12th Thursday of Ordinary Time
Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul
Acts 12:1-11; 2Tm 4:6-8, 17-18
I find it a curious fact that we are celebrating BOTH St. Peter and St. Paul today. Usually, when we celebrate two apostles together, it is because they are both so obscure, like Philip & James and Simon & Jude. And it’s not as if our two saints today don’t already have other feast days that we celebrate: e.g., the Chair of Peter and the Conversion of Paul. For me, today’s feast celebrates unity in the Church. Disunity is the work of the devil: unity and concord is the work of grace. In the Last Supper Discourse, in chapter 17 of St. John, Christ prayed “that they all may be one.” And yet, after Martin Luther, Christian churches have continued to fracture off and splinter. To have so much division and disagreement diminishes our witness value. Satan feels threatened by Christianity and is always trying to divide and conquer; he loves to sow seeds of discord.
It’s amazing to notice the amount of unity there was in the early years of the Church. How easily it could have been different. As Raymond Brown points out in his book The Community of the Beloved Disciple, a group formed around the disciple John with its own traditions and peculiarities. Similar groupings could have easily formed around St. Peter and “The Twelve”, around St. James and the brethren of the Lord, around St. Paul and the Gentile Christians. But the Holy Spirit was able to hold all those groups together in a common, supernatural bond.
Because communication and travel were not as fast as they are today, it was easy for communities to develop in isolation. Apollos was preaching about Jesus in Ephesus but he knew only the baptism of John the Baptist until Priscilla and Aquila came along and instructed him about the Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24-19:7).
A major rift should have happened when Christianity started accepting Gentiles. Some thought the Gentile converts should observe all the Mosaic laws and prescriptions of Judaism. Others disagreed. But with the Council of Jerusalem they were able to iron out their differences and come to a mutually acceptable compromise (Acts 15).
Peter and Paul were in some ways similar but in many ways very different. Paul was more intellectual, having been trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel. He was very instrumental in developing Christian theology as the Church spread into Asia Minor and Europe. Peter was an unlettered fisherman. That could have caused friction between them. Paul could have looked down on Peter’s lack of learning; Peter could have felt threatened by Paul’s eloquence and influence.
The issue of associating with the uncircumcised could have split Peter and Paul. Paul states in Galatians 2, “When Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Thankfully, Peter didn’t let his ego get in the way and pull rank, but was able to admit his mistake and preserve peace.
Paul had a very strong personality. When he and Barnabas had a disagreement over whether to let John Mark go with them on their second missionary journey. The argument became so intense that they parted company and Paul took Silas with him instead (Acts 15:36-40). I find it amusing that Peter chose this same John Mark to be his trusted companion and right-hand-man. The Gospel of Mark is commonly held to be St. Peter’s version of the Good News that his disciple Mark preserved for us in writing. I wonder if Paul was at all miffed by this and if it ever caused any tension between him and Peter.
Peter was a definite insider to the group that had formed around Jesus during his public ministry. He was one of the first disciples, and personally chosen by Christ to head up the group after his departure. Paul was an outsider to the Palestinian group who had accompanied Jesus. He was a city man from Tarsus in what is now southern Turkey, 200 miles from Jerusalem. He also seemed to have a different attitude toward the Roman authorities. The Jews of Palestine resented the occupying force and wanted to overthrow them and gain their independence. They despised tax collectors and other Jews who colluded with them. Paul, on the other hand, as Butler’s Lives of the Saints (p. 230 of June) points out, “was a Roman citizen, which suggests that his family was well-to-do and that he collaborated with the Roman authorities.” Paul knew how to use his Roman citizenship to get himself out of a tight spot. But the Palestinian Christians did not exclude this outsider, even though he had previously been a persecutor. The Holy Spirit helped them to recognize his gifts and the tremendous contribution he could make to the spread of this new movement.
Human nature has not changed much in 2,000 years. Petty differences and disagreements are still threatening to derail and obstruct Christ’s followers. Within the Roman Catholic Church, liberals are annoyed with traditionalists, and conservatives annoyed with progressives. Satan is still sowing seeds of discord. We need to keep our eyes on the early Church for inspiration. As we read in Acts 4, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (v. 32).
St. Peter and St. Paul, help us to preserve the unity that you so wonderfully exemplified.