“My life is already being poured away like a libation … You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church” (1 Timothy 4: 6; Matthew 16: 18).
The Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul was yesterday, to be specific. But the Church in England and Wales celebrates this Solemnity today. This is one of the movable solemnities in the Church. This means that Bishops in particular Churches have the right to move “movable” solemnities and feasts to the nearest Sunday. In such cases, the rite of the solemnity takes precedence over the Sunday celebration. So whereas many parts of the ecclesial world celebrate the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we, in the particular Church of England and Wales, celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. The importance and significance of these iconic personalities in the founding, organisation, spread and influence of Christianity cannot be over-empahsised. These men are rightly considered the pillars of the Church, not so much by what they were able to do by themselves, but certainly because of how much they responded to the call and applied themselves to the demands of Christ in their peculiar circumstances.
Peter, The Apostle: Originally named Simon, but later given the name Cephas (Rock), Peter by Jesus for he was a man of tough or rough character and would be the “rock” upon which the Church would be built (Matthew 16: 18-20). Nothing is known about Peter before he met with Jesus on that day by the Sea of Tiberias in the company of his brother Andrew and with James and John, they four made the pair of brothers in the Apostolic College. He was a fisher man by profession with little from Bethsaida. Scholars have contested that the New Testament Epistles attributed to him were not strictly written by him because the Greek style of the Letters are too smooth and sophisticated to be the literary work of an unlettered fisherman. His encounter with Jesus, Who promised to make them “Fishers of men”, impacted immediate transformation in his life: “Immediately they left everything and followed Him” (Matthew 4: 20). A man of instinctive personality, quick to speak and erratic in behaviour. These accounted for both his heights, as when he was made the “Head of the Apostolic College” for professing faith in Christ: “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16: 20), and his lows as when he promised: “Even if these fall away on account of You, I never will” (Matthew 26: 33) only to deny His Master, not once but three times before a common maid (Matthew 26: 69-75). He wept bitterly when he recalled His Master’s warning; “Peter, before the cocks, you shall deny Me three times” (Matthew 26: 34). He was to be forgiven and restored at the post-Resurrection encounter, when Christ made him renew and reaffirm his love for Him. He was then commissioned to “Feed My sheep” John 21: 15-19). On Pentecost Day (Acts 2: ff), he delivered the inaugural speech that launched the new missionary endeavour that would extend to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8) and for which he would pay the ultimate prize with his life by being crucified upside down in Rome. Tradition has it that Peter served in Rome, after visits to Antioch (Galatians 2: 11) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 1: 12). He was the First Bishop of Rome – therefore, First Pope, succeeded by Pope Linus. He ultimately witnessed to the faith during the persecution of Emperor Nero by crucifixion raised upside down in 64 AD.
Paul, The Apostle: A fiery man of valour, initially named Saul and after his conversion was also known as Paul (Acts 13: 9). A great scholar of Jewish origin, a Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3: 5), schooled at the feet of Gamaliel on the Jewish law. A determined persecutor of the Church, who set out to defend “the faith of his fathers” by arresting, torturing and killing as many early Christian converts as could intimidate and extinguish the faith. On his way to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-30), the Lord Jesus appeared to him and challenged him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9: 4). This experience of the Risen Lord, during which he was blinded for three days and took neither food nor water in those days, his life was transformed and his heart converted from a persecutor of the Lord to an indefatigable “Apostle of the Lord to Gentiles.” He was baptised by Ananias and was filled with the Holy Spirit. His testimony and defence of the faith confounded his early listeners who had known him as “the man who made havoc in Jerusalem” against the believers (Acts 9: 20-22). He embarked on Three Missionary journeys during which he experienced humiliation, torture, imprisonment yet undaunted and never discouraged. Thirteen Books of the New Testament are attributed to his authorship as indelible signs of his magnificent stewardship. He bore the marks of apostleship and finally he was beheaded in Rome by the orders of Nero, just like Peter.
What Lessons for us: In these great men, we see a loving God, Who forgives entirely and restores us to our lost dignity and grace. In Peter, one who denies his Master; in Paul, one who persecutes his Lord, yet they are who they are because The One they offended loves and forgives all. He is prepared to do so for and with us if and when we turn to Him.
Today we celebrate these great pillars of our faith, two outstanding Fathers of the Church and of Christianity, Peter and Paul, iconized symbolically with the “Keys of the Kingdom” and with the “Books of the Kingdom.” Like Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Elijah and many others, these men had weaknesses, they were not perfect. They were like us: human, weak, frail, imperfect, timid and afraid. These weaknesses manifested at different points in their lives and their confusion and indecision or wrong choices led them astray. They groped and wallowed in their seeming blindness before and after they encountered the Lord. But what distinguished them was that they remained focused and trusted in the Lord that His “grace is sufficient” to give strength in their weakness. In all our weaknesses, God’s love has marked us out and his grace is equally sufficient for us. We do not need to be perfect to become powerful vessels for the Lord. All we need is to be ready to let go of the past and “Leave everything and follow Him” when he calls us. He who calls will make perfect the imperfection in us and make whole that which is lacking. In these men, we see the consistency that divine choice is not dependent on mere human strengths and abilities or merits but solely determined by God’s infinite plans in our lives for the transformation of the world.
Most outstanding and common in the lives of Peter and Paul were their zeal for the mission of the Lord; their undaunted faith and perseverance; their selflessness and commitment; their preparedness to endure all things for the sake of the gospel; and finally pouring fourth their lives as testimonial libation for the faith and love of Christ. These lives challenge our lives of comfort, our faith without much sacrifice; our love of convenience; and our preferences and choices. Our world, as it is, still needs men and women like Peter and Paul, who would go out there and boldly tell the world that Jesus died for us all and that He is Risen to die no more; and that He will come again. What price are we prepared to pay for our faith and love of Christ?