Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul (29th June)
Gospel: Matt 16:13-19
Date: Sunday, 30 June 2013 (transferred from Saturday, 29th June 2013)
Place: St Vincent de Paul, London
This Sunday, the Church celebrates the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. In general, each Saint has his or her own feast day. But that Peter and Paul are tied with one another and have their common feast day is especially surprising, because Peter and Paul are quite different personalities.
Peter very much belonged to the heartland of the Israelite faith. He was at home in Galilee, the promised land, which had been given by God to the twelve tribes of Israel. In this idyllic landscape, Peter lived and worked as a fisherman. This is where he met Jesus, who called him to leave everything behind and become a ‘fisher of men’.
Paul, on the other hand, was part of the Jewish dispersion. Since their exile by the Babylonians, Jewish people had begun to live outside the Promised Land, in the great cities of the Middle East. Thus by the time that Jesus lived, vast numbers of Jews resided outside the Holy Land. Paul, therefore, was very familiar with the Greek and Roman cultures that would have seemed strange to Peter the fisherman.
The difference in background may explain why Peter and Paul had quite different understandings of the Messiah in whom they believed. Peter’s heart remained in Galilee, and he was more familiar with old Jewish ways and traditions. Paul, however, was convinced that the gospel is a gift to all peoples, an act of God to break down barriers between nations, cultures, languages and subgroups, and thus bring about one giant human family of which God was the father. This led to a strong clash between the two personalities, but this proved to be constructive and fruitful for the Church. Both of them share the same fate. They died as martyrs in Rome in the first great prosecution of the early Christians.
Today’s readings reflect the different personalities of Peter and Paul. In the Second Reading, Paul reflects on his call to live and to spread the faith. In his writing to Timothy, Paul says, “I have completed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Paul speaks of the strength God has given him throughout his life, and then acknowledges he has now done the extent of his faithful work. He leaves his readers with the final certainty that, indeed, God will rescue all who wait on the Lord from Earthly suffering and hurt, bringing us all safely into his Heavenly kingdom.
The Gospel speaks of the confession of Peter: “You are Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus is asking two questions. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He receives a variety of answers. Some say he is John the Baptist. Others say he is Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Everybody seems to come up with his or her own theory. However, all these answers are superficial. They are given from the outside, from a safe distance. People make up their minds about Jesus, but they do not really know him. Peter’s answer is very different, because he is close to Jesus and knows him intimately.
Jesus asks a second question: “But who do you think that I am?” This question is directed to his disciples, to those who have not kept a safe distance. His disciples follow Jesus with their hall existence. They have given themselves completely to Jesus to be able to follow him more closely. This life-changing commitment is summed up in Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
But Peter does not fully understand what this commitment to discipleship really means. In the text that follows immediately after our Gospel section for today, Peter rebukes Jesus when he tells him that the Son of man must die on the cross. “This must never happen to you”. Jesus’ response is harsh: „Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.“ Whenever we let our thoughts, our feelings or the logic of human power prevail, and we do not let ourselves be taught and guided by faith, by God, we become stumbling blocks.
Peter and Paul have much in common in that they were both apostles of Christ who sacrificed their lives to the same persecution, but their origins, personalities and achievements remind us that we live with diversity as well as uniformity in the Church of Christ. His appeal that we all be united in the same mind and in the same purpose is surely the appeal that we are to heed on this Solemnity of Peter and Paul.
So then today we pause not only to reflect on Peter and Paul’s works to found the early church, but, moreover, to acknowledge that the Lord will strengthen us in our daily lives. May we then go forward to “fight the good fight,” to live assured that we are working for the kingdom of God.