June 29. Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Apostles

Ac 12:1-11. Peter is imprisoned by king Herod Agrippa, and left chained in a dungeon; but through an angel God sets him free to continue his work of leading the church.

2 Tm 4:6ff. Paul in prison feels that his time of my departure has come. He looks forward to the crown of righteousness that is promised to all who serve God faithfully.

Mt 16:13-19. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter declares his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God;” for this, he is appointed to lead the Church and given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Imperfect, but great Saints

Preachers have work to do if we are going to make the lives of the saints speak to modern hearers. Saints have been trivialized or romanticized.

A lot of what we have heard in our tradition has made saints seem unreal and remote from our hectic, plugged-in lives. Saints have seemed too perfect and detached from what concerns and consumes us. It is hard for everyday modern Christian to believe we have anything in common them. We also live in a time when people love to debunk heroes; we are afraid of investing too much emotionally in those whose lives we admire for fear someday we will find out unsavory truths about them. Recent church scandals have not helped our faith in ordinary people living truly holy lives.

But devotion to the saints can serve as an expression of devotion to the gospel and a protest to the ungodly values that frequently dominate our America culture. The feast of Peter and Paul celebrates two pillars of the first church. Paul is called the “Apostle to the Gentiles” but, as we have heard in recent Sunday and daily readings from Acts, Peter too ate with Gentiles and baptized them into the faith (Acts 10: 23ff.). Later he had to explain what he had done to the leaders of the Jerusalem church. The first Jewish Christians wanted Gentile converts to first become Jews and observe Jewish religious customs and laws. This would have severely limited the early church’s growth. Peter and Paul accepted Gentiles into the church and eventually so did the rest of the disciples. These saints struggled with their own brother and sister believers as well as with a world that was hostile to what they professed and taught as Christians.

The first and second readings today find both saints in prison for their beliefs. The fact of the apostles” imprisonment sets a sober atmosphere for today’s liturgy. We find these two models of faith suffering for practicing what they believe and for spreading the name of Jesus. What suffering does our own faith cause us? While Peter is rescued, eventually both he and Paul will be martyred as disciples of Christ. So the palm of martyrdom hangs over our scriptures today. Both saints were driven by their love for Jesus Christ and this love seems to have overcome fear and emboldened them. They had, what Walter Burghardt, S.J. says we preachers (and all believers) need, a “fire in the belly.”

We are a community that remembers our ancestors in faith. These two saints, whose lives we celebrate today, speak to us of God’s power to transform and redirect our lives. Peter and Paul’s lives were completely changed by their following Jesus. Their lives surprise us, and surprised them too! What Paul says in the second reading, Peter might have also said, “I have kept the faith.” Paul isn’t just speaking of doctrinal observances here; rather, he fulfilled what the faith required of him – witnessing and preaching his faith in Jesus to non-believers.

Though we celebrate two saints today, as a way of focusing I am looking at Paul as he comes to us in the second reading. (It is rare that we preach from the second reading and today is a opportunity to do that.) Also, Paul’s words are so personal today as he gives us insight into the cost and joy of being a disciple. We know that Paul was imprisoned in Rome during Nero’s harsh suppression of the Christians. At first Paul was placed under house arrest for two years, but then he was put in a more difficult prison environment. Paul doesn’t ordinarily reveal so much personal information about himself in the epistles and so it is thought this letter to Timothy may have been written by one of Paul’s disciples, perhaps after his death. Since it is so personal, today’s selection has strong homiletical possibilities. Living the Christian life is not easy, Paul describes it in terms of an athletic contest. The Second letter to Timothy places Paul’s life as a Christian witness before us.

In verses omitted from today’s section (verses 9-15), he tells of being deserted by his companions. Yet he is confident he will not be deserted by God. We can be grateful to Paul for these personal words from prison. He has suffered much for his faith and now the end is near.

We modern Christians may be tempted to give up on our own journey of faith. Being a Christian requires personal sacrifice, or as Paul puts it, we are to have the dedication of an athlete who must stay in top condition for the contest. Living the gospel calls for consistent dedication to our calling.

Such sacrifice is made extra difficult because we are not surrounded by a lot of examples. Corporate greed, unethical business practices, cheating on tax returns, sexual promiscuity, “reality” television shows that pit people against each other for money prizes – all speak of other options and contrary ways of living. At times, those other paths seem over populated and they have the power to draw our attention. They invite us to imitate their ways. If others can have it all, why can’t we?

Paul has made a long, constant and arduous sacrifice to live out the calling he received on the road to Damascus. Though he is in prison and sees his end near, he has no regrets for following Christ. He tells us that God will take him and reward him for the race he has run. This reading gives us an opportunity to hear the reflections of a great saint toward the end of his life. He speaks to those in our congregation who have lived a long and faithful life. Despite our doubts and fears as we face endings and many forms of closure, like Paul, we want to confidently entrust ourselves into the hands of a merciful God. But Paul’s example also speaks to younger members who are assured that the sacrifices they make to live their faith with integrity and their attempts to pass their faith to their children, will be rewarded some day by God. Even now, in the heat and strain of our race, God will not abandon us, just as God did not abandon Peter or Paul. We pray at this eucharist for the endurance and confidence our faith offer us. We come hungry to this celebration today; we hear stories of our ancestors in faith that assure and give us courage and we hunger for what nourished them. We know that the same Word and food that sustained them is ours as well.

