“St. Peter and St. Paul: Losing Their Lives for Jesus’ Sake” (Matthew 10:38-39)
Today is the Third Sunday after Pentecost, but it is also June 29. And June 29 is the day in the church year for observing the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles. So that is what we are doing today. We just sang the hymn “By All Your Saints in Warfare” with the stanza for St. Peter and St. Paul. We heard lessons from Acts, 2 Timothy, and the Gospel of John that prominently feature Peter and Paul. We used those readings in place of the readings we normally would use on this Sunday.
However, it just so happens that one of the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost does tie in very nicely for our commemoration of St. Peter and St. Paul. It’s a couple of verses from Matthew 10, where our Lord Jesus Christ says: “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” That really is the story of our two apostles today, isn’t it? And so our theme this morning: “St. Peter and St. Paul: Losing Their Lives for Jesus’ Sake.”
St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles. And really we could say the two most important apostles. St. Peter was one of the original twelve–indeed, one of Jesus’ inner circle. Peter seems to be the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the twelve apostles. St. Paul, on the other hand, was not one of the twelve. Paul was a uniquely chosen apostle, singled out for his work by the ascended Christ. And after that, no one traveled more extensively or exerted more energy for the spread of the gospel than the Apostle Paul. And Paul’s writings in the New Testament have been so extremely influential in shaping the theology of the church. So St. Peter and St. Paul–you really cannot find two more important saints to honor in the history of the church.
But the thing about Peter and Paul is, not only do we honor them as saints, we also recognize them as sinners. Their flaws and their failings are not hidden from us in Holy Scripture. We see them as the complex human beings they were, warts and all. And in them we see a reflection of ourselves, as both saint and sinner.
The other thing is, these two men were so different from each other in many ways. Their backgrounds were different. Their personalities were different. Their gifts and talents were different. And yet Christ would use them both mightily in accomplishing the work he gave them to do.
So let’s look a little more closely now at these two men, Peter and Paul: what they had in common, how they were different, and how they speak to us today–or I suppose I should say, how God is speaking to us today through the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We’ll start with St. Peter. Simon was his birth name. Peter was the nickname Jesus gave him and by which he is best known. Peter was a commercial fisherman by trade, a working-class man, not highly educated. Jesus called him from his boat and his nets and called him to come and follow him. And that call of Christ changed Peter’s life. Jesus has a habit of doing that, doesn’t he? He has called you to faith and discipleship. He has changed the direction of your life, just as he did for Peter.
Peter got to see and experience some amazing things as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick with a fever. Peter saw Jesus raise a girl from the dead. Jesus enabled Peter to walk on the water–until Peter began to sink, and then Jesus rescued him. When Jesus asked the disciples who they said he, Jesus, was, it was Peter who piped up and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus commended him for that answer. He called him Peter, that is, “Rocky,” and said that on this rock, that is, the apostolic confession of Jesus as the Christ–that on this rock he would build his church. But then shortly after this good confession by Peter, when Jesus begins to talk about going to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, Peter doesn’t like the sound of this, and he tells Jesus, “No, no, Lord, not this for you!” And so Jesus has to rebuke Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” That’s Peter for you, impetuous and outspoken, opening his mouth sometimes only to change feet.
Same story when we get to Holy Week and Maundy Thursday. Jesus wants to wash Peter’s feet. Peter thinks that is beneath Jesus’ dignity. But once again Jesus has to straighten Peter out: “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” Then after the supper, when they go out to the garden, Peter boasts that even if all the others fall away, he surely will not. And yet what happens? In the courtyard, when people suspect that Peter is one of Jesus’ disciples, three times Peter denies that he even knows the man. Then the cock crows, and Peter goes out and weeps bitterly.
Clearly we see Peter as a flawed follower of Jesus, an up-and-down disciple if there ever was one. And I’m glad the Bible doesn’t hide this from us, because I think we all can identify with Peter. How often do we not live up to what we say we’re going to do? We mess up like Peter did. And yet Jesus prays for us, like he prayed for Peter. Jesus forgives and restores us, like he forgave and restored Peter. And Jesus still will use us flawed Christians for his purposes, just like he used Peter.
And how he used Peter! Preaching to 3,000 converts on the Day of Pentecost. Boldly standing up to the pressure and the threats of the Sanhedrin, who ordered Peter and the boys to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. But Peter said no, they must obey God, rather than men. God used Peter mightily as an apostle in the early church.
Likewise with St. Paul, although Paul was a much different person than Peter. Peter was an uneducated fisherman. Paul, whose original name was Saul, Saul of Tarsus–the apostle Paul was a brilliant, highly educated man. Paul would have been top of his class at seminary. Highly skilled and knowledgeable in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Greco-Roman culture of the time, Paul was uniquely qualified for the mission on which Jesus would send him, as the apostle to the Gentile world. But before that call of Christ, what was Paul doing? As Saul of Tarsus, he was very zealous and active in doing what he thought was the will of God, but which was to persecute the church and arrest Christians! Paul was doing exactly the opposite of the right thing, that’s how off he was! That’s why Paul would refer to himself later as “the chief of sinners.” Again, this is encouraging to us. If God could straighten out and use Paul, and turn him from a persecutor to an apostle, maybe God can have mercy on us and find some use for us. I think so.
You see, that’s what Peter and Paul had in common. They both had the same Savior–as do you! God had mercy on Peter the denier. God had mercy on Paul the persecutor. And likewise, dear brother, dear sister, God has had mercy on you. Christ Jesus, the Son of God who died on the cross for Peter, for Paul, for you–this is how God has shown his mercy on us and saved us from our sins.
Peter and Paul would never forget this great mercy of God in Christ. In his first epistle, Peter would say that we have been redeemed from our futile ways, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, would say the same thing, saying that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. You see, two apostles, one message: the good news of Jesus Christ, the one Savior for all sinners.
And it was this one gospel of forgiveness and life and eternal salvation–it was this gospel of Christ that gave Peter and Paul the boldness and the courage to carry on and keep preaching, even in the face of extreme danger. You heard it in the readings today. Jesus told Peter what would happen to him: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Which was followed by an explanation, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” And that is indeed what happened to Peter years later, when he was older. According to church history, Peter ended up in Rome, in the mid-60s of the first century, when a great persecution broke out against Christians under Emperor Nero. Peter was arrested and taken off to be put to death, death by crucifixion. There is even one tradition that Peter said he was not worthy to be killed in the same way as his Master was, and so he requested to be crucified upside-down. In any case, we do know that Peter lost his life for the sake of Christ.
Similar story for St. Paul. He too was in the Rome in the mid-60s, and he too was arrested and put to death. Only, because Paul was a Roman citizen, he got to have an easier death than Peter did. Paul got his head lopped off, quick and easy, rather than the slow and excruciating death by crucifixion. But the point is, for both Peter and Paul, they truly did take up their cross and follow Jesus. They literally experienced losing their lives for Jesus’ sake.
But listen! Remember what Jesus said: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Yes, Peter and Paul found their life–their true life, their eternal life–in Christ. And so will you. You may not suffer imprisonment and martyrdom like Peter and Paul did. You may not be called to preach and teach like Peter and Paul did. But you are called to follow Jesus. You are baptized. You do believe in Christ. And so you know the same Savior Peter and Paul knew, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ. You have life in his name, as they did. And therefore God will give you the courage and the boldness you will need to continue on and confess Christ, in whatever situation you may find yourself.
“Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” When St. Paul was in his final imprisonment, near the end of his life and awaiting execution–and he knew it–it was this great hope that gave him the confidence to say, and we can say with him: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”