“Why can’t we all just get along?” That is the question asked with hopeful and heartfelt poignancy by the President of the United States, played by Mr. Jack Nicholson, in the classic and campy 1996 satire Mars Attacks! The earth is under attack by the short, wacky-looking but well-armed Martians, and in a wonderfully satirical scene, the President makes this heart-felt appeal to his Martian attackers. It seems as if the appeal will be successful, and those of Mars and Earth will combine in fruitful friendship. The Martian leader looks chastened as the President continues his appeal; he casts down his eyes shame-facedly. His Martian eyes tear up. He approaches Nicholson and offers the hand of ostensible friendship. Nicholson takes the hand—only to discover that the hand detaches itself from the Martian’s arm and becomes a weapon which plunges itself into the President’s heart, killing him instantly. From the hand of the elongated weapon sprouts the Martian flag, planted in the earth through the dead body of the President. Why can’t we all just get along indeed.
It is not just in Hollywood farces that such conflicts erupt and such questions are asked. On earth, nations, races, and tribes regularly engage in conflict as the war that rests in the fallen human heart spills out in outer and murderous behavior. Whether it be something as minor as private domestic quarrelling or public road rage, or whether it be something as major as wide-spread international genocide, such conflicts have characterized and marred human existence from the beginning. The Scriptures report that human history began with a murder as Cain killed Abel, and since then all history has continued in that same terrible trajectory. Why can’t we all just get along? Why are differences the cause of conflict, rather than celebration? We delight that flowers and colours differ from one another; why do we seem to find it impossible to delight also when human beings differ from one another?
It is just here that the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul can help us. Speaking of differences, you could scarcely find two men as different as Peter and Paul. Peter was a fisherman, a blue-collar man, brought up in Galilee, a hotbed of Jewish nationalism. He was not well-educated, nor particularly well-travelled, nor was he especially articulate. He had a heart for reaching his own Jewish people, and was recognized, as the leader of the Twelve, to be spearheading the mission to “the circumcision”. Paul, on the other hand, was educated, brought up at the feet of the famous Jerusalem Rabbi Gamaliel. He hailed from a city in the Diaspora, Gentile Tarsus, which as Paul delighted to inform people, was “no mean city”. Unlike Peter, Paul was well-travelled and articulate. His heart was in the mission to the Gentiles, and he was acknowledged as both its poster-boy and its champion. Perhaps it was inevitable that the two men should clash, and clash loudly and publicly.
As Paul tells it in Gal. 2:11f, when he came to Antioch, Peter put his foot in it royally. Prior to the coming of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, Peter had no problem sharing table fellowship with the Gentile Christians, despite the revulsion this would cause traditionally-minded Jews. But when these men came from traditionally-minded Jerusalem, Peter’s nerve failed him, and he refused to eat with the Gentiles any longer. In Paul’s memorable phrase, “he stood condemned”. So it was that Paul opposed him publicly, forcefully, and to his face, calling him to account for such hypocritical inconsistency: “How is it that you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews and yet still compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Ouch. It was a spectacular rebuke, aimed with deadly effectiveness and accuracy. In some versions of the passage in Galatians 2 (it is not quite clear where the quote of Paul’s public speech ends), Paul went on from the question to preach a kind of mini-sermon. Peter’s response is not recorded. My personal guess is that he decided he was no longer hungry and left the room. Not exactly a “Kodak moment” for the harmony of the early church.
Yet later, they seem to have made up admirably, and no trace of any former rancor can be found. Peter speaks in his last epistle of “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pt. 3:15; I take this epistle to be genuinely Petrine), and Paul in his final days seems also to have been at peace with everyone also, including Mark, whom he declared as “useful to me for service” despite a former quarrel (2 Tim. 4:11; Acts 15:36-40). These were not men to hold grudges. When both Peter and Paul perished in the same Neronian persecution that swept over the Roman church after the Great Fire of 64 A.D., they seem to have ended their days as brothers. The old quarrels had long since been resolved. They had found the secret of “getting along”.
That secret, as either of them would tell you, is Jesus. Their common love for the Lord was the secret well-spring of their love for each other. United by that love for Christ, they were able to acknowledge each other as brothers, and not let their differences become sources of conflict. The church rejoices in their example, keeping their feast each year on June 29, and venerating their icon, which shows them either embracing each other, or together holding aloft the single church of Christ for which they both labored so well. The lesson that their brotherly embrace offers us is clear: with Jesus in the heart, anyone can get along with anyone. But without Him, quarreling men have as much chance of lasting and fruitful reconciliation as if they were men of Earth and Mars.