Solemnity of Ss Peter & Paul
Today we celebrate the two outstanding apostles of the Church, two contrasting personalities. Peter was from Galilee, a fisherman, poor, un-educated and probably illiterate. St Jerome tells us that Paul too was a Galilean, yet his enforced exile to Tarsus as a child opened other possibilities for him: he was well educated and knew well the Roman system, perhaps even being a Roman citizen. He trained in the rigorous code of the Pharisees. He was a lawyer but also a skilled tentmaker. How is it their stories became intertwined? What brought these men to give totally of themselves and ultimately their lives for the embryonic Christian faith?
The answer lies in the fact that both came face to face with Jesus Christ, who called them to follow him. That encounter with Christ, that call, transformed their lives forever. Peter, impulsive and rash, struggled throughout Jesus’ ministry to understand and believe in the meaning of Christ. Limited in the area of public relations, it is a great comfort for ordinary mortals to know that Peter also has his human weakness, even in the presence of Jesus.
He generously gave up all things, yet he can ask in childish self-regard, “What are we going to get for all this?” He receives the full force of Christ’s anger when he objects to the idea of a suffering Messiah: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do”
Peter is willing to accept Jesus’ doctrine of forgiveness, but suggests a limit of seven times. He walks on the water in faith, but sinks in doubt. He refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, then wants his whole body cleansed. He swears at the Last Supper that he will never deny Jesus, and then swears to a servant maid that he has never known the man. He loyally resists the first attempt to arrest Jesus by cutting off the ear of Malchus, but in the end he runs away with the others. In the depth of his sorrow, Jesus looks on him and forgives him, and he goes out and sheds bitter tears. It is to this seeming failure that the Risen Lord says, “Peter feed my lambs…feed my sheep”. And it is the same Peter who responds to the prompting of the Spirit and declares boldly “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Ultimately, Christ draws out the best of Peter to whom he entrusts the leadership of the Apostles and who will go on to preach the first sermon of the Christian Church at Pentecost, afire with the Holy Spirit.
Beyond any reasonable doubt, in the early Church, as today, the successors of Peter, the Bishops of Rome, were seen as and acted as the Church’s Rock and leading Shepherd, the centre of unity, truth, and stability for the world-wide Church.
We meet Saul in the Acts of the Apostles, full of righteous zeal against these dangerous Christians, approving of the stoning of St Stephen. On such a mission to slay such Christians in Damascus, he experiences an earth shattering encounter with the Risen Christ. Blinded, dazed and confused, stripped of all his certainty, power and assuredness, he must be led by the hand into the city, lost, frightened and powerless. Yet through the power of the Spirit the scales fall from Saul’s eyes. He begins to see with the eyes of faith. In the new life of the baptised, the newly named Paul goes on the preach the Gospel of Christ throughout Mediterranean as far as Rome, hoping to travel on to Spain, ‘the ends of the earth’, and leaving us the precious teaching of his epistles and the wonderful example of his life and ministry.
Peter and Paul are the two great heroes of the Apostolic Age ‑ Peter for leading the first Christian communities and binding them in unity, a role that springs from his profession of faith in Caesarea Philippi, and Paul for travelling throughout the Roman Empire as the Apostle to the Gentiles, ensuring that the Gospel could be heard by all. They conclude their earthly journey in Rome, the heart of the Empire, where they crowned their lives of witness by shedding their blood for Christ. In celebrating the death of these apostles and martyrs, we celebrate today, the triumph of life and death offered fully to God.
Ss Peter and Paul, pray for us and with us today.