Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Psalm 33(34); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
'He who sits in the heavens laughs.' We can speculate as to what might bring a smile to God's lips. Religion is often presented as a very, very serious business and yet today's feast brings to mind many amusing things. Peter for example is called 'rock' and he is as changeable as the weather. He is a stone invited to float on water. Paul seems to have been something of a control freak, taking charge and breathing fury, and yet he is led by the hand into Damascus and later escapes from the city by being let down over the wall in a basket.
There are echoes of Jonah in the way Peter and Paul are pulled and shoved this way and that. Their releases from prison, Peter in Acts 12 and Paul in Acts 16, are pieces of comedy also. Paul has been rescued out of the mouth, not of a sea monster, but of the more familiar lion. Peter begins to sink as soon as he remembers what he is doing and is, not for the last time, rescued from the deep by his Lord. They are thumped by angels and beaten by men, we can say, pushed around and reminded again and again that they are instruments of the gospel, instruments in the hands of the Lord they have come to love.
This may seem cruel until we see its results. For example, their experiences make it clear that human beings are not gods. In Acts 14 Paul is mistaken for a god and, when he disappoints, is subsequently stoned. God uses human personalities, even and especially their limitations and weaknesses, to make them instruments of his grace and glory. He takes them up into his work but when we see their weaknesses and smile at their foibles there is no danger that we will mistake them for the God they serve.
Another good result from seeing the humanity of Peter and Paul is that we can think again about what is really serious. God's love is really serious. The gates of hell will not prevail against the kingdom of that love. Nothing else compares with it as both Peter and Paul testify, Peter with his question 'Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life', Paul with those magnificent texts scattered through his letters that neither success nor failure, illness nor health, poverty nor riches, strength nor weakness, things present, past or to come, nothing in all creation compares to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, sharing in his sufferings so as to share in the glory of his resurrection.
In 751 BC two brothers founded a city, Romulus and Remus, the wonderful city of Rome, established on pride, ambition and eventually murder. In the first century, and without setting out to do it, two brothers in the Lord, Peter and Paul, founded a city on the same spot, as instruments of God, witnesses to God's love by their preaching and teaching, in how they lived and in how they died, a city founded on faith, and hope, and love.