“Peter, Paul, and the New Dispensation”
Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-Charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
June 28, 2020
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I was glad to see that Bill picked “Christ is made the sure foundation” to begin liturgy today. It happens to be one of my favorite hymns, but also I was thinking of observing tomorrow’s church commemoration today – tomorrow is the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, Jesus’ two most important apostles – there’s one day that celebrates both of them, and for good reason: these two are both foundational rocks, stones on which the church was built. But most important to us today, Peter and Paul were polar opposites in most ways, they were as different as night and day. Yet they figured out how to grow the church and build God’s kingdom here on earth – and that took major concessions from both of them. They never became friends – in fact they really, really, really, didn’t like each other – but they did become partners; that’s what we can learn from them as we struggle to go forward in our fractured time.
Let’s talk about their differences for a moment, beginning with their backgrounds. Peter was an uneducated fisherman who lived in the hill and lake country around Galilee. Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul, was born in the city of Tarsus (in today’s Turkey). He was highly educated, from a well to do Pharisaic family, he was a Roman citizen, he spoke Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Peter and Paul even physically looked very different from each other. We have remarkably consistent physical descriptions of them, which always show Peter as red-headed, bearded, tall, solid and brawny, and Paul as a short and clean-shaven, with a high forehead, large eyes, and slight build.
But those weren’t the biggest differences between them. Remember, Peter was called by Jesus himself while he was busy working at his fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. He became Jesus’ right hand man, the leader of the Twelve, and arguably Jesus’ closest friend. Jesus stayed at Peter’s house when he visited Capernaum; we were blessed to visit that actual house – Peter’s house – when we were in the Holy Land a few years ago. He both confessed Jesus as Messiah and was rebuked by Jesus as Satan, but perhaps most famously his denied knowing Jesus when he was in mortal danger during his trial. But the resurrected Jesus forgave him, and Peter became one of the leaders of “the circumcision party” (who required that all gentiles become Jews before baptism), along with James, the brother of Jesus, who was bishop of Jerusalem.
Paul, on the other hand, never met Jesus while Jesus was alive on earth; in fact he was actively engaged in purging Jesus’ movement – and he was no minor onlooker in persecutions of those who followed Jesus’ “Way,” he was a head persecutor who relished doing it, to the point where he looked on in approval as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death.
Only one of these two men is called a rock by Jesus; we’re all familiar with the episode in the gospels where Jesus says that Peter is a rock. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am, Simon Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ In response to this, Jesus rewards Simon Peter for recognizing him as the Messiah, and says:
‘And I tell you, you are Peter (Cephas), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’
This passage is still with us today: the Roman Catholic Church has always taken it as the basis for the papacy – to be legitimate all popes since have to go back in an unbroken line to Peter, commissioned by Jesus himself.
But Paul too was commissioned by Jesus, albeit in a very different way. He was on the road to Damascus after Stephen’s death looking to cause more death and mayhem, when Jesus knocks him down (the Bible never says off of a horse), appears to him in a blinding light and introduces himself personally to Saul in a booming, thunderous voice that only he could understand:
Now as (Saul) was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
The Lord then makes it clear that Paul ‘is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles.’ He remains blind for three days with no food or water, then Jesus fills him with the Holy Spirit, and shows him what he must do and suffer for Jesus’ sake. After this, “something like scales” falls off of Paul’s eyes, and he immediately begins preaching the gospel. Not the same kind of commission as the one that Peter received, but equally powerful none the less.
From that moment, Peter and Paul embark on a collision course over that crucial question of who could become a Christian – Peter insisting on full conversion to Judaism, Paul insisting that this was an impediment to the movement of the Holy Spirit, that both conversion and circumcision were now required only of the heart, not of the body. The two men engaged in a great deal of nasty name calling (thanks be to God that Twitter didn’t exist back then) – but Paul even called Peter a hypocrite to his face at Antioch, because Peter evidently had some political instincts and would act one way around folks who believed in circumcision, and another way when he was around gentiles who didn’t.
