Sunday 30 June 2019: Saints Peter and Paul
Heroes of the faith
Acts 12:1-11, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18, Matthew 16:13-19
By John Deehan
Parish priest of St Thomas More, Eastcote in the Diocese of Westminster
Context: Mass at a Catholic Secondary School of whom 50% are Catholics
Aim: to present Saints Peter and Paul as heroic witnesses to faith who bring the Bible alive
It used to be the custom that when people stayed in hotels, they would find next to their bed a copy of the Bible, provided by an organisation known as ‘The Gideons.’ The Gideons distribute Bibles free to hospitals, prisons, schools and even hotels to help people who have never had a Bible of their own to discover the word of God.
However, reading the Bible is not easy. We need people to help us understand its deeper meaning, and the people who are best placed to help us are the saints, those people who are exceptionally close to God. The saints are people whom we can look at and say, ‘They make the Bible come alive.’ They are the great heroes, outstanding in faith, outstanding in hope and outstanding in love.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We might describe Peter and Paul as the most heroic of those heroic people we call saints and honour with a Feast Day. Saints Peter and Paul are our first great witnesses of a ‘lived faith’ in Jesus.
Nothing in their early lives would have prepared us for what was to happen. St Peter owned a fleet of fishing boats and was content at his work until one day Jesus invited him to follow him. So, Peter went with Jesus, listening to his teaching, observing everything he did. Now God had great things in store for Peter, but you would never have guessed it. As we have just heard in the gospel story, Peter had greater insight than all the other followers of Jesus; he knew that Jesus had been specially appointed by God to be the religious leader of his people, but he did not understand much more than that. Peter had great admiration for Jesus and was very confident in his ability to be loyal to Jesus but as soon as Jesus was arrested Peter denied even knowing him.
Paul only heard about Jesus after he had risen from the dead and at first, he hated everything Jesus stood for, and hated his followers. But soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection both their lives were turned around, quite remarkably.
Both Peter and Paul in different ways became great preachers of the gospel, the good news about Jesus; both dedicated their whole lives to winning followers for Jesus, gathering them into communities and keeping those communities together. And both men were in time going to give their lives, quite literally, for the faith. Both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome.
The ways in which they lived their faith were quite different. Peter preached to Jesus’ own people, the Jews, and for a while remained in the most important city of the holy land, Jerusalem, before eventually going to Rome. Despite his early cowardice, Peter’s faith became very strong, so much so that he was called the Rock, the foundation on which the faith of all those who came after was built. In our Catholic tradition he is known as the first Pope, the person who has ultimate authority for making sure that the story of Jesus and what it means was passed on faithfully. Paul on the other hand went out to people who had no background in Judaism and would have had no knowledge of the Bible, and he brought them to Christ. Unlike Peter, Paul never stayed in one place too long.
In the first two readings of today we get some insight into the hearts and souls of these two great heroes of our faith. In the first reading we heard about a jailbreak. Peter had been put into a secure prison to await trial and almost certain death, but he was rescued by someone he could not have known - an angel from heaven he called him. Peter was aware that his calling was a dangerous one, yet he had a strong conviction that God was with him, protecting him so that he could carry out the task God had planned for him.
Paul says something very similar in the second reading. Paul by now had been on the road a long time and knew that his end was near. Nevertheless, he is grateful to God who, as he said, ‘stood by me and gave me power.’ And because he was so conscious of the power of God at work in his life, he was able to hope that even in death God would rescue him once more.
In these two testimonies of faith Peter and Paul were actually opening up the Bible for us. Paul spoke about pouring out his life like a libation, in other words his whole life had been an offering of himself to God, in imitation of his Master Jesus; while Peter spoke about his rescue by God, subtly evoking the great story in the Old Testament when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. In the lives and deaths of these two men we see two great themes of the Bible being worked out in real life - God is a faithful God, who will always rescue those who offer their lives to God in faith. But we need to discover God at work in our lives too.
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