Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

                                                            St. Peter and St. Paul
                                                            Acts 15:1-12

            This week we will celebrate the momentous decision made by a group that gathered in Philadelphia in 1776.  July Fourth is, of course Independence Day.  On that day the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.  While we think of the Fourth of July as the birthday of our nation, in fact, the Continental Congress had voted to declare independence on July 2.   The Declaration of Independence provided an explanation for the action they had already taken two days earlier, and apparently John Adams in fact wanted July 2 to be celebrated as Independence Day.
            Looking back on things, it seems like it was inevitable that the Americans would declare independence from the British Empire.  But this is really not the case.  Deteriorating relations, especially related to events in New England had prompted the First Continental Congress to meet in September 1774.  In April 1775 the Americans and British fought in skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.
            However, this was not yet full blown revolution and war.  When the Second Continental Congress began meeting in May 1775 there was still widespread hope that the issues could be resolved.  Many hoped that King George III would speak on their behalf and work for reconciliation with Parliament.
            However, by the beginning of 1776 it had become clear that the king was going to play no such role.  Instead he intended for England to suppress all opposition.  Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense appeared and it helped to create popular support for American independence.  And so at the beginning of July 1776 the Second Continental Congress was ready to take a dramatic step.  They were ready to declare independence from England. 
            It was an action that had tremendous implications because it was guaranteed to set the Americans on a collision course with the greatest empire in the world at that time. For the signers of the Declaration of Independence it was an all or nothing proposition.  Either they would succeed in gaining American independence, or they would end up hanging as traitors at a British gallows.
            Our text today for the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul also narrates the dramatic decision made by a another group that had gathered because of a dispute.  We see Peter and Paul acting as apostles who bear witness to God’s intention of including the Gentiles in his people.   We see these two men speaking on behalf of God’s grace – the very undeserved forgiveness that they themselves had received. They speak on behalf of a decision that will ultimately lead to their martyrdom – a martyrdom they will accept because they know the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
            Peter and Paul came from very different backgrounds.  Peter was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee in what appears to have been a fairly successful business venture.  Paul, on the other hand, was not only a Pharisee but had also studied the Scriptures at the feet of famous Jewish teacher.  He was at the top of the class – an obvious up and comer.  Paul described himself this way when he recounted his past to the Galatians and wrote: “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
            Jesus Christ called both men out of lives in which they were apparently quite content, in order to become apostles for him. He approached Peter and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately Peter along with his brother Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. 
            He appeared as the risen Lord to Paul on the road to Damascus where the zealous Pharisee intended to persecute Christians.  Blinded for three days, God finally sent Ananias to restore his sight because as God told Ananias: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
            The Lord Jesus called both men to be his apostles.  He called them to be his authorized representatives.  The Jewish background for the concept of an apostle is a legal one – not religious.  It is based on the idea that “the one sent is as the man himself.”  When an apostle spoke or acted, it was Jesus who was at work through him.
            Now while all the apostles were equal in their calling by Christ, there is no denying that Peter and Paul stood out from the rest.  Peter was the one who first confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living god. He was the one singled out the first time that Jesus talked about giving the keys of the kingdom. On the Day of Pentecost, it was Peter who stood up and addressed the crowd as he explained what was happening in the outpouring of the Spirit and how it was tied to Jesus.
            From the moment of his conversion Paul was an evangelism machine.  He preached and taught about Jesus Christ wherever he was. And the Spirit of God identified Paul as an important means by which the Gospel would be spread in the Mediterranean world – especially in Asia Minor and Greece.
            In our text we hear about a critical moment in the early Church’s life that had been occasioned by Paul’s ministry.  The Spirit had called Paul to go on his first missionary journey through Cyprus and central Asia Minor – modern day Turkey.  There some Jews had believed.  But the real development was that Gentiles – non-Jews – were believing in Christ. They were baptized and taught to live a God pleasing life.  But they weren’t circumcised. They weren’t told to keep the Jewish food laws.  They weren’t told to keep the Torah that God had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
            However, we learn in our text that after Paul returned to Antioch from his first missionary journey, “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”   Paul and his companion Barnabas disputed this because in this new era of the Gospel, the Torah was no longer a requirement for God’s people.  In fact as Paul says in Galatians, to insist on circumcision and the Torah in addition to Christ is to make salvation a matter of works and denies the Gospel.
            The decision was made to take the matter to the apostles and elders of the Church in Jerusalem.  What followed was really, the first Church Council.  Paul described what God had done among the Gentiles in his ministry.  Pharisees who had come to faith in Christ countered by saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
            Then we learn that after much debate Peter stood up.  He reminded them about how God had used Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius to make known that the Gentiles were to be part of God’s people.  He said, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
            Peter pointed them to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He called attention to the undeserved forgiveness and love that is received by all who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And in this note of grace you find something that binds the experience of these two apostolic giants together with yours.
            Both Peter and Paul knew what it was to receive God’s grace because of their own past.  Peter was the one who had denied Jesus three times. Paul was the one who persecuted Christ’s Church.  And yet … the Lord sent both forth as his apostles.  When Paul reflected upon this in his own life, he told Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
            Like Peter and Paul, you know of times in your life when sin has ruled.  There have been times when you knew it was wrong, and yet you did it anyway.  In Peter and Paul you encounter the remarkable truth that past sin does not prevent you from being a child of God.  In fact it didn’t even prevent Peter and Paul from being apostles of Jesus Christ.
            The grace of the Gospel means that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection you receive forgiveness and love that you don’t deserve. The thing you could never earn; the thing you could never do becomes yours because of Christ.
            Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection have changed everything. Both Peter and Paul were witnesses to the resurrected Christ.  They personally encountered him and as apostles they then lived out all that this can mean for life.  Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
            Because they knew the forgiveness found in Christ and the living hope of the resurrection, both apostles were willing to be witnesses to Jesus - the ultimate kind of witness, for the word “martyr” in Greek means witness.  Both carried the Gospel to the heart of the Roman empire and both were martyred in Rome. 
            By their death they have provided the most powerful witness possible to the truth of the Gospel.  And they have provided the model of what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.  Their actions prompt us to reflect upon the ways that we are called to bear witness to Christ in our lives by what we do and say.  These two apostles remind us that faith in Jesus does have a cost.  Yet it is a cost to be borne by those who have freely been given more than we can ever fully understand.  It is a cost that God’s Sprit gives us the ability to bear because we have the living hope of the crucified and risen Lord.

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