What I said last Sunday – Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

Yesterday we kept the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Here’s what I said in my sermon.


No matter the question, the answer is always ‘Jesus’. Anyone in the Church who works with children knows that problem. The answer to everything is Jesus!

The story is told of the Sunday School teacher who wanted to teach the children about the importance of being prepared and working hard. So she started her lesson by saying, “I’m going to describe something and when you know what it is put your hand up.” And off she went, “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees…” Nothing. “And it eats nuts…” Nothing. “It has a long bushy tail and can be grey or red…” Still nothing. Then, slowly, one boy put his hand up. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Well, Freddie, what do you think it is?” And Freddie replied, “Well, it sounds like a squirrel to me, but I know the answer’s supposed to be ‘Jesus’”

Today I have a question – and I already know the answer that most of you would automatically give. And, to be fair, it’s a perfectly reasonable answer. My question is: Who founded the Church? And you’d probably say ‘Jesus’.

But think again. Take a look at the worldwide Church that is in existence today. Take a look at what we call the Catholic Church of which the Anglican Church is a part – the Worldwide Ecumenical Church with its historic threefold orders of bishops, priests and deacons; the Worldwide Church centred on the doctrine of the Trinity, on the incarnation, and the centrality of the eucharist in its worship. The Western Catholic Church formed of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Old Catholics; the Eastern Catholic Church more usually known as the Orthodox Church. Together these two parts of the Church make up three-quarters of world-wide Christianity, the rest being other independent Churches that date back to the Reformation in the West and the fourth century in the East

So who founded it? Who founded the Church? Or perhaps a better way of putting the question is: Who is responsible for the existence of the Church as we know it? And the answer to that question is not Jesus. Jesus, of course, is responsible for the essence of the Christian faith which guides the Church. But the actual Church as we know it today wouldn’t exist were it not for two men – Peter and Paul, but chiefly Paul.

Paul, originally an opponent of the new Christian Church, was the one who was to spread the news of Jesus Christ across the Empire. Known as the apostle to the Gentiles, without Paul it is unlikely that the Church would have ever been anything but a Jewish Sect centred on the Holy Land. He knew the importance of taking the new faith outside the confines of Israel and Judaism because it was a faith for the world, not just a faith for Jews who had recognised Jesus as their Messiah. And this was not straightforward. Most of the first Christians were, of course, Jewish. And many of them believed that any Gentile converts should first of all become Jews – including men undergoing the rite of circumcision. They were known as Judaisers, and they were saying that circumcision was necessary for salvation. We can read this in the book of Acts.  Peter had been given a vision from God showing him that the gospel was just as much for Gentiles too, but he backed down in the face of the Judaisers. He had eaten with Gentiles accepting them as equals, but then because he feared the Judaisers he stopped doing so because the Gentiles weren’t circumcised.

And so Gentiles would have been forced to accept the ritualist Law of Moses except for one man – Paul. Paul visited Peter in Antioch and had a showdown with him – and Paul describes this visit in his letter to the Galatians. For at the heart of Paul’s faith was one thing – salvation came through faith in Jesus and by nothing else. There was no need for anything else. No need for adherence to the Law of Moses. Paul knew it, and he knew that Peter knew it even though Peter had backed down on the issue. And Paul tells Peter in no uncertain terms that he is wrong – and he called him a hypocrite to his face. Never think that arguments over big issues are something that we only get in the Church today – they’ve gone on right back to the beginning. Well, Peter saw the error of his ways. Paul prevailed. And that is rather important. For the Church did not become a part of Judaism, but something quite new and different. We are not required to keep the Jewish Law, including circumcision. Peter and Paul were reconciled and went on to be regarded as the leaders of the new and growing Christian movement.

Peter, right from the beginning was accepted as the chief of the apostles – he was the spokesman on the Day of Pentecost. It was Peter of whom Jesus had said when he was still called Simon, “You are Peter, the Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.” And Paul, the great enemy of the Church and yet chosen by Jesus became the missionary to the Gentile world and the great expositor of the Christian faith – his teaching became central to the growth of the Church. Just think for a moment what the Church might look like without all the teaching of Paul that we have in the New Testament, and particularly his emphasis on being made right with God through faith in Jesus alone.

Well, between them Paul and Peter oversaw the expansion of the new community of believers as it spread across the known world. In time both of them ended up in Rome. The centre of the Empire, it was inevitable that they should both be drawn there – for Rome was the gateway to the rest of the Empire. And it was in Rome that both of them were to meet their deaths. During the persecution of the Emperor Nero, both Peter and Paul were put to death on the same day, June 29th, though the year itself is not certain though certainly in the early to mid 60s. Peter was crucified – upside down at his own request. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded. Since their deaths they have been honoured as the chief apostles and founders of the Church of Rome, and the leaders of the Early Church.

It was the practice of early Christians to worship at the burial places of martyrs. After Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire many of those burial places had churches built on them. One was to become the magnificent cathedral that is St Peter’s. And in 1968 the first century Roman burial ground that it is built upon was excavated, and what is believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter rediscovered and the bones examined. Saint Paul’s resting place is at the church in Rome known as St Paul’s without the walls – meaning not that it only has a roof, but that it was outside the walls of the city of Rome. The bones in his tomb have also been examined and dated. And we are as certain as we can be that those two churches were built over their final resting places. And it was very moving to make a pilgrimage to both places last year as well as the traditional site of the martyrdom of Paul.

In icons Peter and Paul are often shown together embracing each other, as they are on the icon on the altar today (pictured – from my own collection) – and this particular icon is actually from the same iconographer who painted the icon of St Lawrence in St Lawrence’s Church on the Hill. I bought it myself from his shop in Crete. And this embrace between Peter and Paul has come to have a double meaning. Perhaps it represents their reconciliation following their disagreement at Antioch. Or perhaps – and the two apostles are often been depicted together in this way – it represents their taking leave of each other before their executions. Either way it shows us the love that is at the heart of the Church of Jesus and can overcome anything.

So, today we give thanks for Peter and Paul, for their lives and their witness and their example, and for the Church of which we are a part, built upon the foundation of their faith and teaching. And we pray that in our own day we may be inspired by them to make our own faith in Jesus Christ the centre of all that we do and all that we are.