Where Does It All End?

Posted on Posted in Ruminations

A reader asked recently about our destination. Obviously it’s Rome, but earlier we emphasized that getting to the destination is not the principal goal of a pilgrimage—otherwise we, at least, could skip the 1000 mile slog on foot and take a plane instead. Yet without a destination, a journey has no purpose; it’s only a “meander.”

So then, a practical clarification first, and then a more spiritual-theological one.

Rome is indeed the final destination on this journey, but more specifically two locations in Rome: the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. For centuries now Peter has been the symbolic figure of the Catholic church and Paul of the Lutheran (or more generally Protestant) church. Visiting their bones seems like a fitting end to a pilgrimage toward Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation.

The symbolism itself is worth reflecting on. How exactly have two long-competing churches established a claim one one apostle or another? On a superficial level, it’s clear enough. Peter is the one to whom Christ bestowed the “keys to the kingdom” and is the “rock” on whom Christ will build his church (Matthew 16:18-19); he’s also the first bishop of Rome and hence the first pope. Paul is the author of the New Testament epistles that focus most strongly on the doctrine of justification (for example, Romans 3:28), the central doctrinal proposal of Luther and the Reformation.

It has been convenient for each church to claim these respective apostles. But it’s also misleading, to say the least. Catholics certainly recognize Paul’s letters as Scripture equal to the rest, and Lutherans certainly recognize Peter as the chief of Jesus’ disciples with a special role to play. The fact that we exhibit some kind of preference betrays a polemical unwillingness to hear the whole counsel of God in the Scriptures.

But it’s also worth reflecting on the fact that Peter and Paul had a major clash over the proper relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers, and especially the extent to which Jewish law was applicable to Gentile Christians. And yet, for all this, they were both apostles of the same Christ, and both ultimately gave their lives as martyrs in the same city of Rome.

There are many ways to interpret the Peter-Paul clash, but I’d like to suggest we reflect on this one: rather than saying out of hand that there was a winner and a loser, one right and one wrong, we should recognize that this clash was a merciful gift of God’s. It forced out into the open something that was latent and unexamined. Through it greater clarity came to the church about what it was and what its gospel really meant.

Not all the implications of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ are obvious right from the start, and some take years—centuries—maybe even millennia to sort out. If one as close and as dear to Jesus as Peter himself could make mistakes along the way, then we should regard others (and others’ mistakes) with mercy and ourselves with some humility. And this certainly applies to differences across confessional and denominational boundaries as well.

And so that means the ecumenical movement itself is going to meander sometimes, because the path forward is not always clear. We do know the goal, but we don’t know exactly how to get there. If you don’t know how to get where you’re going, moving faster won’t actually get you there sooner. So there’s a certain good sense in paying close attention to the journey while the goal remains out of sight.

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