Saints Peter and Paul
Series on the Martyrs
June 28, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
Does the thought of blood make you a little queasy? Seeing blood doesn’t bother me, unless it’s coming from the gap where there used to be tooth. Just thinking about a hockey player who caught a puck in the mouth makes my heart race and stomach churn. I don’t know why a bloody tooth bothers me but doesn’t faze a dentist; maybe the dentist gets use to it, just as a surgeon does. I would never get used to a bloody gap. We’re all wired differently, what unsettles some doesn’t bother others. I will say that if the sight of blood makes you squirm it’s a good thing you weren’t born a Jew in the centuries leading up to Jesus, because blood was a constant presence in their religious life and played the primary role in their relationship with God.
The Lord told Noah when he stepped off the ark, “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Later on God expanded on this command: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Blood was off limits because it was essential to life and because God had special plans for it.
Blood’s special purpose went all the way back to Adam and Eve. You probably remember that after they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they tried to cover their nakedness with leaves. The leaves weren’t very good clothes for their nakedness nor for their sin and shame. Sin requires a blood sacrifice, so God killed an animal and made clothes for them from its skin.
Later when the Lord wanted to identify His people, He didn’t use a tattoo or a special hat. When the men were eight days old, the Lord had them circumcised. By shedding their blood, they were reminded that they were His chosen people and identified them as His people to others. And when the angel of death visited Egypt, His people were identified by the blood smeared on their doorframes. Blood is everywhere in the Old Testament.
When God commanded that His people be holy as He is holy, the only option He gave them was in the sacrificial system. “I have given [the blood] for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls.” They needed this atonement because you can’t be mostly holy. Anything less than perfect obedience of the Ten Commandments wasn’t holy. Holiness could only be received as a gift. And that gift was delivered in the encounter with a holy God through the sacrifices. The Book of Leviticus described in great detail how God wanted the blood used: splatter some on the altar, throw some on the Ark of the Covenant, sprinkle some on the people, and put some on the priests.
Times have, thankfully, changed, but blood still plays the fundamental role in our salvation. Although I wonder if we’ve cleaned up too much of the blood. We talk about Jesus shedding His blood on the cross, but how bloody are the depictions we see or imagine? Do you see the blood dripping all over his face and neck from the crown of thorns or do you see just some tiny holes with a little blood seeping out? Do you picture the ragged, bloody holes from the spikes or the neat little holes like you see on the statue in the fellowship hall?
People want a pretty Jesus. A Jesus who will soothe sadness and calm anxiety, a Jesus who will accept prayers addressed to anyone, a Jesus just as comfortable in a synagogue or a mosque, on the golf course or at a storefront, as in a church. Some want a Jesus who helps with investment and business decisions, who guides the pursuit of the American dream. We want a Jesus who will turn a blind eye to our sins because He’s safer than a Jesus who turns his bloody expression toward us. A bloody Jesus is just not appealing, perhaps, not even right.
Simon Peter felt that way. In the Gospel we hear his bold confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But then in the very next verses, Peter tried to keep Jesus from the cross. The next verses record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter tells Jesus that he doesn’t like it: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter wanted a bloodless Jesus, a Jesus not walking toward the cross, a clean and sterile Christianity. But Jesus rebuked Peter as he would rebuke anyone else who wants to avoid the bloodshed of the cross: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Saul, whom we know as Paul, didn’t mind blood. He was a well-taught Jew and knew what the blood was all about. It was the teaching that Jesus was God that really irked Saul. As far as Saul was concerned a crucified man couldn’t possibly be the savior. Then, while Saul was on his way to put to death Christians who confessed that the crucified one was the Lord, the same Lord appeared to Saul. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus rebuked Peter’s hope that Jesus might be bloodless and He shattered Paul’s belief that the bloody Jesus was not the Christ.
Peter and Paul share a commemoration because tradition says they were martyred on the same day in AD 67 under the terribly wicked Nero. Tradition holds that when Peter was sentenced to die a death by crucifixion, he asked to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die as Jesus did. Jesus foretold that Peter would be led where he wouldn’t want to go, and he did. But in doing so, he proclaimed with his own blood that the one who shed His blood for Him is the Christ, the Son of God, in whom there is forgiveness.
Paul’s story isn’t any rosier. Where once he believed he was the perfect Pharisee, he came to know himself as the chief of sinners. He wrestled with a lifelong thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass him, and he lamented, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” As a Roman citizen, Paul was spared the humiliation of crucifixion, instead his blood flowed after he was beheaded.
So we rejoice today, not in their lives, but in their deaths. We celebrate their deaths because they were willing to hold on tight to the faith they had received, even in the face of death. We celebrate their deaths as examples for our own deaths, that we, like Peter and Paul and all whom the Lord holds steadfast in faith, might remain faithful unto death. Their Savior was not bloodless, nor was their own confession of Him.
They gave their lives and died the blessed death of martyrdom, and yet we’re often reluctant to give even an hour a week to come to church or Bible class, or a few hours a week to teach your children the faith or read the Bible to your parents in a nursing home. They would not stop their witness to the one who shed His blood for them, even if it cost them their own blood and lives, and yet you refuse the pain of giving up your little pet sins; lust, gossip, anger, grudges, greed for fear of the minor tinge of pain such a sacrifice would cost you. Repent. Repent of loving your life more than your Lord. Repent of seeking an unbloody Christianity. Repent of looking for an unbloody Jesus.
The writer of the book of Hebrews says that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood, so in Christ’s blood there is the forgiveness of sins. In His blood is your life. This blood has redeemed you, purchased you, won you. Each drop is more valuable than all the silver and gold in the world for in every drip there’s a flood of forgiveness for you. In His blood is life, pure and perfect holiness, for you. In His blood is courage for you. In His blood is strength for you to make a confession in blood too. You may not like the sight of blood, but in Jesus’ blood, you find the strength to confess with Peter, Paul, and all the other saints and martyrs that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen