As mentioned in an earlier post, this year's Advent calendar is from the Washington National Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Yesterday morning, the calendar window opened to a picture of Peter; this morning, the window revealed Paul.
In their lifetime, Peter and Paul were rivals-the New Testament even records a nasty theological brawl between them. In 96 C.E., Clement of Rome noted, "Because of jealously and envy the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and competed unto death." According to legend, Emperor Nero martyred both in 64 C.E. But they even contended for the goriest execution: Paul was beheaded with a sword; Peter was crucified upside down.
What caused the tension between Peter and Paul? Mostly, it was each apostle's understanding of salvation, understandings shaped by their personal experience of meeting Jesus. Peter confessed Jesus as Christ; Paul converted to Jesus the Christ.
Peter's testimony is found in Matthew 16. Jesus asked the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Peter confessed that Jesus was the anointed One, the savior who would liberate the Jews from slavery and bring forth God's shalom on earth.
Paul's story is recorded in Acts 9. Paul persecuted Christians. On the road to Damascus, a light flashed around him. A voice asked, "Why do you persecute me?" Paul replied with a question: "Who are you, Lord?" Blinded, Paul heard a voice say, "I am Jesus." A disciple from Damascus healed Paul, and only then did Paul convert to being a follower of Christ.
Confession or conversion? Do we meet the Christ when we recognize the Messiah or when the Messiah confronts us?
We often miss the similarities in the stories of Peter and Paul. Peter's confession is framed by a three-year journey of following Jesus in community. Peter didn't just blurt out "You are the Christ." Rather, he met Jesus, traveled with him, and listened to him for three years. He participated in Jesus' hospitality, watched him heal, prayed with him, and learned to forgive. From practicing a new way of life, Peter confessed the faith. He truly met Jesus by seeing his friend embody God's salvation.
Paul's story is also a story of meeting Jesus through a process of following him. After the miracle on the Damascus road, Paul retreated for three years to the desert. There, Paul learned Jesus' teachings and was formed in Christian practices-only then did he return to Jerusalem to take up leadership. Paul met Jesus on the road; but he met him again and again in the desert.
This Christmas, we may meet Jesus. We see the baby Jesus in the manager. We may meet him at church, in the mall, around a Christmas tree, in song, through an unexpected gift, by the kindness of a stranger. But meeting Jesus is only the beginning. We are called to live the examples of both Peter and Paul. Jesus beckons us to a way of life, to be a confessing people, a converted people-those who take time to truly know God-who live Jesus' teachings and practice God's mercy and justice in the world.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).