Matthew 16:13-19, Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul, Apostles
We celebrate today the feast of St Peter and St Paul, the two pillars of the Church. In our liturgical calendar, we have a separate feast for the chair of St Peter, and another for the conversion of St Paul. However, Peter and Paul are celebrated together today as a solemnity, the highest, most special kind of commemoration. Why do we celebrate these two together? Tradition tells us that the ancient Church commemorated as one their martyrdom in Rome between the years 64 and 68 AD. I think, there is also something deeply meaningful and inspired about celebrating them together. This feast reminds us of the twin aspects of the Church’s identity and mission. Peter, whom the Lord named the “rock” upon whom the Lord will build his church, represents stability, unity, and continuity. An important aspect of the life of the church are the structures and traditions that ensure consistency of the Gospel teachings, as well as the leadership which oversees how these teachings are lived out today. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, on the other hand, represents the prophetic and missionary spirit of the Church. The mission of the Church is not only to preserve itself but to go out to the world, to the fringes, to speak about the Lord in areas and to peoples in need of hope and light. This means constantly looking for ways to make the unchanging truth of the Gospel heard and understood in ever-changing times. This necessitates variation, adaptation, innovation, and change.
Thus, celebrating these two saints together today underscores these not opposing but rather complementary poles of our life as Church: unity and diversity, stability and innovation, continuity and change. To emphasize one aspect over the other is to risk infidelity to the divine mandate that gave birth to the Church. Now what does this mean for us, the Church in today’s world? We are constantly confronted with ever-new challenges about what life means, or what truth means, or ever new forms of injustice and evil. Perhaps important to reflect: what does this mean for you and me? Are we the type of Christian who is suspicious of change and long for an idealized time when everything was “simple” and those who are “different” have no place in the Church? Or are we the type of Christian who laments that the Church is “too institutional” and “too slow” to adapt with the changing times? Today’s feast challenges us to be free of these black-or-white and either-or ways of thinking that limit the movement of God’s Spirit into categories that are acceptable to our narrow minds. Easier said than done, of course, but our feast today also reminds us to trust in a power that is greater than our human capacities.
One thing that I also like about this feast is that it celebrates these two pillars of the faith who were actually less than perfect human beings. They were deeply flawed men. Peter was headstrong, stubborn and fearful; he denied the Lord at his lowest point. Paul or Saul was a persecutor of disciples who incited violence against those who followed Christ. Today’s feast is a good reminder to us about the possibilities in our lives when we allow the Lord’s grace to take over. One of my favorite quotes attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola is this: “Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.” In my own prayerful conversations with God, I sometimes laugh and joke that God has the raw end of the deal in calling me, knowing my limitations and selfishness. As a Jesuit, I know that I am a sinner, and called to be a follower. Perhaps you too think of yourself as unworthy, or too sinful to follow the Lord. Perhaps you think that God can do better than to call you to be a follower and proclaimer of the Gospel. But as today’s feast remind us, it is not simply about our qualifications and capacities. It is not about our “worthiness.”
Both Peter and Paul at certain points in their lives realized the futility of insisting on their own abilities and sense of control. Time and again, they experienced that their trust in the Lord was not in vain, as our readings today show us. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter remarks: “Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me.” In his letter to Timothy, Paul declares: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Perhaps today you are also invited to remember how God’s grace is sustaining you throughout this very difficult time of the pandemic, and to be reminded again to trust in God who never forsakes us. When we allow ourselves to trust, then we allow space for God’s grace to move in our lives and provide us hope and courage. My dear friends, our strength is ultimately not from our own self, but from God. And blessed are we who take refuge in him.