PETER AND PAUL, APOSTLES
Early Christianity had to adapt in order to grow in difficult terrain. The challenges the apostles faced should strike a chord with us.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul are two of the biggest hitters in the history of the Church. And yet the first thing we can take from their lives is that background is no hindrance to working for God. Peter and Paul are famous for many things, but two that spring readily to mind are Peter’s denial that he was a friend of Jesus at his moment of greatest need, and Paul’s vicious persecution of Christians prior to his own conversion. These two failures, visited on both Christ and his Church, were deeply wounding and similar to Judas’ betrayal in their intensity. But while Judas could see no way back to God, both Peter and Paul opened their hearts to the forgiveness that the risen Jesus offered them.
Their personal failures, far from preventing them from sharing the Gospel, made them its ideal ministers - for if they could be forgiven, surely anyone could.
They were God’s visual aids for his grace. It is a shame that the modern preoccupation with the fear of being branded a hypocrite stops many people today – perhaps even here – from responding to God’s call. The media often dig into the private histories of public figures in order to find faults which might compromise their public office. Thank God he isn’t judgmental like this – otherwise he wouldn’t have a Church at all. Repentance wipes the slate clean for God.
I want to look at three big challenges Peter and Paul faced.
The first was that the whole world was a mission field. Hardly anyone knew about Jesus in the journeys that Paul especially made to the non-Jewish population centres of the Roman Empire. This must have been daunting, but the Holy Spirit seemed to sweep like fresh air into the vacuum of ignorance that existed. The difference today is the fading memory our nation has of Christianity. Research has shown that people tend to be inoculated against Christianity. They have had a low-grade version of the real thing in their minds for so long that they have become immune to the genuine article. Sometime no understanding is better than a little, because as we know, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Grace in particular is not likely to figure in people’s thinking – that is the idea that we cannot earn our salvation but that God graciously gives it to those who turn to him in faith. This lies behind the most common criticism made of Christians: that they think they’re better than everyone else. If people think you earn your salvation by being good then those who call themselves Christians must think they are morally superior people, rather than the forgiven sinners they actually see themselves as. There are signs that the U.K. is becoming more like Paul’s mission field with the passing of each generation, a blank slate on which good news can be written. Like Peter and Paul we should have a deep sense of urgency and joy - not embarrassment and guilt - in sharing this news because God wants everyone to hear it.
The second big challenge Peter and Paul faced was hostile opposition. Many lives were at stake and God’s protection didn’t extend to preserving everyone from martyrdom. The Church gained from this and rose above it like a rubber ball bouncing on concrete whose exaggerated spring is noticed by all around. The impact of living in a tolerant society like ours is, by contrast, like dropping a stone into a vat of glue which becomes absorbed and stuck. None of us would voluntarily swap the freedom we have to worship in Britain for a place where we were mistreated, but faith is transformed when there is a greater cost attached to expressing it.
There may be some signs that the cosy relationship which Christianity and liberalism have had for many generations is starting to unravel. There is a greater militancy about public atheism today which is trying to drive Christianity out of the public arena and back into the home. One leading secular thinker recently said that anyone who educates their child at a church school is guilty of child abuse and that the world would be a better place if there had been a thorough Roman cleansing of Christians at the time of Peter and Paul (i.e. they should all have been crucified). We cannot know with any certainty how the faith will be treated in Britain a hundred years from now. Whether it is chased out of the public world depends partly on how well the Christian faith is both lived and communicated in successive generations. The good news we take from Peter and Paul is that in a hundred years time this country may have experienced a remarkable renewal of faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing is inevitable in the life of a nation.
The third big challenge Peter and Paul faced was to develop indigenous ways of worshipping in order to survive. At first there was enough freedom for the first Christians to continue worshipping in the synagogues, but their hopes of a lasting welcome were spoilt by organised resistance. This must have upset those first Christians deeply because it dashed their hopes that mainstream Judaism would recognise its Messiah. But they adapted quickly. The first Christians simply found other places to worship, in homes on other days of the week – notably Sunday. One of the least analysed trends of recent times has been the changing use of Sunday in Britain. The notion of Sunday as a collective day of worship and rest has given way to one of individualised leisure for some and contractual work for others. This trend took off in the 1980s but found its wings with the Sunday Trading Act 1994. If we really cared about our national carbon footprint we could reduce it from seven steps to six in a week by limiting work on Sundays, but this is not the particular point I want to make here.
The impact of more people working on Sundays and more events being arranged on Sundays – both public and private – has resulted in sporadic church attendance syndrome. There are two ways for the Church to address this. One is boldly to re-assert the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who said: ‘do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching’. The more people prioritise meeting with other Christians to worship with them, the greater the blessing of encouragement. The consequences of the choices we make each Sunday over what to do are not limited to us – they impact on many others: those who want to worship, those who have to work.
The other way for the Church to address this is to offer worship, encouragement and learning at other times of the week and perhaps in other places. Across the country churches are adapting to the new culture in what are termed fresh expressions of church. We are privileged to have historic churches to worship in, visual symbols of the presence of God in our world, but Jesus also said that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there with them. Christian communities can – and do – gather in many other places and guises because of the particular needs or interests of the group. This may be a subterranean development at the moment, but it will become more apparent as the years pass.
I wonder how we would cope if, instead of living in 2008 we were living in 68AD and ours was one of the first churches that the apostles established and left with the task of sharing the Gospel with the surrounding community. Would our confidence in God lead us out into the community with the good news or would we close ranks on the spiritual treasures gifted to us? The question seems academic but it isn’t, because ours is one of those churches – founded on the faith and work of St. Peter and St. Paul.
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