St. Peter and St. Paul are two of the most important figures in the New Testament. And I’m not sure they liked each other very much.
Along with everything going on this week, we celebrate this Wednesday (January 18) the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter, recalling the story of Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah. A week later, (January 25) we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, recalling the story of the Damascus road conversion, and Paul’s affirmation of Christ as Lord. Between these two days, we observe the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. It’s particularly ironic this year because it’s hard to recall a time when the nation has been so divided. If social media is any indication (and not fake news), people of faith are divided as well.
Later this week, an interfaith prayer service will be held at the National Cathedral. That’s not the real name of the cathedral. It’s really called the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Sculptures, one at the north tower, the other at the south, depict these two saints. Those two depictions are about as far from each other as possible. The architecture tells the story.
You see, as I read the New Testament, and read between the lines, I wonder how much Peter and Paul liked each other. This was no bromance, no ancient near eastern Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. It sounds like it was often hard for the two to be in the same room, reminding us that church fights are nothing new. The letter to the Galatians tells how Paul publicly dressed down Peter over the issue of who could be included in the church. The Letter of Peter offers snarky comments about the confusing nature of Paul’s letters. Yet each had a vital ministry in the church. Each had an indispensable calling. Each made a huge difference in sharing the gospel.
For me, unity right now feels like a scarce commodity. I’m struggling with the stance some Christians have taken in this politically charged season, stances that differ from mine, struggling because I am so sure I am right. Even the question of whether a prayer service should be held this week has generated heated division, perhaps more heat than light. What can we say that will guide us faithfully through this week? What’s this week focused on unity all about?
First, the week is about prayer, a good place to start. I’m mindful of the first of the beatitudes, which says: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I’m not always sure what that means, and I’ve been helped in understanding that promise by one translation which renders the first beatitude this way: Blessed are those who know their need of God. We dedicate a week (especially this week) to prayer to say that we cannot navigate this on our own. We need help, big time. Maybe we can all agree on that. How will you weave prayer into this week?
Second, the week is about prayer for unity, not uniformity. We are not all going to agree. If we look for communities marked by full agreement, we’ll end up pretty lonely. On the night before he died, the night before he left his disciples, Jesus prayed for their unity, that they might be one, even as he and his Father were one (see below). Not the same. But united in love. I’m working on that. I’m not there yet. How about you? How will you seek unity this week?
Third, this week is about prayer for unity informed by the life and ministry and witness of Martin Luther King. He was a person of prayer. (See prayer attributed to him below.) He prayed for unity with his lips and with his life. He prayed, dreaming of that “inescapable network of mutuality” by which we are tied to one another in a single garment of destiny. His active prayer life did not keep him from working all the time, and giving up his life, for the cause of justice, protesting and resisting and speaking truth to power. How will you follow his example of courageous and prayerful service this week, praying not only with our lips but with our lives?
Give thanks for the witness of Peter and Paul, flawed human beings used mightily by God. As such, they give us hope.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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