, my wife and I spent this past week in New York City to celebrate our 10th anniversary. We saw three Broadway plays, took the subway to Battery Park to look out across the Hudson River at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial, and even wandered the woods in Central Park. It was a trip a few years in the making, so it was nice that it lived up to the expectation in my mind. The weather cooperated, the shows were everything one hopes Broadway would produce, and the memories made will not soon be forgotten.
Of course, in order for us to stay where we did in midtown we had to set aside 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon to sit down with a representative of a worldwide corporation specializing in vacation solutions. Translation: we had to sit through a sales pitch for a time share. What sticks with me most from the sales pitch is something small. The salesman was asking his introductory questions, “Where are you from?”, “What brings you to New York?”, “How has your stay been so far?” What struck me was that when he asked, “What do you do?” and I told him I was a Lutheran pastor, he had no idea what a Lutheran is. He spelled it Litheran, with an “lith” instead of a “luth.” Later in the conversation, he even asked me point blank. “What is a Lutheran compared to all the other churches I see when I walk around the city with my wife?” He wanted to know if we were more like the Catholic churches or more like the Baptist churches.
My answer probably sounded to him like I was dodging the question, but it was the best I could do. What I told him is: “It depends on who you ask. If you asked the majority of American Protestants, they think Lutherans are basically Catholic (because we believe that the sacraments aren’t simply symbolic but actually do something, we tend to have artwork and stained glass that many Baptist churches consider idolatry, and we tend to use a liturgy of some sort), but if you ask the Catholics, they probably think we’re more like the rest of American Protestants (because we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope and we have broken off from what is in their view the one true church). Reality is somewhere in the middle.” The salesman seemed satisfied with my answer and moved on to prepping us for how much his great offer would cost and how much he could save us if we acted right then, right there.
I was reminded of this conversation as I sat down to gather my thoughts for this morning. After all, today we at St. John Lutheran Church are observing the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. That’s why the altar is decorated in red instead of the customary green. We have set aside the regular readings for the second Sunday of the Trinity season to instead have special readings in commemorating two Saints. But we’re not Roman Catholic, so why are we observing saints’ days? The Augsburg Confession says this:
“Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we should thank God for showing examples of his mercy, revealing his will to save men, and giving teachers and other gifts to the church. . . . The second honor is the strengthening of our faith: when we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we are encouraged to believe that grace does indeed abound more than sin (Rom. 5:20). 6 The third honor is the imitation, first of their faith and then of their other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his calling.” 
First, we ought to give thanks to God for the lives and work of these two men. These two men demonstrate different paths to the same destination as God’s children. Peter spent many years with Jesus as his disciple, following him from the beginning of his earthly ministry. Peter witnessed all the major events of the Gospel first hand. He saw the transfiguration. He saw Jesus raise the dead heal the sick. He saw the crucifixion. He saw the resurrected Lord. But he also denied Jesus before others when the time got tough. There in the courtyard of the High Priest Peter adamantly insisted that he did not know the man Jesus, only to be reminded of his betrayal as the voice of the rooster announced the arrival of the dawn, which brought with it the guilt and shame of betrayal. And yet but a few days later Jesus sat with Peter on the shores of the Sea and told him: “Feed my sheep.” Jesus forgave Peter’s denial, and Peter finally understood what forgiveness really is. He understood who Jesus truly is. He had known Jesus for years and was quite familiar with the Gospel stories, but the message took root in a different way when Peter experienced it on a personal level.
So also for many Christians today. Many of us in this room today, myself included, have spent our entire life in the church. I was baptized as a baby in a Lutheran Church, went to Lutheran preschool and grade school, Lutheran high school, Lutheran college, and finally Lutheran seminary. I have never had what many would call a come to Jesus moment. I have not prayed the sinners prayer or asked Jesus into my heart. Rather than the flood
gates of forgiveness overwhelming me, my experience, like Peter’s, might be more appropriately considered a persistent trickle or a slow drip. I, as many others here today, have heard the Gospel of forgiveness proclaimed to me for my entire life. Like Peter, who experienced Jesus first hand and was familiar with the story of salvation because he had lived it as a supporting character, many of us have been acquainted with the story of salvation since we were old enough to participate in our church’s Sunday School program since we were kids. And like Peter, who even though he knew the story yet found himself in need of our Lord’s forgiveness, those of us who have known the story of salvation since childhood still find ourselves in need of our Lord’s mercy – mercy which he gives to us with the same care and loving kindness that Peter was shown all those years ago. Yes, some of us are Christians in the line of Peter.
