PETER and PAUL

Gilbert and Sullivan, Marks and Spencer, Laurel and Hardy – there are certain names which always seem to go together. It is the same in our ecclesiastical world – Philip and James, Simon and Jude, Peter and Paul.

It is an ancient tradition which maintains that these two apostles were martyred in Rome on the same day in the same year, although not on the same scaffold, or in the same manner – crucifixion for one, decapitation for the other. The New Testament makes no mention of either event and, although it reports that Paul eventually took up residence in Rome , there is no reference to Peter going there. It wasn’t until the second Century that it was claimed he had lived in the imperial city and had perished there. What is clear from the New Testament accounts is that these two characters were very different from each other, both in regard to social class and status and education, as well as in temperament and personality. So it is not altogether surprising to hear that the relationship between them could be uneasy and strained. That being so, it is significant that from quite early on they were commemorated together and in early Christian art were frequently depicted together dressed as senators of the city of Rome . There may have been a further connection. We know that it was part of the civic and judicial administration of major Roman cities that two men – the ‘duo viri’ as they were called – were elected to be responsible for the maintenance of the good order of their city and for its defence. Perhaps the early Christians thought of Peter and Paul as the ‘duo viri’ of the Christian Church in Rome, as it began to take shape and to organise itself in the first couple of  centuries or so of its existence.

Be that as it may, what is beyond conjecture is the remarkable speed with which the Christian message spread around the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, very quickly establishing a foothold in Rome itself. Generally speaking, when referring to these various Christian groups coming into existence where the Gospel was being preached for the first time, the New Testament writers tend to use language and metaphors derived from pastoral and agricultural practice. Saint Paul, for instance, speaks of the Christian community in Corinth as ‘God’s field’ or, when speaking to the elders of the Church in Ephesus, he refers to ‘the flock’. Similarly there is the language of of planting and sowing and watering, of tending and nurturing and shepherding.

However, other imagery, other metaphors, emerge, drawn not from agriculture but from the building trade, the construction industry. In today’s feast this other way of describing life together in the Christian household of faith comes into focus. So in the Collect we pray that inspired by the teaching and example of the duo viri, Peter and Paul and made one by the Spirit, we may ‘stand firm upon the one foundation Jesus Christ’. In the Gospel, Jesus declares that he will build his Church on the rock of Simon Peter’s confession of faith in him as Messiah. Such language echoes what is said elsewhere. In the Letter to the Ephesians the writer states that as ‘members of the household of GOD’ we are ‘built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the corner-stone’. The writer of the First letter of Peter says that Christians are ‘living stones…built by God into a spiritual house’.  

‘Living stones’. When used for building, stones are not shapeless blocks of rock. The y have to be carefully quarried and shaped, dressed and knapped. The n they are laid one upon another on a firm foundation to form a strong and solid edifice. Each stone rests upon those beneath, each helps to support and buttress its neighbour and each helps to carry the weight of those who rest upon them. Not a single stone is idle; each has a job to do in holding the building together.  

That is exactly how the Church of God in all its local embodiments is meant to function. Built into God’s Holy Temple as ‘living stones’, each of us supported and strengthened by the others and equally each one of us helping to bear the weight and burden of the others. All are meant to hold together by the power of mutual love, mutual forebearance and mutual obedience – ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’.     

We readily think of God as Creator of all things. The writer of the letter to Hebrew puts it another way when he refers to God as the ‘Builder and Maker of all that is’. He labours patiently and tirelessly at drawing created existence into harmony and unity and beauty; he does all things well, for his is the Wisdom which, reaching from one end to the other, orders all things mightily and sweetly. He is ceaselessly at work on us, seeking  to draw us into love and unity with himself, with one another and with all things. We are his material – and a mixed lot we are, like all the  different materials which are used in the making of a building.  

He has quarried us from the bedrock of human nature and he works on each one us with spirit-level, plumb-line and measuring rod, as he seeks to shape and fashion us through the events and circumstances, the responsibilities and relationships of everyday life. It is ‘with many a blow and biting sculpture’ that the heavenly Architect ‘fashions well’ these ‘stones elect’.   

Some of us are easier to deal with than others. Some of us are hard and resistant and unyielding. Some, for one reason or another, do not fit easily and readily into what God has in mind for us. Others do not weather well but tend to crack and crumble, peel and flake under the stress of life’s storms – the wind and the wet, the frost and the heat, of all the manifold changes and chances of this fleeting world.   

However, God’s patience with us is endless and he never gives up on any of us. No matter how much we may despair of ourselves, he never despairs of us. He goes on believing in us and never loses hope that each one of us, by his grace, will finally fill to perfection our appointed place in the Great Church, the New Creation – each one resting firmly on the foundation of those who have gone before us, each one being a strong support to those around us and each one helping to provide a firm base for those who will come after us.

‘I will build my Church upon this rock’. That is who we are and what we are – ‘God’s building’; a place where GOD is to be encountered, ‘a spiritual house, a holy temple in the Lord’.           

Eric Simmons CR