It is a widely held view that the Feast of Peter and Paul is irrefutable proof of God’s very dry sense of humour. The main reason that they share a feast day is because their mortal remains were buried alongside each other in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The other reason is … well … there isn’t another reason.
Apart from being Christians, Peter and Paul have absolutely nothing else in common. One named Peter, one named Paul, but different as chalk and cheese. One with faith bubbling up from the depths of the heart: the other with faith forged in the furnace of his mind. And – although St Luke tries his best to disguise it in the Acts of the Apostles – they pretty much couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
So you can just picture God beckoning to the angels round the throne to come closer, “No, no, listen, listen!” God says, smirking, “How’s this for an idea? The two of them … buried alongside each other! Yes! Yes, I know! Till the end of time! Laugh?! Oh my heart!” and bursts into uncontrollable giggles.
We can guess that for Peter, the acceptance of non-Jewish converts to the faith was a hard ask. Despite the vision in which God told him not to call anything unclean that God calls clean, the truth that pagans and gentiles could be fast-tracked to the Kingdom, skipping all the requirements of the Jewish law, meant that the religious traditions he had followed all his life were pretty much redundant. Circumcision, ritual ablutions, sacrifices and festivals – all went out the window. And Paul’s ministry was really rubbing it in – because he was far more successful evangelising the gentiles than Peter was amongst the Jews. And to Peter, it was all about devotion and faithfulness to Jesus; he wasn’t sure that all these complicated theological explanations in Paul’s letters were much help – or really necessary.
And Paul’s of course has issues with authority. He feels, justifiably, that his commission has come straight for the Lord Jesus, and if the Jerusalem mafia are saying something contrary to that, then what choice does he have but to call them to account? To be fair to him, he tries his best to show due deference to James and Peter, but you can feel his patience wearing thin. And he is convinced that the Greek world needs the rational defence that his incisive mind is able to bring to the Good News.
There were always going to be tears before bedtime.
What a fabulous Feast to celebrate! Not that the two of them were at loggerheads and would be the last person each of them would choose to be buried next to, but that there’s room in the Kingdom for both Peter and Paul, and every shade of human nature in between. If for any reason you feel that you fall outside that very wide spectrum of humanity that lies between these two, then, good news! there’s still room for you. All are welcome. All are welcome in this place.
The picture of the new-born church marching from strength to strength as thousands flocked to the sheepfold each day, simply doesn’t hold water. The good news was entrusted to human beings like you and me. They didn’t see eye to eye, they mostly had to go their separate ways to avoid coming to blows. But God had laid his hand on them. That’s what we rejoice in, for them and for us and every other disciple of Jesus. God has laid his hand on us. That is all.
In more normal circumstances, Petertide would be the time for ordinations in the cathedral, celebrating the unbroken vocation to serve that has been passed on from Jesus’ commission to Peter. I remember my own ordination way back, and the words of the introduction, “Those whose duty it is to enquire into these matters, have found these ordinands to be of sound learning and Godly life …” at which point I expected the whole congregation (along with the angels round God’s throne) to be rolling in the aisles with laughter. I did not, and do not, qualify on either count. God has put his hand on me – that is all. And the same, thank goodness, is true for you.
And it is a testimony to the immeasurable riches of God’s grace, that Peter and Paul are now standing before the throne, the best of friends, arm in arm, laughing long and heartily at God’s brilliant joke.