Most of us admire someone, looking upon them as an example of what we would like to be. It’s perhaps too easy to look at the public image and not consider what lies behind it. Then we may see something shocking written in the newspaper that dents the image somewhat. In the New Testament two heroes are Peter and Paul. We are accustomed to thinking of them in that way, at least, but if we look carefully at what we are told about them, they are not really hero material for parts of their lives. This can be an encouragement when we look at our own lives and feel we are not measuring up to the ideal, whatever that might be.
The readings for the service in the cathedral on Sunday 14th April were Psalm 30, Acts 9:1-6 and John 21:1-19. My reflection is given below.
I wonder who your heroes are, the people you admire or look to for inspiration. For young people it’s not unusual for them to look to various pop stars, film stars or perhaps great sportsmen and women, particularly with the heightened interest in sport after the Olympic Games. If you are a person who likes science or works in a scientific job, it could be that a great scientist like Sir Isaac Newton or Marie Curie might inspire you. Perhaps you work with numbers and admire the work of Carl Gauss or Alan Turing. Those who love music might consider someone like Beethoven, Mozart or Paul McCartney to be people whom they would call heroes.
What about those of us who are Christians? Whom might we admire or seek to emulate? Of course, we should all look to Jesus as our model but the Church also points us to those of his followers who over the years have proved to be heroes of the faith in some way. The Church Year is punctuated with days on which to remember people of all sorts who have done great deeds in serving God. We recently remembered St Cuthbert, a great traveller and preacher who spent much of his time reaching out to the ordinary people in the North of England. A few days ago we remembered Bishop George Selwyn, the first bishop of New Zealand, who put himself in great danger in order to support the rights of the Maoris against the colonists. Soon it will be the turn of Pandita Mary Ramabai who was a convert from Hinduism and worked to make sure that women could be educated in India and opposed the oppressive caste system.
Looking at the readings today, I was struck by the fact that they concern two great heroes from 2000 years ago, Peter and Paul. I call them heroes and the Church remembers them as such, people who followed Jesus to a martyr’s death. They gave everything they had, including their lives, in their dedication to their Lord. Heroes indeed and well worth looking up to. The trouble with heroes sometimes is that we can feel overwhelmed by just how special they seem to be. The stories about these great people tend often to focus on the great deeds they did, their wonderful writings or insights, their selfless lifestyle and compassionate character. When we turn to look at ourselves with all our imperfections it’s possible to feel an element of despair. How can we ordinary people ever be like them?
Perhaps today’s readings can be some encouragement to us all. If we look at the story of Paul, called Saul still in this reading from Acts, he doesn’t seem to be portrayed as much of a hero. Saul had stood by, guarding the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr, to death. We are told at the end of that incident that Saul approved of their killing of Stephen. What we are told also is that Stephen, with his dying breath, prayed that his Lord would not hold the sin against those who were involved in his killing. Though I assume the prayer included Saul, it didn’t seem to have much effect, at least at first. If anything, Stephen’s death seems to have spurred Saul on to greater efforts. He seems to have launched a one man campaign to eradicate this cult, The Way, from within Judaism. We’re told he was ravaging the church, entering homes and dragging men and women off to prison.
When we meet Saul again in the reading for today, it seems he was not content to rid Jerusalem of Christians. The Christians had been scattered by the persecution and it appears that Damascus had become a place where they were known to have fled. We get a very vivid picture of just what this state of affairs stirred up in Saul. He was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’. Think of it: this man was a Jew through and through. From birth everything had been put in place to allow Saul to be a great Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day and as a young man studied under Gamaliel, a great Jewish rabbi. Saul was taught to be a Pharisee, a Jew who would have been very strict in following the Law and yet we read that he was intent on murder! Somewhere in the midst of his zeal for God Saul had lost sight of the Ten Commandments, the bedrock of his faith.
It is this murderous Saul, one who had fallen so far from following the Law, to whom Jesus appeared on the road to Damascus. Jesus faced Saul with exactly what he was doing: he was persecuting the Lord of life by persecuting his followers. Blinded and no doubt in a state of shock, Saul was led to Damascus to wait until he was told what he was to do. Of course now when we think of Saul, or Paul, it is as the great hero of the faith who suffered innumerable hardships in order to spread the Good News and who, eventually, died a martyr’s death. Jesus had reached out to Saul, the murderer, and given him an essential part in spreading the Good News to the Gentiles.
The Gospel account concerns Peter, although other disciples are mentioned. I think a lot of people can relate to Peter. He meant well but seemed to get things wrong at times. It was he who first called Jesus the Messiah, yet it was also he who was called ‘Satan’ by Jesus when he tried to deflect Jesus from his path. It was Peter who had so much faith, at least for a short time, that he could walk on water to meet Jesus. It was also Peter who allowed his fears to so dominate his thinking that he denied Jesus three times on the night before the crucifixion. At that point it would be very difficult to think of Peter as a hero. He acted as a coward. He wanted to protect himself rather than remain faithful to Jesus.
Jesus could have abandoned Peter as a waste of time. How could he have such a person involved in the job of building a church in the face of fierce opposition? Yet beside the lake where Jesus had spent so much time with his disciples he gave Peter a chance to be reinstated as an important part of his plan to spread the Good News among the Jewish people. Jesus didn’t make it easy for Peter. He asked him three times: ‘Do you love me?’, once for each denial, and waited for his answer. He gave Peter the task to act as shepherd to the people of Israel, to feed and tend them as Jesus, the head shepherd had done. Later, as Jesus predicted, Peter was taken where he didn’t want to go and was crucified.
When we look at Paul and Peter we have no need to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what they achieved. The Bible makes it clear just how flawed these two men were, who have now become heroes of the faith. Paul got things so wrong, not recognising the Messiah but seeking to destroy all evidence that he had lived and passed on his message. Many Christians today can relate to that, maybe several of you listening to this can relate to it. You may have ignored the evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. You may have been a determined atheist, seeking to mock those whom you thought were foolish enough to believe such rubbish. You too may have felt quite murderous towards Christians. Yet in some way you have heard, or are just now hearing, Jesus call to you to invite you to consider his claims afresh.
Peter turned his back on Jesus even though he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. He was more interested in preserving his life than admitting his faith. Perhaps that’s true of you. When someone asks you if you are a Christian, perhaps you would rather hide than admit it. Or perhaps you have been like that in the past. Just as Jesus restored Peter, he can restore you to full fellowship with him, forgiving you your mistakes.
Peter and Paul, heroes, but also flawed human beings just like us. When we look up to them we do well to also remember their faults. If Jesus could use them to do such wonderful things for the kingdom, we can trust him to do the same for us. Whatever you have done or failed to do Jesus says:
[Your name] do you love me?
And he waits for your answer.
Again he says: [Your name] do you love me?
And he waits.
A third time he says: [Your name] do you love me?
And if you say yes, he will give you your task for the future, a task which will feed his sheep and further the kingdom.