Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (Solemnity)
Acts 12:1-11; Ps 34:2-9; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Matt 16:13-19
"The Church's [real] foundation is Jesus Christ the Lord"
Within the recent past, the church has been tossed to and fro in storms of controversy. Not one storm - many storms. And not in one country - in many countries. It has been the target of fierce persecution, and it has also allowed evil to contaminate it from within. Whether in circumstances of harassment or scandal, the lives of many have been diminished, their confidence undermined, and their faith tested.
Without minimizing the struggles of our current situations, we should remember that dire trials are really not new to the church. From its very beginning it has known turmoil and faced opposition. The first reading for today's feast describes one such situation. Herod had killed James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The author of Acts of the Apostles makes a point of telling the reader that this pleased the enemies of the early church. The support of these people prompted Herod to arrest Peter, the same Peter who earlier had denied even knowing Jesus. One cannot help but wonder to what extent political support of persecution allows it to flourish. Nor can we help but wonder if and how the support of the church in Peter's imprisonment played any role in his release.
Despite its trials, the church has survived misunderstanding, rejection, and even persecution. In fact, history has shown that it seems to flourish even more during such trying times. This is not due to the strength and holiness of its members. Though Jesus told Peter that the church would be built upon him, a well-known hymn reminds us that 'the church's [real] foundation is Jesus Christ its Lord.' He is the one who commissioned Peter; he is the one who assured the church of protection. It was Jesus who stood by Paul and gave him strength to bring the gospel to the broader world. The church may have been built on Peter the former denier, and spread by Paul the former persecutor, but it is the church of Jesus Christ, and it will endure because of his promise.
We marvel at the transformation of these previously weak human leaders. As we read in the passage from Acts of the Apostles, Peter's newfound passionate commitment to his Lord and to the fledgling church resulted in his imprisonment. The church's attachment to him is seen in their prayers offered to God on his behalf. Gone is the headstrong Peter, and in his place we find a man who is willing to be led by the "angel of the Lord." Though Peter was rescued, he would be recaptured later and ultimately put to death. That was the price of his commitment.
Paul too was jailed. He did not see his imprisonment as failure, but as the destiny that was his in consequence to his commitment to the gospel. In fact, Paul seems to have gloried in his plight, for during his ministry he had found in the Lord the strength he needed. Now, having been "poured out like an oblation," he faced death, and he knew it. Still, he was confident that God would bring him "safe to his heavenly home."
Today we celebrate the fidelity of these two men, sinners like us all. Initially, they were both found wanting. When they eventually repented, they were forgiven by God and by the church. Though they were victims of persecution, their commitment to Christ and to the church made them heroes. And what was the source of their strength? We find the answer to this question in the gospel. Who was this Jesus whose words and deeds captured the imaginations of his followers and prompted them to commit themselves wholeheartedly to him? That is the question that Jesus himself posed: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Was he the great preacher John the Baptist come back from the dead? Was he the prophet Elijah whose return was expected before the dawning of the day of salvation? Was he one of the prophets? Why did they think that he was someone from the past rather than someone from the future? According to the gospel account, "Simon Peter said in reply, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.'" And how had he come to this realization? "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father."
Once again we see that the genuine insight and true strength of the church do not come solely from within its members, but ultimately from God. The church was founded on an unreliable man like Peter, and the mission to the Gentile world was entrusted to an over-zealous Jew like Paul. If the gates of the netherworld could not prevail against the church during its initial turbulent years nor through times of corruption or persecution, surely they will not prevail in our day.
Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies
This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season (Paulist).
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