Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Saint Peter & Saint Paul- Wednesday, Jun 29, 2016
|Black Creek Preserve Bridge |
( One of the beautiful natural preserves in our neighborhood.)
Yesterday evening at vespers we heard the lovely sermon of St. Augustine on the feast of Saint Peter and Paul. Augustine concludes it by reminding us that: “These two are one.” The icon at the entrance to our church makes the same point. The two Apostles are shown embracing, exchanging a kiss of peace, united in death and sharing in the heavenly banquet together. And there is indeed a deep truth here: Peter and Paul are now united in the Lord.
But as we know, this was not always the case. Scripture itself testifies to a certain tension between the two, a tension that flared into open displays of anger as Paul called Peter a hypocrite publicly and to his face for drawing back from table fellowship with Gentiles in a Jewish milieu, even after proclaiming that such distinctions as that between Jew and non-Jew no longer applied in the wider Christian community.
It became common over time to gloss over these tensions or to paint them in terms of “complementarity” rather than difference. Peter became the Apostle to the Jews and Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles...or was it the other way around? In later ages Peter became the symbol of Roman order and church discipline, while Paul was celebrated as the champion of the deep freedom which we have in Christ. Peter became the model of those who repented after their conversion—even, according to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, of those who sinned after monastic profession. Paul, on the other hand, became the symbol of those whose repentance and conversion went hand in hand. In the Reformation era, Peter stood for the papacy, Paul for the Protestant voice of “sola fide, sola scriptura.” Even more recently, they have been likened to the two lungs of the Church which it needs if it is to breathe fully and freely and powerfully, as the late Pope John Paul II spoke of the two lungs of the church, Eastern and Western.
As much as I love symbolism and typology and archetypal imagery, I wonder if the binary thinking implicit in all these images and explicit in the very title of this feast does justice to either Peter or Paul.
I came across a reference in that great thesaurus of post-modernity, Wikipedia, quoting a contemporary Scottish New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn from an essay in a book about the Biblical Canon. Dunn writes:
"...Peter was probably in fact and effect the bridge-man (pontifex maximus!) who did more than any other to hold together the diversity of first-century Christianity. James the brother of Jesus and Paul, the two other most prominent leading figures in first-century Christianity, were too much identified with their respective "brands" of Christianity, at least in the eyes of Christians at the opposite ends of this particular spectrum. But Peter, as shown particularly by the Antioch episode in Gal 2, had both a care to hold firm to his Jewish heritage, which Paul lacked, and an openness to the demands of developing Christianity, which James lacked." [Italics original]
In many ways, this picture of Peter as the “bridge man” appeals to me more than traditional binary images and metaphors, helping to illuminate the ancient church even as it helps us to understand today's church and today's world.
There is always a need for a bridge, for a go-between, for the mediator, the reconciler, the one who holds together two sides that are in tension and risk shattering apart in their sincerity and passion and certainty. We know from moral theory and everyday life that the most difficult choices are those that involve two goods, two values. And it is not always possible to hold both forever. But it may be more possible—and necessary—than we imagine. And so, for example, while it is true that “justice delayed is justice denied” it is also true that it may take us a whole lot longer to get there than some might wish. And gradualists, among whom I count myself, often find ourselves vilified by both ends of the political or moral spectrum.
But what if Peter was just such a person for the emerging Church, valuing (as Dunn says) his Jewish heritage represented by James of Jerusalem, as well as Pauline openness and freedom as the Gospel spreads and developes in a Gentile world?
We know, of course, what happens to bridges. They get walked on, even trampled on. And sometimes they get blown up. And very often they need to be rebuilt—witness the Tappan Zee Bridge project south of us. And sometimes they simply are no longer useful...the opposite shores diminish in importance or alternative routes are created or new modes of transportation render them unnecessary. Does any of this apply to Peter and the role of reconciliation? Does it apply any longer to our much-heralded Anglican Via Media among the churches or even within our own Anglican family of autonomous provinces? I don't know.
But it surely applies to our own lives, and in this holy house, and to our monastic conversatio, our monastic conversion. The Rule of Benedict reminds us that our first call is to listen. And then ,as they would add in Kairos prison ministries, to love. We are called as a monastic community and a church to treasure what is central to our tradition while remaining open to the signs of the times in an ever-changing world. We can't abandon either pole, though how we weigh and emphasize each will vary, from individual to individual and from local community to local community. To hold on only to tradition is to risk becoming a museum; to be swept along with every social and cultural change would risk becoming a mere fan club.
Even more central is the role of bridge person that each of us is called to be in the political and social challenges of our day. What role can I play in reconciliation, whether it be in a personal relationship or in such areas as racial or class or gender or economic equality and reconciliation?
The work of restorative justice—which is I think another way of speaking about this—doesn't end with the bridge. But it begins with it It begins with me and you listening and listening and holding on and holding open for as long as it takes. Which may be a very long time indeed. Long enough until it becomes clear if another way forward is in fact possible and available to us all, another shore, another mode of transportation, another way of getting there together.
Peter is our model in this. Or at least he is for me. That is how I have understood my ministry as Superior. In truth, maybe our Order and our Church has far too many Peters like me and desperately needs another Paul or two...or even another James. We each have our role to play in the Body of Christ.
In any case, we know how Peter ended up: crucified upside down. And Paul, we know where he ended: beheaded in the arena. And James of Jerusalem? By legend, thrown off the high wall of the Jerusalem Temple that he loved so much.
I trust that the three of them—Peter, Paul and James—feast together today in the heavenly kingdom. I pray that we too, Christians and all peoples, of many faiths and none, will join in. Until then, let us journey together with as much integrity and authenticity and obedience as we can muster—listening, listening, loving, loving—so that, in God's good time, our Savior Christ might bring us all together to everlasting life.