So a summit was called in Jerusalem to resolve the question. And at that meeting, something remarkable happened. Peter and James put aside all their personal dislike of Paul, probably their resentment at his not having been an original discipline, and certainly their distrust of him because of his history as an enemy terrorist. Peter quotes the book of the prophet Amos, in which God says that “all the Gentiles will bear my name,” and so he and James completely convert to Paul’s point of view. This is summarized in an address James gives to the gathering, where he essentially says (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘God is doing a new thing now, and Paul is the man that the Lord has chosen to do it. However strong the practices and traditions of Judaism, the Holy Spirit is leading us in a new direction – remember, we worship Jesus, not tradition, and wherever he leads us, that’s where we need to go, even if it means laying down much that has been dear to us.’
Now there were still requirements for gentiles – no idols, no fornication, and basically keeping kosher – but the main argument had been resolved. This decision was recognized as a “new dispensation” – a concept that goes all the way back to Isaiah, who prophesied that God was about “to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” In Second Corinthians Paul himself links this prophecy to Jesus directly:
. . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
To be clear – this did not mean that Judaism was to pass away – you could still be a Jew with everything that that choice meant and required – but if you wanted to follow Jesus, all of that was not necessary.
This is where Peter and Paul meet us today. We are in an age where there is much that is passing away, and we are called upon to recognize the new dispensation that is being offered to us. Now even though it’s been very hot this past week, follow me for a moment as we visit the deep of winter, Christmas season. T.S. Eliot wrote a short poem called “Journey of the Magi,” which is the subject of a recent op-ed in the NY Times by Roger Cohen entitled, “No Return to the ‘Old Dispensation.” Eliot’s poem concludes with the Magi returning home after their life-changing encounter with Jesus. They are no longer pagan, their world and their lives have been transformed, although the world that surrounds them had not been. They say:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people, clutching their gods.
Why do they feel so dislocated? The narrator of the poem asks:
. . . were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different, this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
The poem ends with the line
I should be glad for another death.
Leaving unsaid what that longed-for death is. Personal death, to be free from this dead world, enabling passage to the next? Or the death of the “old dispensation”, leaving only the new one? Cohen asks his reader, “having witnessed the unimaginable” – the pandemic – “having been on this journey into an unfamiliar world of silence and stillness and death, having been obliged to change unquestioned habits, will humanity simply return to its former ways if that proves possible?” I share with him a clear-eyed, not particularly optimistic view of unredeemed humanity, which he correctly notes, has a “history of greed, venality, stupidity, cruelty, and violence” because “that part of human nature is ineradicable.” Yet Cohen ends the column with something that sounds like a prayer, “that the ‘old dispensation’ yields to something new, something more balanced, born of a strange revelation.”
Sometimes it takes a horrifying challenge to our world and our gods to work such a transformation. We don’t have time today to go into Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac at length today (our reading from Genesis), except to say that it is one of several brutal moments throughout the Bible that wrought a drastic transformation on the world. First there was the flood that wiped out humanity except for Noah and his family, who were challenged to start again after the earth had been nearly wiped clean of life, save what could be housed in the ark; this was a new dispensation after the old had drowned. Then Abraham was challenged to take the one thing that he loved most in the world and had prayed for his entire life, Isaac, his Son of the Promise, and kill him. God stays his hand and stops the knife; in so doing kills the old dispensation of paganism along with its child sacrifices, and announces a new one, of faith in the one true God. Then when Jesus was nailed to the cross, God does not stop the hands of the murderers, this time he allows the blood to flow, in order that the old dispensation of sacrifice might give way to the new one, where Christ’s body and blood are available to the whole world, not just those who shared bread and wine with him in life, or offered up lambs on the altar at the Temple, but to anyone who would believe in him.
My sisters and brothers, we have a choice. Christ will always be the sure foundation of the church, its head and its cornerstone. Yet the forms of this world are clearly passing away, an old dispensation is dying, and a new one is arriving. What form will it take? Will we clutch to our pagan gods, or permit the flood that has hit our world to drown the old to permit the growth of the new? That can never happen if we cling to our old opinions and grievances and judgments and traditions – like Peter and Paul we must learn to go where the Spirit is leading us, even if it means converting from anti-Christian terrorist into an evangelist, or from a life-long, deeply observant Jew to a vocal proponent of non-circumcision. It means we might need to be willing to give up what we love most, like Abraham. It is only God’s will, given to us by the Holy Spirit that counts – we can never go wrong if we follow that Spirit, and we will always go wrong if we don’t. Let’s let the old dispensation die, so that we may embrace the new with all of our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength: we can be certain the that new world will be astonishingly better than the old.