My friends from Poland were usually surprised to hear I was a Parish Priest at St Peter’s Church in Buckie. The surprising bit was that the church bore the name of St Peter only. In my home country, if a church is dedicated to St Peter the Apostle, it’s virtually always dedicated to St Paul too. To a Polish Catholic’s ears, the two – St Peter and St Paul – always come together, as they do on their joint feast day.
We’ve got so used to having their solemnity together that somehow we lose sight how different they were in their respective ministries. It can be safely said that each represented a different vision of the early church. So different in fact that it led to the first major crisis in the early church. Christians from the Jewish background perceived the new faith as a continuation of the old one and consequently insisted on keeping Jewish rituals, rules, laws, including circumcision. They were absolutely convinced that any new recruits to the faith should follow the same path and effectively become Jewish converts first. This model of the church was represented by Jerusalem-based St Peter.
St Paul championed a different approach in regard to new followers of the faith, particularly those of non-Jewish background. For the sake of the brevity of this sermon, I’m presenting a massively simplistic description. According to St Paul, those who wanted to become Christians required to have and proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ, and be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Having become Christians they were expected to practise their faith as active members of their local Christian community with the Eucharist as the centrepiece. St Paul’s attitude was vehemently opposed by two groups of the Jews. One was the Jewish diaspora in the Med, who considered Christianity an aberration of their Mosaic faith. The other group were Christians of the Jewish origin, who couldn’t accept such a deviation from what they considered the genuine expression of the Christian faith.
The conflict between those two seemingly irreconcilable visions of the church threatened to tear it apart. To avoid an escalation of the conflict, representatives of both sides met in Jerusalem to discuss the situation and to find a solution. It’s all described in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15 if you want to have a closer look – it’s worth it! That gathering issued an official decree that opened with a crucial line: ‘It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials…’ The Church came to an understanding that there are different ways of practising the faith while keeping its core unchanged. That gathering, sometimes called the first Church Council, effectively created the broad church in which a great spiritual variety can flourish. Thanks to that crucial decision the church opened her doors to people everywhere, regardless of their ethnic, racial, national or cultural background. In fact, such a great variety has enriched the one universal Church.
The solemnity of St Peter and St Paul should remind us that the church isn’t narrowly defined by certain, tightly prescribed sets of rules. In the Church there’s enough room for different spiritualities, religious movements, expressions of faith and rites. It’s a reminder that one’s way of expressing faith is never the only way. As we say, ‘horses for courses’. We have to learn how to respectfully and charitably respect others’ ways of living out their faith. And not just to accept and respect, but actively support them. Because, at the end of day, those different ways will lead us all to the Father’s house.