Peter may have had a learning disability and Paul may have had MS. For some people these suppositions might be distressing or unnerving. For me, they are comforting and hopeful. If God could use Paul and Peter, not in spite of their disabilities, but through them, then there is hope for me, for you, for today’s church.
I’ve long had an affinity for Peter, but only recently realized that Peter as portrayed in the Gospels, has some indicators of a learning disability. He’s often impulsive and acting in a manor that suggests he hasn’t quite processed the reality of his situation. Like when Jesus walked on water and Peter was sure he could do it, only to take a couple of steps and panic. Or when he swore that he would never deny Jesus only to do that very thing three times in a matter of hours. Peter’s passion often gets the better of him.
Then there’s the experience of the Resurrected Christ on the beach. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter says that he does. Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats his answer. Then the third time Jesus asks, Peter’s not happy about it. What we don’t see in the English translation and Peter didn’t hear is that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him the way that God loves (agape). Peter was responding yes, but that he loved Jesus with a familial love (philios). On the third go, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with a familial love, and Peter responds that he does. Peter missed what Jesus was asking. The good news is that Jesus knew Peter and understood him better than Peter understood himself. Jesus rephrased the question, so that Peter’s answer held truth. Jesus always met Peter where he was and used his passion and impulsiveness to build the church. Peter’s learning differences were not changed, healed, cured, or otherwise erased. God used him exactly as he was.
Paul’s story is similar if you are willing to entertain the idea that Paul had MS. His Damascus Road experience fits with MS symptoms fairly well. He was temporarily blinded. He fell off his horse. His body wasn’t working right for a few days, and then he got better. This does not negate the spiritual experience. In fact, it only makes the story more plausible, more powerful. In the midst of a physical crisis, God was able to reach Saul in ways that weren’t possible when Saul was reliant on his personal power and privilege. In Paul’s writings there are other things he describes that could be symptoms of MS. He wrote with “large letters” (Gal. 6:11). Maybe his unreliable physical health was the thorn in his side… Imagine the church’s greatest evangelist living with a physical disability! God used him to bring Christianity to the Gentiles, not in spite of his disability, but with it as part of his identity.
When a colleague suggested that Paul had MS it resonated so deeply with me. It also made me remember my theory that Peter had a learning disability. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 19. At the same time, I developed double vision and some other symptoms that doctors thought were an atypical form of MS. The dyslexia diagnosis made sense to me as it explained some of my struggles with spelling and how slowly I read. But I didn’t share the news with very many people. Similarly, the tentative MS diagnosis isn’t something I shared with people very often, either. I didn’t want the inevitable judgment. Nor did I want to acknowledge my on suspicions of why I had these conditions.
Somehow having disabilities meant that my faith was inadequate. I would never be able to achieve Christian perfection as is commonly understood. Maybe if I prayed enough, I would be healed or cured or transformed in some way. Maybe the doctors were wrong and there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe if I ignored these things, they would go away and I could focus on my call to ministry. But what if these things were punishment for my sins?
More than 30 years later, I still have a learning disability though I am not sure “dyslexia” is the accurate label. I don’t actually have MS, I have a form of dysautonomia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) that has some symptoms similar to those of MS and has only been recognized since the early 1990s. While I don’t announce these conditions all the time, I don’t ignore them anymore. I no longer think that they are punishment for sin, nor do I believe that they keep me from wholeness (my newer understanding of perfection in the Christian context). I accept that a learning disability and dysautonomia are part of who I am, and God called me into ordained ministry knowing me better than I knew myself, and meeting me where I was while calling me into a future full of grace and love.
This is why I find it extraordinarily wonderful that Peter may have had a learning disability and that Paul may have had MS. God didn’t see them as broken. God called them into the fullness of their being, their whole selves, so that God could work through them to transform the world. God does not see our brokenness; God sees our wholeness. May we have the grace to see wholeness in one another and love with God’s love.
RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)