In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit- Amen
The feast of St Peter and St Paul has been kept together like this since the very earliest days of the church. This date is chosen as it is regarded as the anniversary of their martyrdom in Rome in or around AD64. They are both very important in the development of Christianity but in markedly different ways.
Our readings today –really only major on Peter so I am going to pay most attention to him. We know Peter’s story – how he was one of the 12 disciples. He gets a lot of attention often for putting his foot in it (and getting things mixed up). He gets special mention frequently – partly because he recognised who Jesus was – and said so as we heard in our gospel reading. Jesus names him as the rock on which Jesus was to build the church, but to be honest he was quite an unlikely rock. And that is one of the things I like most about him that he is such a good example of how God can transform and use us. Peter went from impetuous and head strong fisherman to inspired speaker and wise leader. The last time he is referenced in the story of the early church in Acts chapter 15. He is speaking wisely at the council of Jerusalem – where Paul is also present. He is saying things he would never have imagined he would say or believe. His wisdom is based on God’s work in his life and the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.
Things like the amazing events of our first reading where Peter is in a pretty tight spot. It is not looking good – Peter knows it and his fellow early Christians know it. King Herod has found out that killing disciples makes him popular with the Jewish people. He has had Peter arrested with increasing his popularity in mind. So the Jewish people also thought Peter’s days were numbered and Herod placed him under armed guard. The size of the guard is staggering! Four squads to successfully imprison one apostle does sound a bit excessive, but clearly Herod wanted there to be no mistakes. Perhaps, he had heard about how the apostles had been liberated from the temple jail before by angels (in Acts 5) and wanted not to take any chances. He had not taken into account the power of God in his plans, but only the limits of human power – which are not enough and never have been enough to limit God. No matter how many guards we may happen to employ!
When we tune in with the detail of it in the story – it all gets more and more amazing. We have Peter sleeping in between 2 soldiers with more at the door! and others at other guard stations. We can also wonder at Peter’s amazing ability to sleep in these circumstances and when in such mortal peril as he was. Peter is not just a bit asleep either but fast asleep. As an angel of the Lord appearing with accompanying light show is not enough to wake him. The angel has to tap him on the side to achieve that.
We can put some of Peter’s ensuing confusion at what is happening down to coming out of a deep restful sleep suddenly. Being woken in these circumstances can be disorientating. Peter is left with confusion about whether it’s a dream or vision, rather than real life. As he is instructed to get up and get dressed and get going, strange things start to happen from the beginning. He is miraculously freed from his shackles. He gets past all the guards unchallenged. Not just the ones he is sleeping beside or the ones at the door, or the first or second guard points.
The outer iron gate leading into the city, which was no doubt locked and bolted at night opens for them of its own accord. This was important as Greek folk lore of the day gave high regard to self opening doors (giving what happened validity). It is only when all this had happened and the angels leave him that Peter came to himself. Peter realised what had happened as he said ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’ Peter is amazed to have escaped Herod and the expectations of the Jews.
We don’t get today the farcical scene that follows this. When the slave at the early Christians’ house he goes to for shelter, leaves him standing outside as she is so amazed Peter is there. Likewise no one inside the house believes her when she says he is there. Chains, numerous guards, and locked doors are all no barrier to the will of God here and his plan for Peter at this point. Everyone is confounded and surprised – not least Peter himself at the outcome. The aftermath of this incident ends badly for both the soldiers – as Herod has them questioned and put to death. Herod himself also comes to a nasty end a couple of verses later in this chapter of Acts. Shortly after this at a public gathering, Herod will not give the glory to God, and an angel of the Lord strikes him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Two thousand years on we cannot explain the ‘how’ of this story. Yet we can admire the faith of Peter. That even in this insidious position he remained faithful and positive. He didn’t succumb to anxiety or hopelessness. We can admire his obedience (even if he was half-asleep). He did what was asked of him. He didn’t ask questions. He didn’t need to have every action explained to him. He didn’t prevaricate or dither about what was necessary.
If we take a breath and now turn our attention briefly to Paul. Paul’s story is equally dramatic. He was actively persecuting Christians (holding the coats whilst Stephen was stoned for example!), when he experienced a profound life-changing vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He then had to overcome his own reputation and history with the followers of Jesus. Over the years he did much to help shape the understanding of the Christian faith as we hold it today through his letters and teaching.
Paul spread the word and nurtured the new Christian communities across the Mediterranean. He was well educated and well able to manage the communication challenges of his day. It is often St Paul that we have explaining things to different audiences and with different understandings and approaches and winning the day for Jesus. It was a costly path of the discipleship for him too – he underwent many hardships and beatings for his faith, but like Peter in the story of his miraculous escape he relied on God and recognised the source of his strength too. In the second letter of Timothy 4:17 – The writer says ‘But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed’.
Both the story of Peter and the story of Paul is first and foremost about reliance on God and letting his will be done in us and through us. Relying on God’s strength (to do what God wants of us no matter how unlikely or far fetched it may seem). A friend who had a life changing experience and was deeply blessed by God shared with a me a quote from Henri Nouwen’s about how Peter and Paul approached their different challenges. It is sometimes called bread for the journey – it says this:
”We seldom realize fully that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks. We act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide to entertain ourselves until we die. But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was. Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.”
Let’s use the example of Peter and Paul to inspire our faith journey and the next steps we need to take.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995