Untied From the Ground
Today is the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul. Do you know why it's good to celebrate this? Because like the Simon and Garfunkel song, "I'd Rather Be a Hammer than a Nail says, "When a man gets tied up to the ground,/ He gives the world its saddest sound." Over the years many people have asked me about day to day Christianity. What is really bothering them is that they feel too much of this world and not enough of the next. They have a sense that they're tied to the ground. We remember the saints who have gone before us so our thoughts would break away from us, this world, this ground to Christ and what He did in and through the saints.
It's Lutheran to remember saints' days. The Augsburg Confession says, "Our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person according to his or her calling should take the saints' good works as an example."
Look in the front of the red or the blue hymnal and you'll find "St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles" is to be celebrated on June 29. Lutherans use to celebrate the festival of saints mentioned in the Bible on whatever day of the week they fell. Then they moved them to Sundays because the people wouldn't come to Church during the week. Then they just quit celebrating them, and the myth arose that only Catholics celebrated the days of the saints. Now things are changing. For about 6 years, our inserts have marked the Biblical saints if their day landed on a Sunday. For example, this year we will be celebrating St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew and All Soul's Day.
Okay, but why this particular day for Peter and Paul? Tradition says both of them were killed for the faith in Rome on the same day but in different years. On June 29, 258 their remains were removed to the catacombs for safe keeping during persecution. This is how June 29th came to be celebrated. The festival of St. Peter and St. Paul has been observed since the early 300s being considered, at that time, as second in importance only to Christmas.
So in what way does remembering the saints' days help untie you from the ground, help your day to day Christianity? The Apology to the Augsburg Confession specifies 3 ways to remember and give honor to the saints. All of them highlight the grace of God and focus on the saint not on us. You'll have to admit that when you're "tied up to the ground...giving the world it's saddest sound," no matter what the circumstances, 2 things are true: 1) The grace of God is far away from you, and 2) You're focused on self. This is your frame of mind, but then you glance at the calendar and see it's June 29th and St. Peter and St. Paul day, and your focus changes.
Our Confessions direct us to first "give thanks to God because He has given examples of His mercy." When you're tied to the ground, to your life, sins, and suffering, it seems as the Psalm says that God has forgotten to be merciful, but on June 29th your mind flashes across the lives of Peter and Paul. There's Peter kneeling at the feet of Jesus telling Him to depart from him because he's such a sinner, yet Jesus doesn't go. There's Peter just having denied Christ blatantly, yet Jesus still looks upon him in love. And there's Paul on his way to arrest Christians, yet Jesus meets him and speaks to him in tender compassion saying, "Saul, Saul...it's hard for you to kick against the goads." When you think that there can't be any more mercy from God than what you see, feel and hear on the ground, Sts. Peter and Paul preach of heavenly mercy beyond description.
The second thing our Confessions direct us to do when remembering the saints is to thank God "because He has shown that He wants to save humankind." You become disgusted with humanity, don't you? What a miserable, wretched lot we are. Look at our gross sinfulness. O how we despair when we watch the news. But today is June 29th. On this day, we remember that God has shown He wants to save mankind. Peter and Paul were not one bit better than any of the people you see up to their neck in sinfulness. They didn't deserve to be rescued from their sins anymore than anyone else you meet, greet, or know. God shows in their lives that He wills to save fallen mankind. He shows that He hasn't given up on them, and we need not either.
The days of the saints are to bring forth thanks in us for God's mercy, for His desire to save mankind, and for His giving "teachers and other gifts to the Church." There is so much to despair about in the Church today. We are divided over basic issues such as whether or not our clergymen should pray with pagans. Humanly speaking there was every reason to despair in the Church of Peter's and Paul's day. False teachers were saying that keeping the Law was necessary for salvation. There was disagreement about what should be taught among the gentiles. Paul was under attack from those who claimed to be super apostles in Corinth and Galitia.
Yet through it all the Church went on. The Lord made Peter and Paul, in spite of their sinfulness, to be faithful preachers and teachers. Though most of the world was opposed to them and even some in their own churches, still the Lord went on to save and shepherd sheep by means of these under shepherds. Surely, the Lord will do no less for His Bride today than He did back then. Surely, the Lord loves us no less than He did them. Surely, as Peter and Paul didn't die despairing for the Church neither shall we.
