Trinity 4 2004 - Saints Peter, Paul and Thomas
“I’m not good enough to go to church!” I have heard those words – or similar ones – several times. People sometimes seem to think that before you can be a Christian, you have to be a good person. Now of course following the Christian way does mean trying to fulfil certain standards of behaviour. But Jesus said, “I have come not for the healthy, but for the sick”. In other words – those who fall most short of what God wants of us should be especially welcome in the Church.
Over the past week three of the most important saints of the Church have been celebrated. On 29 th June we commemorated the deaths of SS. Peter and Paul – traditionally supposed to have been martyred together, in Rome, in around 65 A.D. Yesterday, 3 rd July, is the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle (moved from the ancient date of 21 st December). We may sometimes wonder what relevance these men of almost two thousand years ago have to us today. But all of them give us, through what little we know of their lives, some valuable insights into the Christian life. What do they have in common? I will say something briefly about each one of them, and as I do so, try to see if you can detect a common thread.
Peter was the leader of the apostles. He was originally called Simon, and was a fisherman from Bethsaida, in Galilee. He was married. He was the one whom Jesus called to walk out to meet him on Lake Galilee, and who nearly sank through weakness of faith. With James and John, he was with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration, where he misunderstood what was happening and offered to make shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He was the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but tried to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die. At the Last Supper, he refused at first to let Jesus wash his feet, believing this was too demeaning for Jesus. Shortly afterwards, when Jesus had been arrested, he denied him three times.
In spite of all these things, Peter was the one whom Jesus called ‘the rock’; the one to whom he entrusted the keys of the kingdom, and the one to whom he said three times, after his resurrection, ‘Feed my lambs, tend my sheep’. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, Peter was the one who designated the successor to Judas Iscariot. He preached authoritatively when the Holy Spirit came at the first Pentecost, and soon became the most notable miracle worker among the apostles. Guided by God, he admitted gentiles – non-Jews – into the church. Various reliable writers state that Peter preached in Rome, and strongly suggest that he instituted the Episcopal succession – the line of bishops and Popes which began with him. Tradition affirms that he suffered under the Emperor Nero and was crucified head downwards. It is believed that St. Peter’s church in Rome was built over his tomb.
St. Paul has left much more in the way of writings and of evidence about his life than Peter. He originally persecuted the first Christians, and was among those who gave approval to the death of St. Stephen. However, in the course of a journey to Damascus, Saul – as he was originally known - saw the risen Christ in a blinding light. He accepted Christ’s call to serve him, and stopped persecuting the Christians. After three years of prayer and solitude in Arabia he returned to Damascus and soon afterwards began a series of three missionary journeys – to Cyprus, to Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Eastern Greece, and finally to Ephesus (now in western Turkey), Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). When he returned to Rome he was attacked and beaten by a mob for preaching against the Jewish Law. But he invoked his privileges as a Roman citizen, and appealed to Caesar for a trial at Rome. On the way to Rome he was shipwrecked at Malta; when he reached Rome he was under house arrest for two years, after which he was presumably acquitted, and then may well have revisited Ephesus and possibly even Spain. Like St. Peter, Paul was martyred under the Roman Emperor Nero. His writings – which include many of the letters in the New Testament – have been some of the foundation documents of the Christian faith.
And thirdly – St. Thomas the Apostle. The Apostle Thomas (Hebrew or Aramaic for "twin") was also called "Didymus" (Greek for "twin"). He was absent when the Risen Lord appeared to the other apostles on the evening of Easter Day, and refused to believe that Christ had indeed risen until he had seen him for himself, but when he had seen Him, he said to Him, "My Lord and My God." (John 20:19-29)
Because of this episode, he has been known ever since as "Doubting Thomas." But we ought also to remember his earlier words, when Jesus announced His intention of going to the Jerusalem area, brushing aside the protests of His disciples that His life was in danger there, at which Thomas said to the others: "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (John 11:7,8,16) If Thomas was pessimistic, he was also sturdily loyal.
Thomas is mentioned again (John 21) as one of the seven disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Sea of Tiberias) when the Risen Lord appeared to them. A couple of centuries later a story was circulating in the Mediterranean world that he had gone to preach in India; and the Mar Thoma church in India (in the Kerala district, on the Malabar Coast of South West India) claims descent from Christians converted by the preaching of Thomas. The tradition among Christians in India is that Thomas was speared to death near Madras, and accordingly he is often pictured holding a spear.
Three saints, then, each with their distinctive contribution to the Church in its earliest days. But to return to my original question: what do they all have in common? The answer is that in each case Jesus did not let their weaknesses stand in the way of their service to God. He took them in all their fallibility and inadequacy, and turned them into people who became some of his greatest missionaries. Peter’s initial lack of faith; his misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission as Messiah; even his three-fold denial of Christ – all these were overtaken by the transformation of character which Jesus wrought in him, as he became one who truly lived up to his description as the rock on which the Church was built. Paul’s zeal for persecuting – and even killing – Christians was turned into a zeal for the gospel which resulted in the foundation of many churches across a huge area. Thomas’s doubts were superseded by a determination to serve Christ which took him thousands of miles to India.
The message for us today is that Christ takes even the most unlikely people to be his disciples and servants. We should never, therefore, feel that we are not good enough to go to Church or to be Christians. We must of course respond to his transforming power, to enable God to show us how he wants us to serve him. Sometimes that will be painful, as we shed old ways of living and take up the new. I’d like to end with a quotation which illustrates this in relation to one of those areas of weakness to which I have referred – doubt:
"A person may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood. Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed". ( George Macdonald)
Doubt may be the beginning of growth in faith; opposition to God may give way to acceptance. May God take all our inadequacies and transform them into those qualities which he wishes to see in our lives – so that we may the better use them in his service. Amen.