We have much to be thankful for today as we celebrate the feast of the holy prime apostles Peter and Paul. Certain things are obvious, and others not so obvious. The obvious things are the power of intercession of these two saints, who are among the greatest of all saints, for the whole Church. There’s the ministry of Peter that endures to this day in the office of the papacy, the center of unity and the guarantee of the preservation of the faith and the moral doctrine of the Church until the Lord returns. And there’s the charism of missionary zeal and the profound teachings on the mystery of grace that Paul has handed on to the Church as precious elements of her heritage.
But I’d like to focus more today on the less obvious things for which we ought to give thanks to these two holy apostles, things which perhaps come closer to our own individual experience than the universal benefits granted to the Church as such in her hierarchical, sacramental, and communal life.
For this I’m going to begin with a very difficult passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which began my reflection on things which led me to my preparation for this feast day. Here’s the passage: “For if we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire… It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:26-27, 31). Now you may ask: What the heck does that have to do with the feast of Saints Peter and Paul?
Good question. I had simply been reading Hebrews as part of my usual daily Scripture reading, and this passage (along with similar ones like 6:4-8), which is always disturbing and hence which disturbed me again, got me to thinking. If I were to take this literally, I would have to resign myself to eternal damnation, because I have in fact sinned deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth. Perhaps several factors need to be considered when interpreting this passage.
One is that we’re not sure precisely what the author means by “sin deliberately.” Is that just any sin, or any mortal sin, or is it something like the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” or a sort of radical apostasy that results in permanent impenitence? Another thing to consider is the fact that in the early Church, it was generally accepted that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, so one’s embrace of faith in Christ and baptism were considered to be graces of the “eleventh hour,” and one was expected to spend the rest of one’s (short) time on earth in vigilance for the Lord’s return, which precluded any forays into the sins of which one had just repented. There was a tradition in the early Church (long since abandoned, since Jesus didn’t come back right away) of “no second repentance,” that is, once you were baptized and your sins forgiven, you had to stay clean until the Lord came back or else expect to lose your soul. That may be why it is stated in Hebrews that Jesus’ sacrifice was offered once and that if we sin again there are no more sacrifices for sins, only the fearful prospect of judgment.
Yet despite all these considerations, I realized that Scripture passages cannot be taken in isolation but must be understood as a unity, so I was hoping to find some situations in Scripture that would balance this seemingly harsh statement. But I was hard pressed to find examples of people who in fact had embraced the truth of Christ, had fallen away, and then were permitted to return to Him. When you look at the conversion stories in the Bible, they don’t offer much hope for that. Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven devils, but once she embraced Christ she didn’t fall away. Neither did the converts Timothy and Titus. Nor did the Apostle Paul, whose redirected zeal served him to the very end. We don’t have the whole story of the subsequent life of the Gadarene demoniacs, the repentant harlot of Luke 7, or any extension of the parables of the publican and the prodigal, but the implication is that they remained in the grace they were granted. The general message seems to be that once someone comes into a living relationship with Christ, their lives are forever changed and they do not fall away. There’s one who did embrace Christ and then fell away, but just as the Epistle to the Hebrews predicted, he stayed fallen and had to face a fearful judgment: that, of course, was Judas.
But then it came to me: Peter! Poor, failed, rehabilitated, blessed Peter! He’s the shining example that gives us all hope! We hear in today’s Gospel (Mt 16:13-19) that he indeed had come to knowledge of the truth, and Jesus even said that Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of the living God was a direct revelation from the heavenly Father. Then Jesus made him head of the apostles by giving him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and declaring that Jesus’ own Church would be founded on Peter the Rock, and it would never succumb to the powers of hell. And Jesus had already given him power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons and preach the Kingdom of Heaven.
