13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Acts 12:1-11 – 2 Timothy 4:6-8 – Matthew 16:13-19.
Today we celebrate the foundational figures of the Church, both of whom were martyred in Rome. St. Peter was a fisherman who was called to ‘come and see’ Jesus by his brother, Andrew (Jn 1:41). After God revealed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, to Peter, Peter was identified by Christ Himself (Mt 16:17) as the ‘Rock’ on which the Church is firmly established. Peter, always listed first in accounts of the Apostles, was instructed by Jesus to “strengthen his brethren” (Lk 22:31ff) which he did from Jerusalem (Acts chs. 1-2, 10-11 & 15). Taken in chains to Rome around AD 64, he was martyred by inverted crucifixion because he didn’t consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as His Lord. Saul, later St. Paul, was a zealous Pharisee, an educated Jew and a Roman citizen, who persecuted the early Church with a passion. He was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen and looked on approvingly (Acts 22:20). He was converted by Christ Himself on the road to Damascus when he literally ‘saw the light’ (Acts 22:6). Paul undertook multiple missionary journeys and was the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 1:15-16) and because he envisioned a New Covenant embracing both Jews and non-Jews (Rom 15:19ff). He was martyred by being beheaded in Rome around AD 67. Both Peter and Paul witnessed to Christ with their lives. They are the two great Apostles of mission, Peter to Jewish communities, and Paul to the Gentile world of the Near East and Rome. In their spiritual journeys with the Lord, both experienced His gratuitous compassion and forgiveness. Although Peter denied the Lord three times (Lk 22:57-61 he was forgiven when he asked for pardon, and was instructed three times to feed the Lord’s lambs and sheep (Jn 21:15ff). Although Paul persecuted the early Christian community, he was called, converted and forgiven. Both St. Peter and St. Paul are fathers in the Faith.
Both Apostles experienced divine deliverance in their ministries. In the Second Reading, St. Paul spoke of his having been fulfilled: he had fought the good fight of faith (2 Tim 4:7), preached to the nations, converted many and established churches across the Near East. He wrote that, ‘the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully…I was rescued from the lion’s mouth’. In the First Reading, St. Peter wrote of his deliverance from prison: ‘Now, I am sure that the Lord has rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting’. The situation was that Peter was going to be degraded and killed in order to massage Herod’s political popularity. However, Herod’s evil plans were thwarted. As Herod made plans to make an example of Peter to boost his popularity, the plan of God was to up-end the situation to give Peter an opportunity to give glory to God. While Peter was in prison, Christians were praying earnestly for his deliverance. And what was the result? The Lord intervened! Peter was divinely rescued. The prayers of Christian communities then and now are capable of invoking great wonders from God.
Now, to go back a bit, Herod had noticed that his popularity was boosted when he had St. James, the brother of St. John, killed (Acts 12:2). The murder pleased the Jews, whose political allegiance he needed. In his desire for yet more popular acclaim, he had Peter arrested and thrown in jail prior to execution. Do you see how Herod was using the life of another human being as bait for power and vainglory? In our personal ambitions in life, we have all made the mistake at one time or another of going for an end product, a reward, without necessarily thinking of the morality of the means by which we get it. Putting the cart before the horse, as it were, we become so entranced by the end product, the reward, that we don’t care whether we get it by fair means or foul. Indeed, it is a great temptation to look only at getting what we want without considering the morality of how we get it. Of course, Herod’s behaviour was over-the-top, and we wouldn’t go as far at that ourselves. But isn’t it true that sometimes we make the same sort of error, for instance when we place our own aims and ambitions above our duty to love others in society for the sake of Christ? When our desire to get what we want causes us to knock everybody else out of the way? When we are guilty of pride of vainglory because we believe ourselves to be better than anybody else and more worthy of getting what we want? Now do you see the danger of moral dislocation?
Saints Peter and Paul teach us by their lives that saints do not start out as saints. They are all flawed human being like ourselves. What saints do differently from the mainstream of humanity is that they completely embrace the divine calling to conversion. They really go for it. They tap into the immensity of God’s mercy while striving relentlessly to grow in grace. Saints are those who, recognizing with sorrow their weaknesses and frailties, draw great strength from the abundant mercy of God. They do all they can to maintain that strength throughout their lives. They never give up, they never become discouraged even when they fail and fall, because like St. Paul they trust that when they are weak, they are strong (2 Cor 12:11). It was Peter who was divinely inspired to be the first to announce to the world who the God-Man was: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16). In confessing Jesus as the Messiah, Peter’s name was changed from Simon to ‘Cephas’- the “Rock”, for ‘Peter’ or ‘Petros’ was to become the Rock upon which the foundation of the Church rests, the Rock symbolising the oneness, the unity and the power of God invested in Her.
Finally, the lives of Saints Peter and Paul evidenced the unshakeable belief and trust they both developed in the Christ they professed. They are worthy of emulation. Each of them, one with a stable, localised mission to the Jews, and the other with a mission that took him across multiple countries in his passion to spread the word to the Gentiles, fought the good fight. In them, we too can find ways to wrestle with problems arising in the Church today. The Church and the World both contain contrasting elements that bring extroverted people up against introverted people, sensory people up against intuitive people, people quick to judge against laid-back personalities, and logical thinkers up against those who prioritise human warmth. One part of the Church conservatively seeks to preserve what has been thrashed out over 2000 years, while the other excitedly reaches out across many boundaries. One part of the Church seeks a hermeneutic of continuity, while the other has little time for the old and seeks ‘fresh woods and pastures new’. One part of the Church is looking to take responsibility for previous actions, while the other is dreaming new dreams. My hope is that these two lines need not necessarily be an excuse for disunity and split the Church. Variety is the spice of life and can be modelled as sources of strength. Our differences should be harnessed to make us strong. May we be encouraged by the examples of Saints Peter and Paul, and may the Lord help us to recognize the good side in each and every one of us Amen. God bless you.