Peter, Paul and dealing with difficult personalities

Every year on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, I stop to try to imagine what they are like together in heaven. Typically, I imagine them on opposite sides of heaven, celebrating with their own little circles of friends, maybe passing each other and giving a polite nod of recognition. But otherwise, it is difficult for me to actually imagine St. Peter and St. Paul being together.

Of course, this is not at all what heaven is like. No, in heaven, we are all united, we are one, singing in one accord and united in the love of Christ, worshipping him and soaking up his glorious unimpeded love for all of eternity.

I don’t know about you, but there are a few people who I do not want to have next to me while I am soaking up God’s glorious unimpeded love for all eternity. I want them to be in heaven, I am just hoping that they will have seats on the opposite end. That is where Peter and Paul have something to teach us.

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On this earth, Peter and Paul had quite a bit of conflict. God had given each of them different gifts and different responsibilities. On the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ called Paul to be a “light to the Gentiles,” meaning that he was given the particular responsibility of ministering and bringing the Gospel to non-Jews. Peter, however, was given governing responsibility over the Church as a whole.

Basically, they both had a great deal of responsibility in helping the Church get started and making sure that it did not end with their generation. It is not difficult to imagine that both Peter and Paul probably had many sleepless nights thinking about their mistakes and being concerned about the people who they had baptized.

The biggest conflict that Peter and Paul had revolved around whether or not people needed to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians. Becoming Jews first would mean that the men would have to be circumcised and they would have to follow the Jewish law, including not eating pork, among other things. Paul insisted that people could become Christian without becoming Jewish first; Peter was not so sure.

When you read about this incident in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he accuses Peter of being a hypocrite and leading other people astray. Given that Paul was known for his zeal, it is quite likely that he did not use the most charitable words when confronting Peter about making it more difficult for non-Jews to become Christians.

In the end, God intervened and Peter decided that you could become Christian simply by being baptized and not by following Jewish laws. But this incident gives the sense that Peter and Paul were not the best of friends on earth.

We have many letters from Paul in which he reveals that he was probably a difficult person to get along with. He called the Galatians “stupid” — twice. He parted ways with Barnabas, who had previously been his close companion, for reasons that we still do not know today. But one thing is certain: Paul loved Jesus.

Peter undoubtedly knew how much Paul loved Jesus. In fact, his passion for Jesus might have bothered Peter, who was concerned with more practical matters while Paul was planning seemingly imaginary trips to Rome and Spain. They both knew, however, that the other had undeniably been called by Christ to bring his loving salvation to the world.

Despite their conflicts, they trusted what God was doing in the other. Paul believed that Peter really was the visible head of the Church on earth and trusted his final decisions. Peter believed that Jesus really had appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and was using Paul as an essential part of his plan to bring the whole world to know God.

When we have personality conflicts, though, things can seem messier. Unlike Peter and Paul, our co-workers and in-laws do not seem to be trying to bring God’s love into the world. Or are they?

The next time you find yourself in a personality conflict with someone, try to remember Sts. Peter and Paul. Instead of being angry and fostering resentments, trust that the other person is genuinely seeking the good given the information and responsibility that God has entrusted to them. Listen and see if you can learn. Undoubtedly, like with Peter and Paul, God will speak to you if you are willing to listen.

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