As he faces death, Paul’s words give us wisdom. Using the perspective he gives us, we ask “When the day comes that I look back on my life, what will I see? Will I feel satisfied, a life well spent, energies invested in the right place? Or, will I feel disappointed by the choices I made? – Energies misdirected and invested in shallow places? A lifetime distracted by less important and passing things? Being a Christian for “the long haul” means resisting passing attractions to compromise. We must settle for an easy Christian life consisting of mere church attendance, while ignoring the more difficult options of discipleship. Paul shows us that the life of a faithful Christian does take perseverance and sacrifice. He says it is a life “poured out like a libation.” A libation to the gods would precede a sea journey. The image of the libation then is like the sacrifice made before a departure. Paul is about to leave on the final journey and his life is an offering poured out to God. A dedicated life of discipleship does set us apart, has us going against the stream of the majority, and consequently requires long and consistent sacrifice. Our lives in service to God are a libation that prepares us for our final journey. Such a life is only possible, Paul reminds us, because God has been there with us, enabling and helping us day by day to live out our faith despite constantly changing circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come to the end of our lives feeling Paul’s confidence that we had fought “the good fight,” finished the race and could trust God’s reward waiting us? We look to the future when Christ, who won “the merited crown” for us and made it possible to live faithful lives, will give us that crown. Meanwhile, our reading ends with a note about the present moment. There may be more to endure and more faithful service asked of us.

However, we are not alone in the present struggle, and Paul says we not only look forward to some future vindication, but we are assured that even now, “The Lord will continue to rescue me from all attempts to do me harm and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.”

Pillars of the Faith

The New Testament tells us nothing about the last days of either of the two great saints we honour in today’s feast. Early Christian sources, apart from this, reveal little about the actual death or burial of either of them. The only reference is the prophecy of Christ about Peter. “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you liked. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will bind you, and lead you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18). This he said to indicate by what death he would give glory to God. In ancient times, the phrase “stretch out the hands” signified crucifixion. There was always support, however, for the tradition that Peter’s death took place on the Vatican Hill where the great memorial to him now stands. St Peter’s Basilica is without doubt the place of greatest pilgrimage in Christiandom, and has been so right from the time it was first erected in the fourth century, when Constantine was emperor. But, it is probably true to say that most pilgims who go there today, are more affected by the vastness of it, the Baroque beauty of it, the scale of the decorations within it, rather than by any direct links it presents with the Apostle whose name it bears. In order to get close in spirit to the Apostle one has to go down underneath the huge Basilica to the excavations which were carried out during the period of Pope Pius XII.

There you can discover how this huge building was erected on a most awkward site – on top of a mainly pagan graveyard, which lay on the slope of the Vatican Hill, one of the seven historic hills of ancient Rome. To get a level foundation the original builders were forced to cut away the upper part of the slope, and raise the lower part with earth-fill. The purpose of all this was to ensure that when erected, one particular tomb, until then rather poor and insignificant in comparison with those around it, should lie directly underneath the high altar, which is now some twenty feet above it. For the first few centuries of its existence this grave had no monument identifying it. In fact at some stage a plaster facing brick wall, painted a bright red, was built for some purpose across the graveyard, and destroyed half of Peter’s grave. And when you ponder the question, why did the builders go to such immense trouble, and who was it they intended to honour, it is then that you begin to feel the wonder of Christianity.

For the man, to whose memory this vast building was raised close to the walls of the most renowned city of ancient times, was not even a Roman citizen. He was just a poor, unlettered fisherman from an insignificant and, according to the Romans in the first century, a troublesome little country, on the remote boundaries of their great empire. But the thing which set this person apart was the conviction that he was a man of faith, the one who, when Jesus put the question, “who do you say that I am?,” did not hesitate to answer on behalf of the others, “You re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And for him this burning inner conviction was not to stop there; it was something which had to be passed on, even if it meant travelling thousands of miles, even if it meant facing ridicule, condemnation and death at the centre of the great pagan empire. We have insights from the New Testament into the character of Peter which endear him to us, which make us identify with him, especially in his proneness to fall. But then we take heart from, and are edified by, his humility, his willingness to accept correction, his tears of repentance.

Peter and the saint who shares today’s feast with him, Paul, seem poles apart in temperament and personality. Paul was an intellectual, one who rationalised his campaign in advance, and did not hesitate to rebuke anyone, even Peter, should their paths cross. Paul’s death, well outside the boundary of Rome, was dignified as befitted a Roman citizen, whereas Peter was stripped and crucified head downwards, before a jeering mob, like a slave without rights, as was Jesus himself. Yet both were great apostles, both gave enduring witness to Christ, both by their heroic deaths won glory for themselves and the Church for which they had made the supreme sacrifice. Their lesson for us is that no matter what we have done in the past – and remember Paul had once persecuted the Church, and Peter publicly denied any knowledge of its founder – if we sincerely try and follow Christ, our Father in heaven will forgive us, and permit us to be with Christ forever in his kingdom.

First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John , killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.

While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.

After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

Second Reading: Second Epistle to Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”