In the footsteps of Peter and Paul

Sister Judith Sutera | June 28, 2017

On the liturgical calendars of the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches, Thursday, June 29, is noted as the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Perhaps aside from Mary and Joseph, these are the two most influential people in Christian history.

Mary and Joseph gave us Jesus and, in turn, Peter and Paul gave us Christianity as we know it. While we know how vitally important they were, they themselves had no idea. While we can view the vast scope of what they did, they could only see their own experience and the handful of believers who listened to them.

Such is the nature of traveling by faith. Now, when we hear the names of these two men, we remember them as great heroes, larger than life. But we must look at the journey each had to take to get to their eternal reward and think about the lessons we can learn from them. First of all, Peter was an ordinary, hard-working fisherman. Before Jesus came along, it is unlikely that he ever thought about himself as becoming very important in his own day, let alone the leader of one of the world’s great religions who would be honored forever.

He didn’t get off to a very good start either. He always seemed to be asking a question or jumping to a conclusion. Worst of all, when things got rough, he famously denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was. Even after all that, he could admit his failure, seek forgiveness, and be stronger for it. While Judas realized his sin and despaired, Peter realized his sin and repented. This seems to be the kind of inner strength that Jesus thought made for good leadership. Jesus is not looking for perfect followers, but for those who can come back stronger from times of weakness.

Paul had to struggle to believe as well. While Peter gradually came to believe through the events he witnessed, Paul actively fought against belief. He admits that his conversion came after having been one who sought to harm those who practiced the new faith. Paul represented those who refused to give up old ways or listen to new wisdom. Once convinced, however, no one worked harder to get the good news to as many people in as many places as possible. It was an especially big stretch for him to come to realize that salvation did not just belong to one people and culture. It is Paul who proclaimed that all people everywhere were brothers and sisters, part of one body. This could not have come easily to one who once saw himself as part of the spiritual elite within a specially chosen people.

When these two men finally came to believe in Christ, they believed with all their hearts. They stood before anyone who would listen, and many who would not, and proclaimed by word and deed. What made them so persuasive was the very fact that they had not been perfect believers from the moment of their conversion but had to learn the hard way how much Jesus meant to them. Once that was firmly fixed in their hearts, they could endure ridicule, conflict, imprisonment and even martyrdom.

So instead of focusing just on how great they were, we should focus on how hard they worked to get to greatness and how many mistakes they made along the way. As the beloved old hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” teaches us: “If you cannot preach like Peter; if you cannot pray like Paul; you can tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.”