Acts 12:1-11, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18, Matthew 16:13-19
Peter and Paul, by El Greco
Peter and Paul have been venerated from the earliest times in the Church’s Tradition. They were both martyred in Rome. Their missions, from the beginning, were complementary. Peter’s call was to proclaim the gospel to the Jews, while Paul’s call was to take the gospel to the Gentiles, to the nations. Peter founded the Church in Rome. He was its first bishop. This was, from then on, recognised as first among the apostolic sees. Paul on the other hand, travelled the world establishing Churches everywhere. Towards the end of his life, he spent about two years in Rome under house arrest, awaiting execution. His greatest contribution to Rome in some ways is his magnificent letter to the Romans. It did not just shape Rome but has shaped Christianity ever since. We hold these apostles with such great honour because they are not simply founding apostles, but their respective callings are archetypal (along with a few others) for the Church. They model what the Church is about and their experience is foundational for our spiritual lives. Their complementarity has given occasion for some, in the history of the Church, to be seen as competition, but this is a false image. As individuals and archetypes they always worked together: Peter, as first among the apostles guarantees the unity of the Church and Paul, the preacher of the gospel exemplifies its missionary nature, it’s very raison d’etre. Today, I want to pick on some of the things that are common to both these saints and hence to the Church as a whole, especially, as they come out in the readings, particularly under four headings – forgiveness, freedom, faithfulness and mission.
Forgiveness: Peter and Paul were men delivered by God’s grace, from their pride. Peter, from the beginning, loved Jesus. But he also had great confidence in his own capacity to love God and obey him. He will fall terribly, denying he even knew the one he loved. Jesus would meet him, after his resurrection and reveal to him his unconditional love. He would forgive him and give him his commission to lead the Church. It would be this forgiveness that would animate everything Peter did. Paul, on the other hand was fiercely strong, with an iron will. But he would be a persecutor of the Church, someone consumed by his own sense of righteousness and possibly, even rage. Christ would reveal to him the Truth, show him his love and give him a new mission. From then on, he would know himself only as one loved by the Son of God, who died for him (Gal 2:20). Knowing this forgiveness was foundational for these men and remains so for the Church. Today, so many Catholics go about feeling condemned, bound by their guilt. But to be a Christian, means to know that God has loved you and has forgiven you. There is no spiritual life without knowing God’s forgiveness.
Freedom: In today’s readings we meet Peter in prison. We can find ourselves in all kinds of prisons – literally, or otherwise; we can find ourselves bound by all kinds of sins, addictions, anger, what not. Many of these, only God can rescue us. Peter is chained between two guards and guarded by two more outside, there is no way to escape. Herod plans to bring him up and execute him before the crowds. Into this prison enters the angel of the Lord. And the prison, this place of darkness, is filled with light. The guards are not even aware of this angelic intervention and Peter is brought out into freedom. Even Peter cannot believe what has happened, he thinks he is dreaming. Luke notes that it was the time of the Passover festival. You recall that it was the first Passover, when the angel of the Lord rescued the Israelites from Egypt; after several terrifying days, being chased by Pharoah’s army, they find them swallowed up by the Red Sea which they have crossed miraculously. Only then, do they believe what this God has done and what he can do. And they burst into joyful praise and thanksgiving. And here, Peter is rescued from the new Pharoah, Herod. And where Herod was to pass judgment over Peter, God passes judgment on him and the angel strikes him dead. Peter’s experience represents the nature of the Church as a whole. Like the Jews, the Church is birthed through its freedom from slavery, because of the action of God. We were all in a prison from which we could never escape. We were all confined to a state of spiritual slavery, having no rights. But God has rescued us by his own choice, by his own work, by his grace. This is what our baptism means. And when we realise what we have been saved from, we cannot help but give thanks, like Moses, like Israel and like the early Church. Paul would write saying “You were dead in your sins…but God who is rich in mercy made us alive together with Christ, you have been saved by grace…that he might show us his immeasurable kindness in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:1-8). To be baptised is to know that we have been rescued, first and foremost from spiritual slavery.
Peter would later write, “You are a chosen race…called to proclaim the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into this wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). The most fundamental act of our worship is thanksgiving. Maybe you find yourself still enslaved – give thanks and praise to the God who calls you to freedom. And you will experience the freedom that God alone can bring.
Faithfulness of God: Similar to Peter, we find Paul in prison, where he’s been for sometime. Like Peter, he has been saved time and again, from the hands of those who would want to kill him. Sometimes he would escape in seemingly human ways, being let down by a basket from a window, at other times, he would be freed, divinely, by an earthquake. For Paul, from his initial conversion through all of his experiences, he was convinced of the faithfulness of God in Jesus; Jesus was the one who was with him through all his trials. And because he was with him, there was nothing that anyone could do to him that wouldn’t be in the plan of God. The worst things that people could do, God would turn it around for his good and the good of his kingdom. And now, he knows he will die, but that is a cause of great rejoicing for him; he has finished his task and he is now going to see Christ face to face. Knowing Christ’s faithfulness means that Paul has no fear, in every circumstance he faces. This is the life that God wants to give us, freedom from all our anxieties, because we know that God is there with us. Paul would write some of the most beautiful lines in the whole of Scripture. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31) “Who can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? Can poverty, sickness, peril, nakedness or sword? No in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). Knowing God’s faithfulness, even the worst things – imprisonment, flogging, the dungeons, they could rejoice.
Mission: Knowing God’s forgiveness, his faithfulness, the freedom that Christ brings to our lives, can only mean one thing – that our life overflows in thanksgiving and in mission. Mission is simply this – to tell others what God has done in our lives. Both Peter and Paul knew that this would end in their martyrdom, but they couldn’t do anything less. It didn’t matter what they wanted – they realised they found their fulfilment only in the will of God. How could they not give themselves fully to Christ who had given himself fully to them? And here they would find their deepest fulfilment of their lives. And God is never outdone in generosity – two thousand years later, their lives and their mission still bear fruit in the world today. This is the paradigmatic experience into which all of us are called. For this we ask the intercession of these glorious saints.