Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul
Acts 12:1-11; Psalm 87:1–3, 5–7; 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 17–18; John 21:15–19
How many of you have heard of Balm of Gilead? Did you know that you can make it? It’s a kind of salve made from olive oil combined with the resin of a certain tree’s buds. Guess what tree is used to make Balm of Gilead? Cottonwoods. The frustrating trees that make us sneeze, which blow their fluff around in the summertime, which we consider little better than weeds. The buds of the cottonwood tree can be steeped with oil to make an antiseptic and healing balm. From such a frustrating tree comes a magnificent medicine.
In the Bible, the land of Gilead is where the family of Gad (one of Jacob’s twelve sons) had settled. They traded in spices and balms. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, however, most of the children of Israel were struggling and had lost sight of God’s own role in their healing. Jeremiah wrote, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?" (Jer. 8:22) The prophet is asking how people who are known for their medicines can still be sick in a spiritual sense? From such a tree, rooted in God’s promises to Jacob and others, there should have been powerful soul medicine.
The song we know, There is a Balm in Gilead, comes from the African-American spiritual tradition. Traced back to pre-Civil War era, enslaved Africans and their descendants answered Jeremiah’s question. There is a balm in Gilead. There is healing for the soul. It is found in the person of Jesus- in the life, teaching, healing, death, and resurrection of Emmanual- God with us. The people who first sang, “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again” knew something that Jeremiah didn’t. They heard, trusted, and lived into the truth that Jesus had and would bring healing to their souls, the balm of salvation, hope, and renewal.
How did they come to know this? How did the story of an itinerant rabbi from the backwater of Nazareth come to the ears of African people and their descendants on the shores of the New World some 1800 years later? Who moved that story forward?
Among the people who did that work, two names stand out: Peter and Paul. We are so used to hearing about Peter and Paul, about their work, about their faith, that we often think of them as redwoods in the forest of Christ’s followers. They were surely head and shoulders above everyone else, even with their foibles. Peter helped to organize the sharing of the gospel to Jewish people. Paul spread the good news, after his awakening, to Gentiles throughout the Roman world.
However, these two men were the people equivalent of cottonwoods. They annoyed people. They popped up where they weren’t wanted. They frustrated each other. And, finally, when they could no longer be tolerated- they were chopped down. However, the lives of the fisherman from Galilee and the tentmaker from Tarsus were not ended without a significant spreading of the salve they had come to trust as healing for the mind, the body, and the soul.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter rejected the idea that Jesus would suffer and die. Peter denied being with Jesus to save his hide. Peter was not waiting at the tomb, in faith, for resurrection. And, yet, he still knew the truth of who Jesus was, “You are the Messiah.” The sap of faith was fermenting in Peter and would be tapped for the sake of the world on the day of Pentecost. God knew what this cottonwood could do.
Paul held the coats at the stoning of Stephen, according to Acts. He demonstrated his strength in the traditions of his birth by persecuting Christians, until Jesus blindsided him on the road to Damascus. Paul literally had to learn to trust God, through Christ, all over again by being cared for by Jesus’ followers. And, then, he was off. Sometimes I wonder if Paul ever stopped talking, between dictating letters, preaching, discussing, praying. It’s a wonder God didn’t restore his sight, but once in a while consider making him mute for a period. But God knew the balm that would flow from the pen and the mouth of this cottonwood.
We often are confused when we use the term “saints”. It is easy to think of people we know in our lives or in history who seemed outstandingly good, able to resist temptation, and wholly devout in all they do as saints. Essentially the redwoods of faith are who we think of, people standing head and shoulders above the rest of us. But it ain’t necessarily so. In fact, it necessarily ain’t so.
Saints come to being through Christ’s own work. God’s perseverance, through the Holy Spirit, in continuing to steer us right, to use our gifts for healing in the world, to show us the truth of our life and death in Jesus through baptism, communion, and work together… these things make up the lives of all the saints. God does not give special skills to just a few. God gives a few select skills to all- the ability to speak to the love of Jesus, the strength to offer assistance, the courage to keep on going with hope and trust.
You are no less important to the kingdom of God than Peter or Paul or Jeremiah or the enslaved people who persevered in faith. It is not a weaker balm that comes through you. You are as much cottonwood as they! (Good news- as annoying, as prolific, as strong, as much healing balm!) The life of faith is never about who you think you are, but about who God knows you are and God is working to shape, save, and use you for the sake of the world around you.
What’s the second verse of the hymn? “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all…” There is a balm in Gilead. It is the life and love of Jesus- Lord of Life now and forever. His story offers healing to the world, but it must be told. It gets told by God’s saints- who are only majestic in that they have died and been raised to new life- even right now- in Jesus. The healing salve of Jesus’ story pours into and out of God’s saints- cottonwoods that we be. Weedy, frustrating, and healing- created by God- just like Peter and Paul (and cottonwoods)- to share the good news and be part of the healing and flourishing of the kingdom of God.