In preaching on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which is in a sense the feast of the Church as such (as one of our liturgical texts indicates), I usually focus on who they are and what they represent in the mystery of the Church, in her hierarchical and sacramental nature, and in her ascetical and mystical life. But since preachers are not supposed to merely regurgitate the same things over and over, I thought I’d try to look at this feast from a somewhat different perspective this time around. It’s not going to be so different that I would not focus on Peter and Paul, of course! I would like to look at them, however, not primarily in the ways they reflect the mystery of the Church as such, but in the ways we can, as individual members of the Church, benefit from the example of their lives.
Hopefully we will find them to be more accessible than unreachable ideals on pedestals, which are worthy of veneration but beyond our capacity for emulation. As St Paul himself said in the Epistle for this feast (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), despite his extraordinary experiences, he doesn’t want anyone to think more of him that what we can see in him or hear from him. So let us discover what we can see in these great Apostles and hear from them, so as to come closer to Him whom their hearts loved and for whom they gave their lives.
We should see from the outset, perhaps as a bit of consolation, that even though Peter and Paul are among the holiest of the saints, both of them needed to repent—and were rather sharply reminded of it. The future Apostle to the Gentiles was knocked to the ground and interrogated in a blinding light by a Voice from Heaven that accused the bewildered Saul of persecuting Him. And the future rock and leader of Christ’s Church was called “satan” and accused of being on the side of man instead of that of God, and he was brought to bitter tears by the fulfillment of a prophecy and a piercing look by the Lord who was led away to crucifixion after Peter had denied Him.
So, their pedestals are somewhat chipped and cracked. Yet this does not detract from their glory, for Paul himself noted that divine treasures are kept in earthen vessels to make it clear that all the grace and power come from God. So we, though always in need of repentance, can realize that sanctity is still possible, that holiness comes from God and can be granted to sinners who sincerely strive to overcome their sin by God’s grace, and who cling to their faith in Jesus, come what may.
In the context of today’s Gospel (Mt. 16:13-19), we see that Peter’s glory comes from his profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God. Jesus declared that this insight could only have come from his heavenly Father, and He straightway made Peter the rock of his Church, a Church over which Hell would never prevail—though He didn’t say Hell wouldn’t inflict some serious damage, which historically, and up to the present day, it has. But the point here is that the Church of Jesus Christ is built upon the true faith, the faith which Peter was the first to profess, the faith which Peter’s successors have been called to guard and propagate until the Lord returns.
Here is the way we can be like Peter: our faith should be as lively and personal as his was. It is not enough to make a formal profession of faith, as in reciting the Creed, in which we speak of God and his only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit in the third person. Our profession of faith should be made personally to Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” To be able to do that, we have to know Him and love Him, that is, to be in an ongoing relationship with Him. The Church helps us with this, for the very first words of our prayer just before approaching Holy Communion are those of Peter from the Gospel of this feast: “I believe, O Lord, and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the Living God”—and then we immediately add a few words from St Paul—“who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1Tim. 1:15), “first” meaning “foremost,” the most egregious example. Paul could say that because he persecuted the Church, and we can say that because after all the graces we have received, we—who are supposed to know and love God and follow Jesus—still sin as if we hardly knew Him at all or as if we haven’t received countless blessings. So our guilt is proportionately and subjectively greater than that of someone who may commit more grievous sins without having received the graces we have. God doesn’t judge with one standard template; He weighs our sins against the graces we have received. So in truth we can pray with Paul that we are foremost among sinners.
Peter, along with his boldness of faith, was somewhat impetuous and hard-headed, even blustery. In some ways this got him into trouble, but I think it probably also endeared him to the Lord. He had a habit of speaking or acting without first thinking, but this impetuosity was also in service of his love for Christ. I like the passage in the last chapter of John’s Gospel in which the risen Jesus appeared on the shore while the disciples were fishing. When John told Peter it was the Lord, Peter immediately “sprang into the sea,” not willing to wait to row the boat in. Jesus tested Peter’s love for Him on the shore, rehabilitating his threefold denial with a threefold profession of love. So Peter is known in the Gospels for his profession both of faith and of love—fitting for the leader and rock of the Church of Christ.
