Our daughter Niamh is now ten months old. Having two older children, we have returned to the stage of parenthood that involves being unable to sit still for any length of time. Niamh is crawling so fast around the house, climbing where she can, grabbing at anything that she shouldn’t and leaving us breathless trying to keep up with her. Our default posture over the weekend has been one of bending over, with our hands hovering over her as she scrambles around on her hands and knees.
And she loves nursery rhymes. Her all time favourite is “Wind the Bobbin Up” with Mr. Tumble. She screeches with glee and fist pumps the air with excitement when he starts singing it on YouTube. I’ll be honest, he sometimes gets played more than once a day – it is a way of getting a breather! The other nursery rhyme which brings a big grin to her face is “Two Little Dickie Birds” – she loves the actions and the words.
But I always wondered at the line “Fly away Peter, fly away Paul, come back Peter, come back Paul.” The names didn’t seem to fit for me somehow. So yesterday, I decided to look this up. I went on Google and, sure enough, the names had been changed. The rhyme comes from a book that was published in 1765 and the original names of the birds were Jack and Gill. They were changed to Peter and Paul in the 19th century to reflect the names of the two apostles, St Peter and St Paul.
Now, you know that I am not writing this post to explore the history of nursery rhymes! But what prompted me to look deeper into this was yesterday’s feast day in the Church – the feast of Ss Peter and Paul.
I am in awe of these two men. Whenever we hear the word “saint” we tend to think of people who were perfect. But in the early church, “saints” was the name given to all Christians. However, over time, people who lived extraordinary lives of holiness and faith were singled out as “saints.” And for me, they have often seemed like distant figures, living lives of such virtue and holiness that can make me seem inadequate and, well, unholy. But we have got the wrong idea of our saints if we think this.
Let’s look at these two men.
Firstly, Peter. A fisherman. He probably did not have a great education and, like many fisherman of his day, was surely a hard-working man, toughened by his experiences on the Sea of Galilee and, more than likely, someone not to be messed with. Jesus seems to have seen in him the qualities of a natural born leader. When he had an incredible catch of fish, because he followed the request of Jesus to go back out fishing after a long night catching nothing, he got down on his knees, claiming that he was a sinful man. One can only guess what he was getting at with this admission.
Leaving his wife and home for long periods, he follows Jesus for two or three years and witnesses incredible events. Life-changing events. He was the first out of all the disciples to recognise Jesus as the Messiah but, at the same time, he didn’t really get what Jesus was doing. When Jesus predicted that he would die at the hands of the religious leaders, he basically told Jesus he was talking rubbish and, at the Last Supper when Jesus announced that someone would betray him, Peter proudly and passionately proclaimed that he would go to prison and die for him.
But the night Jesus was arrested and was standing trial in the High Priest’s house, Peter was questioned as to whether he knew Jesus. Panic struck him. He too could be arrested. He had seen lots of crucified bodies in his lifetime – he had seen the pain, felt the horror at such a death. He did what most of us, if we are really honest, would have done. He remonstrated, protested, cursed and denied knowing this young rebel upstart from Galilee. And he got away. And cried.
Fly away Peter.
Then there is Paul. A tent-maker. Unlike Peter, Paul (or Saul as he was known) was a very educated man and knew the Hebrew scriptures inside out. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and faith and he was a member of a very strict religious group called the Pharisees. He thought of himself as the best Jew and the best Pharisee.
Due to his conservative views, he was not happy at all with a sect in the Jewish faith claiming that a crucified carpenter from Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah. This infuriated him. And this led him to actively persecuting Jesus’ followers wherever he could find them. He went from town to town, hunting them down and making sure they were punished for their blasphemy. He was even seen as overseeing the death of one of the first saints of the new sect, Stephen. Paul did not want to know who this Jesus was. He just wanted his name wiped from people’s memories and their lips. And he would stop at nothing to make sure this happened.
Fly away Paul.
But how is it that these men became two of the greatest leaders of the early Christian faith? How is it that Peter went from denying Jesus to preaching in front of thousands of people, being arrested multiple times, being whipped and beaten on many occasions and finally being executed by the Roman Empire, for proclaiming and believing that Jesus was the Son of God?
How can someone like Paul, who chased down and mercilessly persecuted followers of Jesus, become the person who changed the course of Christianity, travelling 10,000 miles throughout the Roman Empire on foot to tell people about Jesus, giving us not only some of the profoundest pieces of early Christian writing in his letters, but also some of the finest, most quoted writing in history?
One word. Grace.
Both these men, despite what they had done in their past, encountered the risen Jesus and experienced complete forgiveness and love. And it changed their lives forever. These weren’t just any little sins that were forgiven. Denying Jesus completely when promising him that you would be by his side is pretty serious. Hunting down the believers of Jesus to stamp out his name and memory is also a pretty big deal. Especially if the said person is God in human flesh!
But what they did was forgiven and forgotten. The slate was wiped clean. This gift of complete and total acceptance and love was such good news that they had to tell others. And that’s exactly what they did and it cost them their lives. But both were happy to give their lives for him.
The lives of these two saints tell us something important. Despite popular opinion, you do not have to be perfect to follow Jesus Christ. In fact, you need to be the opposite. There is nothing that you can do to make God accept and love you. You cannot earn this love. You don’t have to be clever, intelligent, morally upright or really successful. Status does not matter. Your volunteering at the local charity shop does not matter. How often you try to pray or fail to pray does not matter. What you have done in the past won’t count against you. The shame you carry, the guilt you hold, the addiction you fight, the anger that bubbles within you, the separation that hurts – all these things don’t disqualify you from God’s love; they qualify you for it!!!
And if you are thanking God that you are not like that or have any of those “hang-ups”, then look again at yourself. Look hard.
In our popular culture today, we are constantly being told to be proud of ourselves, to love ourselves, to accept ourselves, to make our way to the top (wherever that is!), that our addictions and mistakes can be our strength etc. Fine; in principle, I get all that. But what Peter and Paul and so many other Christians will tell us is that when we know that we are sinners, when we realise that we can be too proud, when we admit that we are weak, it is then we will discover that we need something more than us. Self-belief, self-confidence, self-esteem are great but they constantly lead back to one person – our self.
Ss Peter and Paul discovered that God’s grace meant that they didn’t have to do anything to experience complete acceptance, love and meaning in their lives. Jesus offered grace to them in the lowest and darkest moment in their lives, precisely when they had nothing to offer. Instead, they just needed to be humble enough to accept what was being done to them. And they discovered that God’s love was greater than self-love, God’s acceptance was more powerful than self-acceptance and God’s belief in them was more life-changing than self-belief.
We need these saints more than ever today. We need to remember their message and their lives. And we need more people like them in our Church too. Come back Peter. Come back Paul.
And if anyone has told you they have left the Church because it is full of hypocrites, tell them that the Church isn’t full and that they would be welcome too.
And if that is you, come back whoever you are.