Reflections On The Scandal
Peter, Paul and the Church
Fr. Michael Plekon, New York City
Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that the liturgy was the theologia prima, the primary or fundamental theology of the Church, the “school” of faith for us. We usually think of the greatest of feasts, Pascha, and Holy Week, perhaps also the Nativity of the Lord/Christmas, the feasts of Pentecost, Theophany, the Ascension and the Annunciation as “teachers” not only of the doctrines we confess, but also of the ways in which we should live. But Fr. Schmemann also spoke a great deal about the larger “sanctification of time” accomplished by the daily prayers of the hours, matins and vespers, and really of the entire liturgical cycle, the smaller feasts as well as the great ones and the important seasons such as Great Lent.
When we celebrate the greatest of the apostles, Peter and Paul on June 29, not only do we remember two of the witnesses of the Resurrection, two of the most forceful preachers of the Word and planters of the Church. (Many icons of the two have them holding a church building between them.) We also have in them a images of how the Church is sustained by the Holy Spirit, that is, what kind of architects, construction and maintenance workers are used. This gives us some insight as well as encouragement in these days when we see much of the fabric of our church damaged; unwittingly being demolished as it were from within, by the very ones who should be its support.
The great drama of Holy Week reveals the all too human cowardice and weakness of the bold fisherman, Peter, called to be the “rock of faith” (as in one of today’s kontakia.) Along with a cast of others surrounding the Lord, he denies that he ever knew Jesus, and is to be found nowhere after this denial, not under the cross. Some “rock of faith”!
But after the cross, Luke and John tell us that Peter spontaneously runs to the empty tomb, enters, sees the burial clothes there and is amazed. Not long after, this same impulsive rock tells the rest: “I’m going fishing,” an expedition ending in the encounter with the Risen Lord who then asks Peter three times (the same as his denial): “Peter, do you love me?” And after three confessions of love Peter is told: “Feed my sheep.”
In the Epistle for the feast (2 Cor. 11: 21-12: 9) we listen to one of Paul’s intense, almost agitated and autobiographically detailed confessions. Here he does not tell us his relentless persecution of the Christian communities, his urging on those who killed Stephen the deacon, of his being thrown to the ground and confronted by the Risen Christ. (These we hear of in the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere in the letter to the Galatians.) But in this letter to the Corinthians we hear of exhausting missionary work, of extreme sufferings both physical and emotional, of floggings and imprisonments as well as miraculous escapes. We hear of mystical revelations and visions that cannot be detailed because of their beauty. And we listen to Paul’s admission of weakness, ineptitude, cowardice and a “thorn in the flesh” about which scholar still debate.
The Church is built upon just such deeply flawed, weak and fearful personalities as Peter and Paul. Some scholars, not to mention Church Fathers, are even more extreme in their analyis of the personal defects of Peter and Paul. Those who would protest need only go back to the pages of the New Testament. I’m not making this up! And we do not just remember the ups and downs of their personalities and the events of their lives, we continue to listen to the words of these herald of the Gospel as their letters—mostly Paul’s—are read to us in the services in church. (One cannot help but think here too, of the comment in the second letter of Peter (3: 15-17) about “our beloved brother Paul,” in whose letters “there are some things…hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Some compliment! But then we know that Paul “opposed him [Cephas] to his face because he stood self-condemned. (Gal. 2: 11) These two scarcely got along, though, again, many of the icons of today have them embracing!
The meaning of these two must be prodding us by now. Contrary to the bewailing of some, the Church has never been a stranger to cowardice, weakness, arrogance, conflict or the courage to confront these flaws and the erroneous actions stemming from them. These two pillars of the Church, who embrace in the icons or hold up the building signifying the Church, were also in each others’ faces. Christ called them both to preach his Gospel, to gather, plant and sustain his Church, to turn from their issues and conditions and be transformed into his messengers. The same Risen Lord continues to do this to all of in his Church.
Alibis and stonewalling, protests against troublemakers and claims to absolute authority—none of these conform to the examples of Peter and Paul. Conversion, admission of error, commitment to the truth do.
First-enthroned of the apostles,
teachers of the universe:
Entreat the Master of all
to grant peace to the world,
and to our souls great mercy! (Troparion of the feast)