Because both apostles were martyred on the same date, though in different years, the Christian Church has traditionally commemorated the anniversaries of their deaths on the same day, as we did at Trinity Church on Sunday, June 29. As I said then, given the importance of Peter and Paul to the life and ministry of the Christian Church, it seems only appropriate, however briefly, to pay them tribute and to learn from the example of their lives. Among that which can be said of them is this, they were devoted to Jesus, bold in witness, humble in spirit and faithful to the end.
Devoted to Jesus
When we first meet Peter in the New Testament, his name is Simon. Like other disciples of Jesus, he was a fisherman by trade, but we also know that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. He had a brother named Andrew and a wife who often joined him on his missionary journeys. It was Andrew who introduced him to Jesus, who immediately, according to the Gospel of John, renamed him “Cephas or Peter”, which means “rock” in Hebrew and Greek. The name was to shape his character and destiny. It was the example of his faith, his great devotion to Jesus, which became “ the rock” upon which the church was built.
As for Paul, he was an apostle who, unlike the others, had not met Jesus personally. Jesus appeared to him, he testified, in a vision. Named Saul at the time, a persecutor of Christianity, he was commissioned by Christ, under the new name of Paul, “to be an instrument whom God had chosen to bring the name of Christ before the Gentiles. "I myself,” said the Lord, “will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16).
Unlike Peter, who became a personal friend of Jesus, who was a spokesperson for the Twelve, who was among the inner circle of the disciples, who was with Jesus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death, who witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, and who went with Jesus to the Mount of Olives on the last day of his life, Paul was a convert to the faith. He was an example of those, to quote the Gospel of John, “who believed even though he had not seen.”
Yet both were sincerely devoted to Jesus. At the end of John’s Gospel, even after denying Jesus three times, three times Peter declares his love for Jesus, “Lord, you know that I love you.” He may have expected Jesus to reject him for his betrayal, but instead Jesus commissioned him, “Peter,” he commanded, “feed my sheep.” And as for Paul, near the end of his life, sitting in prison, uncertain of his fate, he declares, “for me, Christ is life!” Christ was everything to him. Both Peter and Paul were devoted to Jesus. It was Jesus who changed their lives.
Bold in Witness
Whoever would have thought that a fisherman, a common workingman, would become one of the greatest Christian evangelists? Peter himself must have been astonished. Just a few days after the Ascension, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he rose to address the people of Jerusalem with a message so powerful that 3,000 people were converted. After a second sermon, the religious authorities who had been so eager to hasten Jesus’ death, became so worried about Peter’s claim that Jesus had been raised form the dead, that they threw him in prison to shut him up.
“There is salvation in no one else,” Peter, preached “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:13). The text continues, “Now when they (the religious authorities) saw the boldness of Peter and realized that he was an uneducated and ordinary man, they were amazed and recognized him as a companion of Jesus.”
And who would have thought that Paul, a persecutor of Christianity, a man hated, despised and feared by the Christian community, would become the very agent God would use to carry the Christian message into the Gentile world?
It was not an easy life. Of his experiences Paul writes: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, I was in danger form rivers, bandits, my own people and from Gentiles; I was in danger in the city, in the wilderness, at sea, and in danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through may a sleepless night, I was hungry and thirsty, often without food; I was cold and naked. And besides others things, I am under daily pressure” he concluded, “because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:24 ff).
Peter, no doubt, could have complied a similar list. Both men suffered much for the sake of their faith; both were bold in witness. Nothing, save death itself, could stop their testimony.
Humble in Spirit
Despite their remarkable accomplishments both men were well aware of their deficits as persons and as followers of Jesus. In many ways they felt inadequate and unqualified for the task. Scripture tells us, for example, that Peter was impulsive, a characteristic that often got him into trouble. Although he was gifted with spiritual insight, he was slow to comprehend the truth of Jesus’ teachings. Though courageous in witness and the first to confess Jesus as the Christ, he was guilty of a most cowardly denial. While eager to see and worship the Lord after the Resurrection, he was hesitant, and with good reason, to hear what the Lord had to say.
Paul also had issues. His famous “thorn in the flesh”, whatever it was, was a constant irritant and personal burden. His history as a persecutor of Christians hindered his relationship with the church and its leadership at Jerusalem. His forceful personality and penchant for speaking his mind resulted in countless arguments and misunderstandings. He was a persuasive, but not, apparently, a handsome or winsome preacher. An ancient source described him as short in stature and partly bald. He had crocked legs, poor eyesight and a nose somewhat hocked.
Both men were humbled, astounded and deeply moved that Jesus had chosen them, despite their weaknesses and troublesome pasts, to be his ambassadors in the world.
Faithful to the End
Peter, according to tradition, died as a martyr in Rome probably during the reign of Emperor Nero. Like Jesus, he was crucified – but not exactly like Jesus. It is said that he asked his executioners to hang him on the cross upside down, explaining that he was not worthy to be crucified in the same position as his Savior.
Paul also died in Rome. Rome had long been a desired destination for both evangelists who were eager to give witness to Christ the King in the very the center of the imperial city. There Paul was beheaded, most likely in the Coliseum, perhaps in the presence of the Emperor himself -- a final testimony to the true and only King, Jesus, Christ the Lord. Like Peter, he was faithful to the end.
Inspired by the examples of Peter and Paul, two great heroes of the Christian faith, we strive to be like them: devoted to Jesus, bold in witness, humble in spirit and faithful to the end.