SERMON FOR ST PETER & ST PAUL, 2020
Fans of old movies may remember “Quo Vadis” from 1951. It’s the epic with Peter Ustinov as the Emperor Nero, and Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor, and famously 32,000 costumes. It’s based on a very old novel of the same name, but the novelist was inspired by spending time in a tiny Roman church, out on the Appian Way, which is known as “Domine Quo Vadis” church. It’s supposed to mark the spot where St Peter, running away from Rome at the time of the persecution of Christians under Nero, had a vision of Christ. St Peter saw Christ, carrying his cross, walking up the Appian Way towards the city, and he said to him, “Domine, quo vadis?”, “Lord, where are you going?” to which Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again, in your place.” At which, St Peter turned round and went back to the city to face his inevitable fate, crucifixion upside down on the Vatican Hill.
That story wasn’t invented by the novelist, Sienkiewicz; it dates back to the second century, and it shows if nothing else how much early Christians were thinking about the apostles and their fate. The martyrdom that both St Peter and St Paul suffered in Rome was also the fate that threatened generations of early Christians, under waves of persecution in the Roman Empire, but also in the Persian Empire, and in the barbarian lands at the hands of pagans. And of course Christians have faced persecution and martyrdom for their faith in Christ throughout subsequent centuries, and still do, in countries as various as Nigeria, China, India and Egypt today. Bearing witness to Christ, even to death, has always been part of the deal, and St Peter and St Paul are two great examples to follow. Our first two readings today are full of endurance in the face of persecution, from both of the great apostles.
The Church traditionally commemorates them together because they have always been seen as complementary, and they’re a nice example of the way in which truth is always liable to be multi-faceted. They didn’t die together in Rome, but St Paul south of the city, where his basilica still stands, and of course St Peter on the Vatican Hill, north of the city centre, where his basilica stands. They probably died around the same time, in the persecution under Nero, but that’s no particular reason to remember them together. It’s because they embody different aspects of the Church’s life. So St Peter was the leader of the apostles, and the undisputed head of the Church’s work among Jewish people like themselves in those earliest decades, while St Paul was the apostle to the gentiles, the non-Jews, people like us. St Paul was the thinker, and St Peter the doer, the impulsive act-first, think-later type. We need both sorts of people, the Marthas and Marys, to use a female example depicted several times in this building. Those who accuse the thinkers of not pulling their weight are wrong, as Jesus makes clear to Martha, but he also affirms what Martha does, because we’re always going to need practical people; in the case of St Peter, people who will get stuck in without fear of embarrassment.
And if you know the Acts of the Apostles you’ll remember that St Peter and St Paul had a major disagreement over how the mission of the Church was to be carried forward. Some people, the Jewish Christians, thought that anyone converting to Christianity should have to become a Jew first, and keep Jewish law, and they convinced St Peter to defend that position, but St Paul had seen the reality of preaching the Gospel among the non-Jews, and how much of an obstacle that would be, and he argued his case convincingly, making the point that the opening of God’s kingdom to all believers is fundamentally a matter of faith in Christ, not of keeping regulations. We are all the beneficiaries of St Paul’s victory, but the point is that they were able to disagree and find a way forward after sensible discussion. Neither side felt the need to throw the others out of the Church, there was a division of responsibility, if you like, and an acceptance that different approaches were needed in different circumstances. The ability to disagree in love, and discuss things maturely, accepting the good faith of the other side, is central to the health of the Church, and frankly hasn’t always been evident in Christian history. Of course, the reason it’s been so difficult for Christians to disagree in a civilized way is because it matters so much. The content of our faith does actually matter, because there are things you might believe which will undoubtedly take you further away from God, not least because what we believe comes out in the way we live, in what we do, and so if we believe crazy things we’re liable to end up doing crazy things. When St Paul explains that they’d agreed that St Peter should preach to the Jews, and he should preach to the non-Jews, he tells us that the only condition they made was that St Paul should remember to take care of the poor, which he says was exactly what he wanted to do anyway. That was all about action, about our faith being lived out. And that’s exactly what has always been central to the life of St Peter’s, Paddington. We show what we believe by how we live, and what we do, and our Christian faith impels us to care for the poor and the hungry. That is an expression of Christian faith that the apostles would recognise, and so today let’s give thanks that we share their faith, and enjoy their prayers and example.
Father Henry Everett’s blog