Indeed, for this reason Jesus required more love from Peter than from the other apostles. “Do you love Me more than these do?” Jesus asked him. I think of Pope Benedict XVI, the current successor of St Peter. He may not be as charismatic as Pope John Paul II, but his love for Jesus—“more than these”—is evident in all he says and does. He carries a heavy cross and endures much harsh criticism from those who know not the Lord, but he always preaches Christ: a life-giving, personal encounter of love with Him, and fidelity to his word and example. And in this the Pope is eminently worthy of the commission Christ gave to Peter, to be a spiritual rock, a shepherd, a guardian of the truth, a lover of Christ, laying down his life day by day.
We know that St Peter glorified God not only in life but in death, being crucified in imitation of his Lord, though considering himself unworthy to die that way was granted his request to be crucified upside down. We don’t know much about Peter’s life and sufferings once he disappears from the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, but it’s probably safe to say that it is St Paul who wins the prize for suffering the most for Christ. I don’t know if any of the saints have been beaten, flogged, stoned, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted more than the indestructible Apostle to the Gentiles.
We heard Paul’s own account in the epistle reading. He did admit he was boasting somewhat, though not a whit beyond the honest truth, but he felt compelled to do so because there were “false apostles” in their midst, servants of satan who “disguised themselves as servants of righteousness.” These were placing themselves, and hence their false doctrines, on a par with Paul and his teaching, so he had to assert his authority. “Do they suffer for Christ as I have?” could be the theme of this section. “Have they be taken to the third heaven and been granted extraordinary revelations?” St Paul didn’t want to talk about himself, but in this case it seemed it was the only thing he could do to safeguard the true faith. And as if he hadn’t suffered enough, the Lord sent him still another affliction to make sure his extraordinary experiences didn’t make him proud. The Apostle begged the Lord to relent, but the Lord famously told him that grace was sufficient for him. Immediately Paul decided to rejoice in his sufferings, for in this weakness Christ’s power would make him strong.
Here we come to Paul’s greatness. To say he had an intense personality is an understatement, but all his intensity he focused on loving and serving Christ, and preaching Him to all who would listen, and even to those who wouldn’t. He would suffer whatever was required to remain faithful, and to help others see what he saw. For he had come to know Christ personally, and hence nothing else mattered. Like Peter he could say to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
So let us learn something from these two great Apostles of Christ and pillars of his Church, something that we can practice in our own lives and thus become more like them and hence more pleasing to the Lord. Let us first realize that our flawed personalities can still be used in service of the Kingdom: repentance and grace go a long way here, and the lives of the Apostles show that God can work with anyone who is willing to take up his cross and follow Christ. Let us also profess the true faith in a personal way, engaging Christ in dialogue through prayer, being faithful to Him and sharing our faith with others. Let us then hear Him speak to us as He did to Peter, asking us if we love Him, and giving Him our hearts in return. Let us pray for that intense, wholehearted, even foolhardy (in the eyes of the world) love for Jesus that characterized the lives of these two apostles and of all the saints. St Peter didn’t hesitate to walk on a stormy sea toward his beloved Lord, and St Paul didn’t mind becoming a “fool for Christ” as he preached the wisdom of the Cross.
Let us also accept, finally, that the grace of Christ is sufficient for us in whatever we suffer. Everything is healed and made new by divine love. The love of Christ impels us, that we might live for Him who died for us, says St Paul (see 2Cor. 5:14-15). And, “Lord, you know that I love you,” says St Peter (Jn. 21:15). Before God, we can do no better than to follow the example of these two beloved apostles, servants, and friends of Christ.