Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Odd Couple

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Odd Couple

Article excerpt

Peter and Paul were a match made in purgatory, but the wisdom of the church has them sharing a feast day, a book in the Bible, and a place of prominence in the tradition.

THEY ARE TWO MEN who clearly don't belong together, not even in the same room if either can help it. They would shrink from the idea of a shared feast, which we celebrate blithely next month nonetheless. They are not the same kind of person at all, in terms of class or life experience or politics. Try to imagine Paul of Tarsus going fishing! Try to envision Simon Peter of Galilee writing theological treatises! It's a match made in purgatory; yet Peter and Paul are stuck with each other. It's part of the price you pay for having a truly catholic, universal church.

Blame it on the Acts of the Apostles. The book itself is an aberrant thing in the New Testament, sandwiched between the Jesus stories and the collected letters. It's been called a history of the early church, but it's obviously an idealized version of "The Way We Were," if you compare the events with their counterparts in the letters of Paul. Acts is a spin job, done by the great spinmeister himself: Luke the good doctor, a crony of Paul's, at least, and possibly an admirer of Peter's as well. Although other disciples and their heroic deeds figure in Acts--John, Stephen, and James get more than a mention--the bulk of the book follows the acts of Peter and Paul, in that order.

But we can't really look at Acts as purely biographical material either. Luke's purpose is connected to his overall scheme across his two literary works, which scholars tend to lump together as Luke-Acts. The Gospel of Luke has been called "the gospel of the Son," and Acts "the gospel of the Spirit." They are not stories about human achievements but about God's activity on our behalf.

If there is a star of the show in Luke's works, it's the Word of God on a journey to center stage. In Luke, God's Word makes it to Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, in the person of Jesus himself. In Acts, God's Word travels to the center of the known world through Paul's journey to testify in Rome. Once the gospel comes to Rome, the story ceases abruptly. Luke abandons the story of Paul before we learn the results of his trial or the circumstances of his death. To Luke, these are minor details. The story has been told when God's Word "achieves the purpose for which it was sent." No biographer of mere human exploits would ever leave Paul's fate hanging in the balance so cavalierly.

But this is not to say that the people chronicled in Luke's work are irrelevant to his purposes. Peter and Paul are not only his heroes but become prototypes for leadership within the church. One might say that much of church history over the past two millennia could be appreciated through an exploration of these two monolithic characters. The two great tensions of history--a draw to stability from the center, a movement outward toward a wider field of possibility--are illustrated by these two incompatible and yet entirely interdependent personalities. Let's look at Peter first, because he is first to appear on the scene.

A CONTEMPORARY OF JESUS, FROM THE SAME NECK OF THE woods in Galilee, Peter hadn't traveled far nor studied much before he encountered the Lord. Born in Bethsaida and living in Capernaum with his wife and mother-in-law, Peter worked the family business with his dad and brother Andrew. You might say he was dug in; embedded in two generations of family and doubtless planning for the third. A young man like Peter probably didn't have much more to look forward to. Nobody got rich fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

Peter wasn't a deep thinker, but he was a man of great feeling. Loyal, impetuous, and quite the talker. He was the sort of guy who gets along well in a community and is roundly approved of. This is fortunate, because he wasn't much of a fisher. The recorded occasions of his efforts only produced fish under divine intervention. …

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