If there is a portico to heaven, two of its most prominent pillars bear the names of Peter and Paul. Two more disparate people would be hard to find and yet their identities are so intertwined that it is only natural for them to share the same feast day in the liturgical year of the Church in whose earliest days they played such a key role.
It was their common faith in The Risen Lord that fused them in life and in death. Their relationship is a model for us in our personal lives. It is also a model for any parish community in search of greater unity in the midst of diversity.
Let's start with Peter. A tough, probably illiterate, pragmatist who could read the sea and the sky and was content. He was used to hard physical labour and the give and take of the market place. He and his brother Andrew operated their own business. He was married and very likely had children. Apparently he lived with his extended family which included his mother-in-law. Like most of his contemporaries, he was a believing Jew and honoured the traditions of his fathers.
Andrew, with the help of John The Baptist, encountered Jesus. He was impressed and returned home to convince Peter that he too should meet this prophetic teacher who might well be the promised and long awaited Messiah. Peter met Jesus. Jesus had been waiting for him and the gruff, no nonsense fisherman was, himself, firmly hooked. From the start, Jesus made it clear that Peter was to be his First Lieutenant. The others, as they came onboard in response to his call, generally accepted Peter's position among them though they were frequently to be found arguing among themselves as to their relative positions within the hierarchy of their little band of brothers and sisters.
Peter went on to proclaim and to deny Jesus. To laugh and to weep by His side and in the shadow of the cross. But with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the encouragement of Mary the Mother of Jesus, and the support of his fellow Apostles, he accepted his unique role and lived and died with courage and conviction as priest and preacher, as husband and father and as Apostle and martyr.
According to a very early source, Paul was a short man with bald head... Bowlegged and sturdy... His eyebrows met in the middle and his nose was hooked! But, the author insists, he was full of charm!
He was known to be a brilliant debater and orator. His academic potential was actualized and recognized by the most renowned Greek, Roman and Jewish scholars. He was a Roman citizen but first and foremost, he was a devout Jew, a leading Pharisee and he was determined to stamp out this new Jesus sect which threatened religious stability.
All of that changed on the road to Damascus. Jesus revealed Himself to Paul and called him into His service. Many in the early Christian community doubted Paul's conversion and who can blame them?
Through His Apostles, Jesus calls the entire world to hear and spread His word. This was a problem for the Jews as they alone were the "chosen" people and wanted nothing to do with a universal Gospel. Remember that up until this time, almost all of Jesus' followers were Jewish-Christians. Paul, with his familiarity with the Greek and Roman world sought to make converts among the gentiles. James who was leader of the Church in Jerusalem, demanded that they become Jews first and this through instruction in the Torah and, for the men, circumcision. Paul, to whom James referred as having been "constructed of spit and twigs with a huge nose", ...insisted that baptism was sufficient.
This led to a problem with the Eucharist, which was usually celebrated at the end of a meal. The Jewish converts continued to follow the traditional complex dietary rules. The gentile converts did not bother with them.
This matter cried out for resolution. The infant Church was being torn apart from within as well as from without. Paul and James met. James was very conscious of the fact that of the two, only he had known the Lord and that he was in fact related to him. The only mutually acceptable arbitrator was Peter. Peter, the humble fisherman whom Jesus had chosen to lead. At length, Peter ruled in favour of Paul's position and the independent Christian community was born. It was a much reduced community having lost many of its original members who, understandably chose not to strain ties with family and faith. History records that James accepted Peter's decision with grace and that Paul, concerned for the well-being of the Jerusalem church caused a collection to be taken up for them in all of the gentile communities under his jurisdiction.
Peter and Paul are believed to have been martyred in Rome by order of the Emperor Nero in the year 64. By this time the Church was well rooted and the great principle of unity in the midst of diversity was well established as a goal for which we all must strive to this day.