Aside from the fact that Peter immediately tried to get in the way of Jesus’ saving sacrifice by saying He shouldn’t have to die, at the moment of truth Peter fell away: he sinned deliberately, he explicitly denied his Lord and Master. But the Lord soon received him back, requiring only a threefold profession of love to make reparation for his threefold denial. So part of the reason we rejoice in celebrating the feast of this great Apostle is that we learn from the example of his own life that there is still hope for the fallen, that even after having known the Lord and then sinning against Him, if we sincerely repent (and Peter surely did, with bitter tears), the Lord will receive us in his mercy, as we renew our love for Him and our firm resolution to amend our lives henceforth.
For there will in fact come a time when there is no longer a sacrifice for sins, that is, when we are standing before the judgment seat of God, when all our opportunities for repentance are behind us, and we will stand before Him in the state in which our souls were when they departed from our bodies. But now is the time to renew our love for Jesus through repentance and fidelity, and, as Hebrews also exhorts us, to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.”
And so we come to St Paul. He didn’t fall away like Peter. He was a persecutor of Christ, and thus in a certain objective sense a worse sinner than Peter, but the great difference was that Paul’s sins came before he knew Jesus. But if Peter teaches us the mercy of Jesus to those who fall even after they have embraced Him in faith and love, then Paul teaches us dogged perseverance in this faith and love, even in the midst of severe trials and sufferings.
We hear a long catalog of Paul’s sufferings in the Epistle (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), so we know that when Paul gave his life to Christ, he really gave it. There was no turning back, and all the powers of hell—which Jesus said would not prevail against the Church He founded on Peter—also did not prevail against Paul, a most exemplary member of that Church. Paul did have the advantage, however, of extraordinary experiences that most of us do not have, like being taken up into the “third heaven” to learn ineffable mysteries. But on the other hand, most of aren’t called to endure the extreme and relentless sufferings St Paul had to endure. We have the trials and burdens of daily life, of struggling to overcome temptation and break out of self-centeredness, to patiently endure physical or mental illness, to abandon habits of sin and to practice charity and mercy. That’s seems heavy enough for the likes of us, so Paul’s witness is still relevant and important.
Even this indestructible Apostle at a certain moment came to a trial he felt he could not endure, and he begged the Lord three times to deliver him. But the Lord did not give in, and He simply reminded him that divine grace was sufficient. Hearing that, Paul didn’t become disconsolate or angry, but rather was spurred on to even greater fidelity, endurance, and love for Jesus. Perhaps this is the most precious lesson of all that we can learn from St Paul: God’s grace is sufficient for us in any and all circumstances, in the midst of sufferings or sorrows. This is a lesson we have to learn over and over again, but it is an indispensable one if we are to grow in our life in Christ.
When Jesus told Paul that his grace was sufficient in his severe trial, it wasn’t merely for the sake of helping Paul increase his capacity for sheer endurance of pain. Jesus explained: “My power is perfected in weakness,” which means that the real intention is the bearing of spiritual fruit for the purpose of the Lord’s mission of saving souls. Our acceptance in faith and trust of the sufficiency of God’s grace in our trials results in the manifestation of God’s power in our lives and in the lives of those he has entrusted to us. St Paul would say later that he even rejoiced in his sufferings, for they were offered for the sake of the members of Christ’s body, the Church.
So Paul learned his lesson well, which is clear by the way he concludes his testimony: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”—content with them! Now there was a man who really knew Christ, and Him Crucified. That is why he is held up as a model of sanctity for our admiration and emulation. Like Paul, for the sake of Christ and the members of his Body, we are to accept the sufficient grace of Jesus in all the hardships and demands of this life.
So let us thank Peter, and let us thank Paul, not only for their ongoing intercession for us, but also for the precious lessons they teach us through the witness of their lives: their faith, their repentance, their endurance, and their love for Jesus Christ our Lord. Thus we will indeed experience his grace not only as sufficient but as overflowing, for He loves us and gave Himself for us, and He will spare no effort to bring us to Heaven, for his mercy endures forever.