But others here are more like Paul. Paul was an enemy of the Gospel for much of his life. Not only did Paul personally reject Jesus as Messiah, he actively hunted and persecuted Christians as if his life depended on it. Until, that is, he was met by Jesus on the road. He experienced a conversion unlike any other – a true come to Jesus moment. He saw the error of his ways and became one of the greatest advocates for the Gospel that the world as ever known.
Through him the Gospel came to many nations beyond Israel, ultimately to the ends of the earth. He was not a disciple from the beginning. In fact, there were things he had done in his life that he was probably not proud of, things that probably haunted his dreams and drenched him in shame as they flashed before his mind’s eye. But Jesus found Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus forgave him and used him to spread the Gospel, and the world was never the same.
So also for many Christians today. Many people even in this room did not grow up in a Christian home. Many were not familiar with the story of Jesus and lived their life in ignorance of the Gospel. But something happened, something burst forth in blinding light and shattered the walls. While some people may speak of these conversion experiences as if they are a necessary ingredient to true Christianity, as if those who have been raised in the knowledge of the Scriptures are somehow less Christian that those who have come out of a life of sin and unbelief, the reality is that in both Peter’s experience as well as in Paul’s, Jesus was the key player. Jesus was the one who brought forgiveness to both of these men, and who brings forgiveness to each one of us here today. They are, as our confessions state, examples of God’s mercy, examples that show us how all God’s children are washed in his mercy, whether in a flood of a conversion experience like Paul, or in the slow persistent trickle of extended time with Jesus like Peter. In either case, our Lord is responsible. The stories of Peter’s extended time with Jesus are not stories about Peter – they are the history of our Lord’s persistent patience and mercy with a man not so different form us. The history of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is not merely Paul’s history – it is the history of our Lord breaking through the shackles of sin and giving a man hope where there had been none, the same hope that he offers to us today.
Left to himself, Peter comes across as not much more than an impulsive man who gets himself into and out of scrapes. That may make a good sitcom, but it’s not the Christian life. Left to himself, Paul comes across as a man who experienced a tremendous change of heart and set about trying to make amends to appease a guilty conscience. Again, a decent premise for a movie, but far from reality. For the reality is that in either case, these stories are about Jesus, about being consistently forgiven by Jesus like Peter so that even if you can’t look back to that one moment where everything changed, you can cling to the gift of forgiveness received time and time again. They are about being made new by Jesus, so that like Paul we too can put aside the foolishness of our former lives and ambitions, be made new by the work of Christ in us, and set about living the life he has created for us. The example of these men strengthens our faith as we experience the mercy of our Lord active in our lives and as we attempt to imitate the way that each of them relied on Jesus for their forgiveness, and as each one lived a life of service as God’s new creation.
But our confessions also encourage us to praise God for the way these men used their gifts. That is truly appropriate, for we have all benefited from what these men did. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that the gates of hell shall never overcome the church. Considering the church is found wherever the Gospel is preached and believed, and the Gospel went forth into the world through the efforts of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, it is safe to say that without their efforts, without their faithfulness to the point of death, without their insistence that the Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, you and I would not know of our sin or our Savior. We would not know of all that Jesus had done for us. We would not know that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us. And so it is good to thank God for all that these men and all the Apostles did in their calling as Apostles, and it is good use that as inspiration to live faithfully in our own vocations.
For while we may not be Apostles, we are given our own vocations to fulfill. If you are a parent, do so faithfully, recognizing that training up children in the fear of the Lord is just as important as getting them to the doctor when they’re sick or getting them to school so they can support themselves someday. If you are a child, live faithfully recognizing that while you did not choose your own parents, God did choose them for you, so you ought to respect them and obey then as if you were obeying God himself. We are all of us Christians, and are called to live lives of forgiveness and service – bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another just as in Christ, God forgave us. We may not be Apostles, but because of the work of the Apostles who wrote down and first proclaimed the message of our salvation, we can live in the confidence that the gates of hell will not overcome our Lord’s church, a confidence which frees us to be faithful in our vocations as they were faithful in theirs. Because of the work of the first Apostles, we can rest in the assurance that even when we fail in our vocations, we know we remain covered by the blood of Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit alive in us, inspiring us to try again.
And that is why we take time out to commemorate Peter and Paul today. It is not to worship them, for they are not God, but neither is their humanity a reason to ignore them. We remember them not only because of their faithful service to our Lord, but because they are shining examples of our Lord’s service to those he loves. We remember them to thank God for all that he accomplished through them, to praise God for all the souls who have been saved through their work, including our own, and to pray that the same God would make us faithful in our callings as he made them in theirs. Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles. May the Lord of the Church continue to prepare us for our lives of service as he prepared them for theirs.
Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: 1, IX, 4-6). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.