Don’t underestimate Paul!

Don’t underestimate Paul!

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul. Fr Piers Linley preaches on the solemnity, which in England and Wales is transferred to Sunday, 30 June.

The Feast of St Peter and St Paul has always seemed to me not to give Paul a fair share of the honours! The first reading – Peter’s miraculous escape from prison is from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12. Fair enough! But what about Paul’s equally miraculous liberation (in company with Silas) in chapter 16?

If anything Paul had a rougher time of it – he and Silas had been manhandled by the crowd and beaten by the magistrates – and Paul converted the gaoler and his family into the bargain! St Luke intended a deliberate parallel between Peter and Paul – this is a theme elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul gets a look in with the second reading from the Second letter toTimothy. Or does he? Most scholars tell us that, despite its apparently being written from Paul in prison, the letter was put together after the death of Paul by someone passing on Pauline tradition for a community which wanted to hold fast to what they considered true Pauline teaching, in the face of persecution or opposition.

Then the gospel – entirely Peter and his unique situation.

Suppose that the preacher addressing an average parish congregation were to ask them, for example, whether Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians were written before or after the Gospel of Matthew. My own congregation is getting used to having to put a hand up in response to such questions.

I’ll try asking my congregation this week :

Question One : Who is the more important – Peter or Paul?

And then – after the vote and a pause for thought:

Question Two : Did Peter or Paul play the more important role in the early years of the Christian congregations?

I wonder what response there will be? Leaving aside those writers (not all of them scholars!), who argue that it was Paul who invented Christianity by complicating the simple message of Jesus, it’s a valid question. It’s impossible to answer neatly but I would judge that the average Catholic-in-the-pew would underestimate the role of Paul.

He started as a persecutor of the first disciples in Jerusalem. On the Damascus Road he was confronted by Christ himself :

Why are you persecuting me?

Become thereby an Apostle in this unique way, he travelled the known world, founding congregations as he went. Little remains of them today except archaeology.

He suffered much:

Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren

– the latter the hardest to bear. And while doing all this he usually earned a living in the manual trade of a leather worker.

He wrote his foundations letters – some providentially preserved for us. He agonised over his foundations – especially Corinth, his favourite perhaps, but the most troublesome with a knack of misunderstanding him.

Above all he broke the gospel out of the Jerusalem, Palestinian mould which first shaped it. He was a thoroughgoing Jew –

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.

But – against heavy opposition and with a need to stand up to Peter when necessary – he opened the door to the Gentiles while never spurning his own people or despising their inheritance.

That the Gospel reached my parish congregation and yours is due to Paul rather than anyone else.

So let’s hear it for St Paul!

Readings: Acts 12:1-11 | 2 Tim 4:6-8,17-18 | Matt 16:13-19

fr. Piers Linley was Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters at Bushey in Hertfordshire; he died at the Priory of St Dominic, London. May he rest in peace.