Today we celebrate the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul. These men called to be apostles are radically distinct and often at odds. So, both get their days: the Confession of St. Peter (Jan 18) and the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan 25). Yet, those festivals are only a week apart. Despite their disagreements, the Church has taken great pains to show that these two apostles share a confession in one Lord—God the Father, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. And so, on June 29th, we celebrate these men together.
According to ancient tradition, these two Apostles were both put to death by Roman Emperor Nero around A.D. 67/68. Peter died by crucifixion in the public circus or amphitheater in Rome; Paul was beheaded outside the city. From about A.D. 258, Christians held special celebrations in honor of these “Princes of the Apostles.” Prudentius records that at the end of the fourth century A.D., the faithful thronged the streets on June 29, going on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s in Rome and from there to the church of St. Paul’s “outside the walls.” Since the fifth century, it has universally been observed as a holiday.
There are delightful differences in the account of the Jerusalem Council. You have the record of Peter, memorialized in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, by Luke the Evangelist. You have Paul’s account, recorded in Galatians 2. At the heart of the controversy of the Council is whether the ceremonial law of the Old Covenant, particularly circumcision, is mandated for Christians of the New Testament. Paul’s work was among Gentiles, who typically did not submit to the sign of the covenant to Abraham. Some taught that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This caused no small dissension among the Apostles, pastors, and Paul and his companions.
Therefore, Peter and the rest of Jerusalem called Paul and Barnabas to give an account of their experiences. Even the non-believing Pharisees got involved, demanding that Christians submit to the law of Moses. But Paul asserted that the Gentiles were saved by hearing that Christ Jesus was crucified for the forgiveness of their sins. And believing they were baptized and received the Holy Spirit, just like the Apostles at Pentecost. He asserts that there is now no distinction between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, but that Christians are saved by faith in Jesus’s saving blood alone.
But that’s Peter’s account through Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. But Paul adds more background in Galatians. After working among the Gentiles for fourteen years, false Christians had infiltrated the church in Jerusalem. These “came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.” In other words, this wasn’t a dispute about an insignificant matter. No, these theological terrorists were trying to undermine the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness by demanding Christians submit again to the law of Moses. “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we could bear?” Now circumcision or uncircumcision isn’t the point. Paul treated it as an indifferent matter with Titus and Timothy. But the Gospel of forgiveness in Jesus is attached to preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper is the thing that matters.
This was now not a conflict between Peter and Paul but between believers in Jesus and unbelievers. As Paul tells us, “For [God] who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles.” After he demonstrated the conversion of the Gentiles as they heard the Word of the Gospel, were baptized, and received the Spirit, James, Peter, and John extended the right hand of fellowship and endorsed his work to the uncircumcised Gentiles. This is the only way for anyone, especially Christians, to reconcile. They don’t ignore their differences but speak frankly and openly to determine if they share the same confession.
As we put the two accounts together and add another experience from Peter when Jesus showed him that there was now no distinction between clean and unclean foods (Acts 10), we see that there is no great divide between these two Apostles. After larger-than-life egos, old grudges, dead traditions, and a heavy dose of skepticism about a former persecutor of the Church were set aside, they found agreement in preaching the Law and Gospel faithfully and giving the gifts of Jesus according to His instruction. That is what they determined was necessary for the true unity of the Church.
The remains of the two apostles are said to be interred beneath the original St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Together they await the joyous resurrection that they fearlessly proclaimed. Happy St. Peter and St. Paul Day!