June 29 – Peter and Paul

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Peter and Paul, apostles

The commemoration of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome brings together in death two figures who were sometimes at odds with each other in life. Paul recognised Peter as one of Jesus’ original disciples and a witness to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–5), but also claimed that his own encounter with the risen Christ qualified him to join the ‘apostles’ (1 Corinthians 15:8–10). The relationship between these two leading figures in the early years of the Christian movement was marked by a degree of conflict. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, speaks of a confrontation with Peter in Antioch. By stepping back from an earlier willingness to share table-fellowship with Gentiles, under pressure from colleagues in the Jerusalem church, Peter, in Paul’s eyes, acts hypocritically and in a way that is ‘not consistent with the truth of the gospel’ (see Galatians 2:11–14). As the context makes clear, it was this confrontation that led Paul to first formulate his understanding of justification that is based solely on Christ’s saving work (‘the faithfulness of Christ’) and that is received through faith (see Galatians 2:15–21). In Corinth, there also seem to have been tensions between Paul and sections of the church there that aligned themselves with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter (see 1 Corinthians 1:11–13).

This conflict, while central to the development of Paul’s theology, does not tell the whole story, however. Paul also indicates that, three years after his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles, he spent a fortnight with Peter, whom Paul regularly calls ‘Cephas’ (Galatians 1:18–20). A later visit to Jerusalem is also marked by co-operation and agreement (Galatians 2:1–10) as Peter and other Jerusalem leaders affirm Paul’s gospel and ministry. The ‘right hand of fellowship’ offered by Peter to Paul, stands as a fundamental gesture of their relationship. This more eirenic account of the relationship then becomes the basis for subsequent Christian accounts, notably that of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, who strives to bring the two apostles into theological and historical alignment. A letter attributed to Peter commends the study of Paul’s letters, while recognising that ‘there are some things in them that are hard to understand’ (2 Peter 3:15–16).

In this way, Peter and Paul became regarded as the joint founders of the church in Rome. The New Testament gives us no information about their respective deaths. Luke ends his narrative with Paul in Rome under house arrest (Acts 28:30–31), but it is later tradition that describes his martyrdom, along with that of Peter, in the period of the so-called ‘Neronian persecution’. Graffiti in the catacombs of Rome from the 3rd and 4th centuries appeal to both apostles from the context of suffering: ‘Paul and Peter, pray for us all’.

Peter and Paul bear witness to both the unity and diversity of the Christian community in the earliest period. But the subsequent commemoration of their joint witness also points us to the things that bound them together. In the words of St Augustine, we remember ‘their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching’ (Augustine, Sermon 295).

Written by Rev Dr Sean Winter