From Pastor Rich: For two weeks in January, I traveled with students from Mercyhurst University to Italy and Greece. The trip was part of a course I offered on Religion, Ethics, and Social Order. As I set up the course, I had in mind certain academic agendas: religious studies, history, critical biblical studies, moral theory, and so forth. I was excited for the students to see first hand what they normally would only read about in books of religion, history, or ethics. So, I was going on the trip as a professor, not as a pastor. And yet, I found that my spirituality was as much enlivened by the trip as were my academic interests.
In particular, I could not help but notice that for most of the trip, we were actually following around the Apostles Peter and Paul. Church history remembers both apostles being killed in Rome: Peter by crucifixion, and Paul (as our guides told us) by beheading. According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down, believing himself unworthy to die in the same way as Christ. But according to our travel guides, Paul was spared the agony of crucifixion because he was a Roman citizen–and so when the Empire killed him, it was with the more “humane” and quick death by beheading outside of the city walls.
Having been told about how these two apostles died, our group then saw the alleged tombs of both Peter and Paul. The skeptic in me wondered: “Is this really their final resting place? Or had tradition snowballed into rumor or conjecture?” And yet, even the non-Christians I met in Rome were quite certain that the resting places of Peter and Paul were in fact right below us: Peter below the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, and Paul, below the altar of St. Paul’s Basilica, which is outside of Vatican City (mirroring, in a way, how Paul was killed outside the city walls of Rome).
The first tomb we saw was that of St. Peter’s. It was not certain that we would get to go there, so I was pleased to learn that our tour guide had gained access to the tombs of the popes below St. Peter’s, which culminated in a view of the resting place of St. Peter. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter (the rock), and upon this rock I shall build my church,” that Christ was bestowing a special kind of authority upon Peter (to be the first Pope, head of the Body of Christ on earth). Protestant Christians tend to believe that Christ’s saying to Peter meant that Peter had confessed correctly that Jesus was the Messiah, the sent-one from God to inaugurate the long awaited Reign of God. Any way you look at it, there we were, near or around the remains of Peter: the apostle who Christ called the “rock.” And yet, he was the same fellow to whom Jesus also said, “get behind me Satan,” and, the same apostle who denied Jesus three times when his life was on the line. Standng in front of the tomb, I felt lost in all the history, legend, and scriptural reports of Peter. Thinking back on Peter’s tomb now, I find myself concluding: “Peter is just like many of us, isn’t he?” How many times have we been full of faith, only to later give bad spiritual advice, or even to deny what we sense is deeply true? But if history gets it right, Peter would run throughout parts of the known Roman world with his message about Christ, laying a foundation upon which we still wrestle with what it means to believe in Jesus, and to live as such followers.
The next day, our group found ourselves at St. Paul’s Basilica. There I learned that the apostle Paul is often depicted in art, iconography, and statues as a man with a sword–not because he liked carrying around weapons, but because it is said that his words were as sharp as a sword. I’m not so sure I buy that. More often than not, Paul can be difficult to read. In fact, I find myself agreeing with the author of 2 Peter 3:16 that Paul’s letters are “hard to understand” and that “the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do other scriptures.” Consider: the apostle Paul’s letters have been used by Christians to support racial slavery, deny women ordination, and condemn lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and relationships. So I think it is fair to say that, sometimes, the sword in Paul’s hand has been put there by other people, who stab and slay anything and anyone not like them. That said, it has been my belief for some years now that we should not interpret Paul’s writings in such ways… but we can’t deny that many Christians and churches have.
In any case, it was at St. Paul’s Basilica that we were able to get up close to the (alleged) tomb of Paul. I found myself thinking: “After 20 years of studying the Christian faith, why have I never considered where Paul died and was buried?” I soon realized that in my years among Protestant churches, we tend to venerate the letters of Paul, especially his many statements that human beings are “saved by grace, and not by works, so that no one can boast.” So it was there at St. Paul’s tomb that it struck me: I’ve still been treating the New Testament letters of Paul as if the letters were the person himself. And yet, there in front of me was his tomb: realizing that like every other ordinary human being, Paul’s life came to an end. Thinking of the person Paul, and not just the letters he left behind, I knelt in front of his tomb and spoke to him ever so briefly: “What you wrote needs a lot of interpretation. You know how I’ve been reading you. How have I been doing?”
Could you help me out here?” In case you were wondering, there wasn’t any mystical answer (thanks, Paul!). Which meant that all I could (and can) do is to continue the work of interpretation, as we all do: trying to understand language, history, context, and so forth–and all in order to try and better understand what Paul’s texts mean: which we dare to call scripture.
And in that wrestling match of interpretation, we hope to hear the wisdom of God.
So what did I find in Rome that enlivened my faith? On the one hand, it was an appreciation that women and men of faith have been trying to carry on the message of Christ for so long–and sometimes, with their very lives. But I don’t want to romanticize the idea of people dying for their faith as some ideal of the Christian faith. Instead of that, I was inspired by the spark of faith that jumped from generation to generation. I don’t always have to agree with the way people articulate theology to appreciate that spark. Beneath all doctrines and theological speculation there is a spark of faith: an illumination of the mind and heart that the “really real” might just be more than what we can sense with our physical senses, or prove with our mighty intellects. That spark of faith doesn’t give us narrow answers, so much as it invites us to live into mystery and wonder–and there, I think we begin to encounter God. Peter had that spark. So did Paul. I think you do too. And generations from now, who knows, maybe visitors will find the remains or the renovations of our churches and our burial places–and there, they will find (as I did in Rome) a story of people living into their faith, and willing to pass it on to another generation.