Peter, with his hands the size of dinner plates, hands that had pulled in the nets of fish on the Lake of Galilee; Peter who didn’t make the grade, whose education was curtailed at 12 – he flunked out of synagogue school; Peter, foolish, headstrong, stubborn, a flaky friend who Jesus called by a name into which he would have to grow.
Peter who looked up into the sky on the hill of Ascension, hoping for another glimpse, a clue as to what to do next. With heavy heart and slow mind, he turned for Jerusalem, unable to comprehend what and how the future could unfold. Who. filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, stood and preached the sermon of his life, adding 3000 to the followers of the Way of Jesus. Peter who followed the Way all the way to martyrdom, leading what was to become a movement, then a cult, and finally a religion.
I visited Rome a few years ago as vice-chair of a Church of England Commission. A red clad cardinal took us to the top of the Pontiff’s palace, and we looked down on the square and the tourists and the pigeons. A student guide took us below the huge monolith that is St Peters Basilica, to the ancient cemetery below, where the great and the good of Nero’s Rome are buried alongside Christian gladiators. In a hidden crypt below the altar of the church above, bones were found wrapped in gold and purple cloth during the hopeless, helpless atrocities of the Second World War.
The location, the manner of preservation, the carbon dating, the date of nearby catacombs, suggest these bones may have been Peter’s. In a Perspex box, made by NASA, I looked upon the hand bones of the saint who grasped for the hand of Jesus as he walked on water, as he began to sink through the waves. This man, this hand, had met Jesus, had touched him. It was surprisingly, strangely moving. I brought Peter back from Rome with me as a friend to whom I sometimes talk.
Paul, educated, passionate, young, who joined the Way after a blinding encounter with Jesus, and had to re-frame his faith over the making of tents. Paul, courageous, passionate, inarticulate, rushing around the empire getting into Boy’s Own scrapes and scraps, who spoke in letters to each little benefice of congregations, and from whom we glean universal truths.
The common thread though each story, journey, testimony is the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit and the ability of Peter and Paul to hear, digest, learn, embody and act on the Spirit’s guidance, we might not ever be here, in this place.
Peter learnt of hospitality and inclusion from a sheet of prohibited animals in Joppa, Tel Aviv, and saw beyond that vision to God’s welcome of gentiles, heathen, outsides. He welcomed us, the unclean, to eat as the table of the Lord and king. And Paul, though intent on building up his little churches of artisans in the Middle East, was led by the Holy Spirit into Europe, to our door.
Without these fathers of our faith, we would not have heard the Gospel when we did, and as we have. Thanks be to God for them, and all the people of faith who have walked the Way before us. We take up the cross they carried further, deeper, higher into the Kingdom of God and our own calling by the Holy Spirit to live and work and act and serve in this, our generation.