Martyrs Together
St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles
29 June 2018
Among the earliest of the commemorative festivals of the Christian church is the commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul dating from the middle of the third century. The early church had the tradition that these preeminent apostles were martyred on the same day during the Neronian persecution, which ended in 68 AD with Nero's ignominious suicide. We don't know that Peter and Paul shared a day of martyrdom, but they were certainly closely linked in their work and ministry and their eventual arrival in Rome, the capital of the Mediterranean world at the time. It is only with the rise of the medieval papacy that Paul's significance at Rome was overshadowed by Peter's for reasons of papal authority. Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome (440-461) preached a sermon for the Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul in which he explicitly links their mutual authority by declining to make any distinction between them. Their twin authority in the church may have given rise to the presumption that they also shared the day of their martyrdom.

Nero's was the first official Roman corporal persecution of which we are aware. It was intended to deflect blame from the increasingly unpopular Emperor by casting it upon a misunderstood religious minority that worshiped a foreign deity. Nero made a horrifying spectacle of this persecution, including covering his victims with pitch and setting them fire using them as tiki lights at garden parties in the Domus Aurea, the Golden Palace, his lavish residence built upon the ashes of fire-blackened Rome. Yet this lavish cruelty could not overwhelm the faith and hope of these pre-eminent missionaries of the church. For their Lord Jesus was the one who promised that the very gates of hell would never prevail against His church. Peter and Paul must have seen the very gates of hell as they watched the lurid flames consuming their brothers and sisters.

What could Nero have been thinking? How could he have exterminated the faith of the church, given as it is by God Himself? What made him think he could kill with suffering those whose Lord is the suffering Servant? Slaughter cannot terminate the church founded on the slaughter of the Lamb of God on the altar of the cross of Golgotha. Death could not threaten those whose life had been returned to them by the One who defeated death by dying. Life could not be taken from those in whom life had been implanted through baptism; dying with Christ and rising to newness of life. The thing that Nero thought would terminate the church's life became the very thing that grew the church triumphant and the church militant. Those who received the golden crown of life through martyrdom (Rev 2:10) became full inheritors of the promised heavenly kingdom. The church militant was watered by the blood of the martyrs which spattered the killing grounds of the cruel men who try to devour the Lord's patrimony with the sword, instead fertilizing His church. The Lord's great promise was being fulfilled for Peter and Paul in their martyrdom: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him" (Jn 12:24-26). Christ was having His way with their lives, giving the fullness of life at the moment of death.

The Lord of life does the same for all His saints. This is one of the reasons we Christians still commemorate these days to celebrate the great martyrs like Peter and Paul. They are leading lights of the church and among the firstfruits of martyrdom. In our trials and troubles, our griefs and sufferings the Lord still builds His church. He martyrs us that we might become witnesses to His life, death, and resurrection; martyred saints along with St. Peter and St. Paul.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

  Leo the Great
"To Rome came also your blessed brother the Apostle Paul who was God's 'chosen instrument' (Acts 9:15), and the special teacher of the Gentiles, and was associated with you Romans at a time when all innocence, all modesty, all freedom was in jeopardy under Nero's rule. His fury, inflamed by excess of all vices, hurled him headlong into such a fiery furnace of madness. He was the first to assail the Christian name with a general persecution, as if God's grace could be quenched by the death of saints, whose greatest gain it was to win eternal happiness by contempt of this fleeting life. 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints' (Ps 116:15).

"No extreme cruelty could destroy the religion which is founded on the mystery of Christ's cross. Persecution does not diminish, but increases the church, and the Lord's field is clothed with an ever-richer crop, while the grains, which fall alone, spring up and are multiplied a hundred-fold (Jn 12:24-25). Therefore, a great posterity has sprung from these two heaven-sown seeds. This is shown by the thousands of blessed martyrs, who, rivaling the Apostles' triumphs, have traversed the city of Rome in purple-clad and bloody gleaming throngs, and crowned it, as it were, with a single diadem of countless gems.

"Over this band, dearly beloved, whom God set forth for our example in patience and for our confirmation in the faith, there must be rejoicing everywhere in the commemoration of all the saints, but of these two fathers' excellence we must rightly make our boast in louder joy, for God's grace has raised them to such a high place among the members of the Church, that He has set them like the twin light of the eyes in the body, whose Head is Christ. About their merits and virtues, which surpass all power of speech, we must not make distinctions, because they were equal in their election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death." 

Leo the Great, Sermon for St. Peter and St. Paul, 6-7
Galatians 2:1-10

 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in-who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery- to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)-those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (ESV)
Collect for St. Peter and Paul
Merciful and eternal God, Your holy apostles Peter and Paul received grace and strength to lay down their lives for the sake of Your Son. Strengthen us by Your Holy Spirit that we may confess Your truth and at all times be ready to lay down our lives for Him who laid down His life for us, even Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

For Vicar Blake Martzowka, who will be installed as the Vicar of Memorial Lutheran Church, that the Lord would confirm him in the confession of His faith

For the family and friends of Pastor William Brege, whom the Lord received into His nearer presence, that they would mourn as those who have hope in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come

For Anastasia Krumwiede, that the Lord Jesus would give her strength and healing in accordance with His good and gracious will

For all who travel in these days of leisure, that they would arrive safely and have a joyful homecoming
Art: Siemiradzki, Henryk  Nero's Torches  (1876)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2018
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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