IN NOMINE JESU
We have come upon a most interesting day on the liturgical calendar. Normally, when we celebrate a minor festival, we remember one of the Apostles, Evangelists, or other saints. But this evening we commemorate two apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. We remember two men who took different roads to become apostles of the Lord. Peter was fishing with his brother, Andrew, when Jesus came and called them. "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They immediately left their boats and followed Him, leaving their nets behind. Paul, on the other hand, was not called as one of the original Twelve. Rather, he became an apostle as one "untimely born," as if an unborn child was taken from his dead mother's womb. He was a zealous Jew, defending Judaism feverishly and seeking to obliterate anything that might pose a threat to this legalistic, and now false, religion. His zeal knew no bounds. He even went as far as to persecute followers of "the Way," the term the earliest Christians used to describe themselves out of fear of persecution. Paul had overseen the persecution and execution of many Christians, most notably St. Stephen, as we read in Acts 7. Later, as Paul was headed to Damascus to persecute Christians there, the Lord struck him blind and came to him in a vision. The Lord called him through this event to become the greatest missionary the Church has ever known.
The work of Peter and Paul fills up most of the book of Acts. Sometimes the Acts of the Apostles is called "The Acts of Peter and Paul." This is due largely to the fact that the first half of Acts mostly tells of the words and actions of Peter, while the second half is largely centered on Paul's ministry. But what St. Luke sought to do in this book is announce how the Church began her existence, setting the pattern for how she is to live and grow today.
Another thing different about this evening's observances is that normally the feast date is set to celebrate the anniversary of that saint's death. However, we are not sure exactly when Peter and Paul were martyred. One legend states that Peter and Paul were put to death on account of their faith on the same day—namely, this day. But the legend regarding the date is almost too convenient to believe. We do have documentation to suggest how they died. They were martyred under the Roman persecution, for Christianity was illegal, deemed a threat to the Roman idolatry of worshiping Caesar. Anyone caught practicing Christianity was guilty of death. It is believed that Peter was crucified upside down because he said he did not deserve to die in the same way that his Lord did. It is also believed that Paul was beheaded. Tradition states that they were both martyred in Rome, and on this date in the year 258, under yet another persecution, and that some of the faithful moved the bodies of Peter and Paul in Rome to the catacombs, lest these bodies fall into the hands of the persecutors. June 29, therefore, has been since the third century set aside as the date commemorating these two apostles, the day their remains were moved to be protected from the persecutors. A fourth-century theologian, St. Ambrose, noted that the Church had already been observing this day with a vigil.
The Church continues this practice today. We continue a wholesome practice and tradition begun by our fathers in the faith. However, since the days of the Reformation, many have complained about this practice, thinking this is something that only Roman Catholics do. But the Lutheran Confessions teach us that this practice is truly catholic in the universal sense, that Christians anywhere may give honor to the saints. We hear from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because He has given examples of His mercy, because He has shown that He wants to save humankind, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church. Since these are the greatest gifts, they ought to be extolled very highly, and we ought to praise the saints themselves for faithfully using these gifts just as Christ praises faithful managers [Matt. 25:21,23]. The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin [Rom. 5:20]. The third honor is the imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings. [Ap XXI 4-6]
So today we thank our Lord for showing mercy to Paul the persecutor, then known by his Jewish name, Saul, calling Him to preach the Gospel. We recall that this same Christ forgave Peter for having denied Him thrice, restoring the fallen rock to his apostleship, and showing that God's grace indeed abounds over Peter's sin (and ours). On this day, the Eve of the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, we hear of God's work through these sinful men, called to preach the Gospel, and we should imitate the zeal they had, that we too may boldly confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
We as the Church have the divine charge to tell the Good News about Jesus wherever we go and whatever we do. It seems simple enough for us to do, but we do not always, or even often, confess Christ outside the creeds of the Church. We find it difficult to do. One of our biggest obstacles is we ourselves. Rather than listening to our Lord and what He tells us, we tend to speak for ourselves. Peter had this problem, speaking for himself, speaking for the sake of speaking, and he often put his foot, if not a whole shoe store, in his mouth. Peter had moments when he boldly spoke the truth, such as when he confessed Jesus to be the Christ and when he preached on Pentecost. But Peter also showed that he did not fully understand who the Lord was or what Peter was to do: to listen to and learn from the Lord. Peter, in this text, showed his ignorance when he rebuked the Lord for speaking of what would happen to the Son of Man on Good Friday. Peter relied on his own understanding of the Christ, and he was strongly rebuked for it, being called Satan. We also rely on ourselves when we seek to speak about the Lord. We let our egos do the talking, though, and we seek to draw attention to ourselves rather than to Christ. With open mouths our minds are closed to the Scriptures, as was Peter's mind. Peter could not comprehend the Scriptures until, as Scripture notes, the Lord opened Peter's mind, and all the disciples' minds, to understand. While the Holy Spirit seeks to open our minds to receive what the Lord teaches us, we keep our minds closed to the Lord's teachings because we do not want to learn what He would have us believe and because we refuse to admit that we have been holding to false notions, beliefs rejected by Scripture. We are afraid we may actually learn something.
While we share in Peter's hard-headedness, we also share in Paul's misdirected zeal. Paul was a very zealous, religious man. But Paul's zeal was initially in the persecution of Christians. As a flaming Jew, he approved the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Paul, then a non-believer in Christ, martyred Stephen and persecuted countless other Christians just because they preached the Gospel and believed in Jesus Christ. Paul had sought to silence those who confessed Christ. We as a society have demonized Christians. We accuse confessing Christians of imposing their so-called morality upon others. We ignore the fact that the Lord has commanded the Church to make disciples of all nations. We accuse those who are truly Christians of being unloving and uncaring when it is the most loving and caring thing to do in spreading the Gospel among people who do not yet believe in Christ. We have no business running down those who are called to proclaim the Gospel, demonizing and vilifying those who preach the Gospel in all its truth, love, and purity. Rather, we should support them, pray for them, and ask what we can do to assist them in their God-given callings to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. Even though the Lord Himself blinded Paul for his hostility to the Gospel, we have blinded ourselves, rendering ourselves spiritually blind, dead, enemies of God, and enemies of the Gospel.
As sinful enemies of the Gospel, we are filled with weaknesses, thorns in the flesh, just as Paul attested to concerning himself. This thorn was in place to keep him humble. Paul begged the Lord three times to remove this unspecified thorn. Paul writes, "But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul, following his conversion, boasted of his own weaknesses so that the Lord would be glorified through them. Yet we use our weaknesses as excuses to not carry out our Lord's work. We don't like speaking. We don't know what to say. We can't do this. We can't do that. If we spent as much time and energy spreading the Gospel as we do in coming up with exccuses, many more people might confess and live Christ! Yes, we have weaknesses, but these are not excuses to not witness to others. We have these weaknesses because we are wretched, sinful people. Even Paul admitted about himself: "Wretched man that I am!" We are all wretched, despicable creatures because of our fallen, sinful nature, one that lacks the proper First Commandment relationship with God, one that does not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but we place ourselves above Him and the work He has given us. We are full of the sinful pride that sank Peter and blinded Paul.
Yet, even in the midst of all our weaknesses, our Lord calls us to be His witnesses. He uses our weaknesses to His strength and His glory. Look at the men Jesus called to be His disciples: men with short tempers, a political zealot, a tax collector, one who refused to believe the Lord had risen, one who did not think anything good came from Nazareth, a thief who betrayed the Lord, and one who three times denied the Lord. The Lord forgave Peter for his denials and restored him as an apostle. Peter went on to great things by the grace of God. Peter preached to the first Christians at Pentecost and went elsewhere in his proclamation of the Gospel, wrote Epistles, and, with St. Mark by his side, put forth the Second Gospel. Even as God forgave Peter, so He also forgives us. Our Lord forgives us because He wants us to be with Him eternally and because He wants us to tell others of His grace, of His love. It does not matter what our vocation is. Peter was a fisherman; Paul was a tentmaker. Whatever role we are in at a particular time, it is our God-given vocation, whether we are a parent, child, spouse, grandparent, or farmer.
The Lord called a tentmaker, whose Jewish name was Saul, the great persecutor, calling him to be the great missionary that he indeed became. The Lord blinded him, and the Holy Spirit converted him. The Lord restored his sight, and this same Lord restores our eyes of faith, for the Holy Spirit also converts us, bringing us straying sheep back into the fold of the Good Shepherd. This same Spirit moves us to echo Peter's confession of Christ, for it is only be the Spirit that we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We cannot come to Christ on our own, nor can we confess Him on our own, for faith is a gift of God. Not only has God given us the gift of faith by His Holy Spirit, He has given us the greatest gift of all: the gift of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As Paul writes: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God" (Gal. 4:4-7). And Peter tells us in his First Epistle:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:3-9]
Peter and Paul preached the Gospel. The Lord has given us the Gospel to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, and to proclaim to an unbelieving world. We have the Gospel because Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. In fact, that is the Gospel, the basis for our faith, our life, our entire being, lived around the Word and Sacraments.
The Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, which we hear each Lord's Day. He enlightens us with His gifts, equipping us to live godly lives through the Means of Grace, just as Peter bid his hearers at Pentecost, that they would repent and become baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. We have been brought to the font, washed with the water and the Word, and received the promises attached to Holy Baptism. As Peter reminds us: "...you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself" (Acts 2:38b-39). The Lord gives us strength for our task, our living our vocations, by feeding us on the body and blood of Christ. What Paul received from the Lord he passes on to us, the teaching on the Lord's Supper. What the Lord said to the Twelve on Maundy Thursday, He taught Paul as one untimely born His very words: Take, eat. This is My body. This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this in remembrance of Me. Paul adds, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). We proclaim the Lord's death for He indeed died, and just as certainly the Lord rose again. Had the Lord not risen, our faith would be in vain, and we would be pitied more than all men. But thanks be to God that the Incarnate Word has risen from the dead, opening the grave and thus opening our minds to the Scriptures, that we may testify of Him.
Peter received his teachings from the Lord while Peter was one of the Twelve. The Lord taught Paul through special revelation. They have taken what they received from the Lord and handed these teachings over to the Church, and the mother Church has handed these teachings to us through the preaching and catechesis, as the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has done for two millennia. And we, by the Holy Spirit, continue this apostolic tradition as we introduce people—friends, relatives, and strangers alike—to the Lord and bring them here that they too would hear the preaching, receive the catechesis, and confess the faith, thereby receiving God's gifts in the Lord's Supper and through regular hearing of the preaching and lifelong catechesis. God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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