The first kind of honor we should give the saints is thanksgiving to God for them. The second kind of honor we should give the saints, according to our Lutheran Confessions, is believing that as grace did superabound in their life over their sins, so will it do in our lives. When you're tied up to the ground giving the world it's saddest sounds, your sins are hard against you. It may be sins from long ago that still haunt the recesses of your heart, or it may be your sinfulness that you see everywhere you turn. You lost your temper again; you can't stop worrying; every second thought has some deviant lust popping into your mind. Each and every sin testifies how unlike the saints you are, so no wonder that rather than singing hallelujah's with the saints, you can only let out sad moans with sinners.
But today is June 29th, the day we celebrate Peter and Paul being taken to heaven. God took to heaven a Christian killer who admitted to being chief of sinners. God took to heaven a man who denied the cross, Christ, and the Gospel itself. How can this be? This can only be in Christ. As many and as wretched as their sins were, God piled them on Christ. On the cross God took out all of His wrath against the sins of Peter and Paul. As much as they sinned, much more did Jesus suffer. Where they had more sins, Jesus suffered more stripes to heal them, to forgive them.
Jesus didn't suffer just for their sins, but for your sins too. As many sins as you can name and even the many ones that you can't name, Jesus suffered and died for them all. Every time a sin or your general sinfulness bites your conscience, God's grace in Christ is to pop up into your mind. You are to live as Peter and Paul did, not with their sins in mind but with God's grace in mind. You are not to be tied to this ground where your dirty sins billow around you like dust. You are to be with Sts. Peter and Paul singing the praises of the God who has more grace than you have sins.
Ah, but you want more practical stuff, don't you? The danger is thinking that if you just had more practical advise and directions you could keep yourself from ever becoming tied to the ground. This is not true. Read the Psalms of David. He surely found himself tied to the ground at times because you can hear him giving the world his saddest sounds. Read Romans. Where do you think St. Paul is tied when he cried out, "O wretched man that I am?" Read John 21. Where do you think St. Peter is tied when he decides to return to the fishing trade? Imitating the works of the saints will not free you from being tied to this fallen world. Imitating their faith will. That's why when our Confessions say the third way to honor the saints is by imitation, they say the first thing to be imitated is their faith.
Friends, it's not inconsistent with the faith of Peter and Paul to have times when you're giving the world its saddest sounds. These men knew such times as this. They hurt and ached and feared and worried just like you do. They moaned and groaned and complained about suffering just like you do. The faith of theirs that I would call you to imitate, is this: Believe that when you're feeling tied to the ground and giving the world it's saddest sounds, that doesn't mean you're not a Christian, beyond the mercy or grace of God, or that God is not using you in your agony to His glory and the good of His Church. Believe the mercy and grace of God for Christ's sake plays a bigger role in your life than your sad groaning.
Isn't this exactly what you expect your children to believe, that your love is bigger than any sadness of theirs? Don 't despair of finding in God's heart, what you can easily find in yours. Imitate the faith of Peter and Paul who believed that God's heart was bigger and more gracious than theirs. Then, as our Confessions say, be imitators "of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings."
Friends, not everyone is called like Peter and Paul to be a missionary, not everyone is called to lay down their life for Jesus. Peter, according to the Bible was the apostle to the Jews, and according to Church tradition was crucified upside down because he didn't think he deserved the honor of being crucified the same way his Lord was. Paul, according to the Bible, was the apostle to the non-Jews, and according to Church tradition he, being a Roman citizen, was not crucified but beheaded.
The Lord has called us into various callings. All of them are God-pleasing; all of them serve His Church. By God's grace towards us in Christ we are all saints regardless of where God has called us to in life, and the Christian will suffer for Christ's sake wherever he or she is. Some of us might one day be called on to lay down our lives for Jesus' sake. This is a superhuman work. This is something that only God's grace and Spirit can achieve, so you can rest assured that if you are called to do this like Peter and Paul were, your Jesus will stand by you just like He stood by them.
And what do you think Peter and Paul were thinking as death came to them? Do you think their thoughts were tied to this ground: to all that they had done wrong and failed to do right, to how they had let so many people down in so many ways, to how they had disappointed Jesus? No, their Jesus wouldn't let them do that anymore than you let your hurting child think gloomy thoughts. No, you snatch them out of their head saying, "There's no need to think about that." And so Jesus reached down and untied them from the ground so their thoughts might soar to heaven like Stephen's did on his death bed. We celebrate Jesus untying them on June 29, so that our thoughts too might be lifted up off this earth to angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostle (6-29-03)