St. Peter and St. Paul: Determination & Dynamism
Since this Sunday is June 29th, the calendar feast for today, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, takes precedence over what would have been the Mass for the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. We have an opportunity here to take a closer look at the two most dynamic saints of the primitive Church. Their feast is celebrated together because both Peter and Paul traveled to spread Christianity to Rome where they were both martyred by the Emperor Nero. They are the principal patrons of the Church of Rome.
It would be hard to find two individuals who differed more. Peter was a common worker, a fisherman, with no formal education as best as we can tell. He responded to Jesus’ call to follow and then stumbled his way through the Lord’s public life, and beyond. Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and professed his faith to the Lord in Capernaum. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Peter had faith enough to walk on water himself to meet Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, but then he thought about what he was doing, focused on himself instead of on Jesus and began to drown. That’s why Jesus chided him as one of little faith.
We have those wonderful and terrible scenes involving Peter during the last twenty-four hours of the Lord’s life on earth. At the Last Supper, Jesus performs a prophetic act and washes the feet of the disciples. Jesus’ point was that he would humble himself to serve others and they should do the same. When Jesus got to Peter, Peter said, “You will not wash my feet,”
Jesus replied, “Then, you will have no part of me.”
Peter said, “In that case, Lord, wash my feet, my head, hands and body.”
“Calm down,” Jesus said, “Your feet makes the point.” (Ok, so I added that.)
Later in the meal Peter boasted that he would never lose faith in Jesus. Jesus replied that Peter would deny him three times before dawn. And Peter did deny the Lord three times after Jesus was arrested.
But Peter also reaffirmed his faith in Jesus three times after the resurrection. The Resurrected Jesus asked him, “Do you love me, Simon Peter.”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,”
“Then feed my sheep.”
“Do you love me Simon Peter,
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,
“Then tend to my lambs,”
“Do you love me Simon Peter,”
“Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you,”
“Then feed my sheep. For a day will come when others will bind you and take you to where you do not wish to go.”
Peter assumed the leadership of the other disciples conferred on him by the Lord, but was dressed down by Paul when he started treating Christians who had been Jewish as better than those who had been gentiles. Peter was so very human, even after Pentecost, he still could let his humanity get the worst of him.
Still, Peter was determined to spread the faith. He traveled to Rome, the center of the world, where he became the apostle of Rome or the first bishop of Rome. Because Jesus placed Peter over all the other disciples, those who assume his place as Bishop of Rome also receive his spirit, or grace or charism. The successor of Peter is Pope because the Pope is Bishop of Rome. Tradition has it that when Peter was led to be crucified, he asked to be crucified upside down because he said that he did not deserve to die the same way that Jesus died. The early Church had the tradition of building basilicas over the tombs of the martyrs. Excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome have found the body of a large boned man from middle East. It most likely is Peter’s body.
Paul could not have differed more than Peter if he tried. Paul was an educated man. He studied at the feet of the great Hebrew scholar Gamaliel. Physically, Paul was a small man. His name was changed from Saul of Tarsus to Paul as a bit of a joke. Paul or Paulus means small in Latin. He was small, but he was a dynamo. He was one of those Pharisees who did everything possible to destroy the followers of Jesus. He was present when the first martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death. He approved. He then went on raids, arresting Christians wherever he could find them and turning them into the Jewish authorities who would imprison or kill them. But Jesus called Paul as he traveled to Damascus. And although the scripture does not say anything about Paul being knocked off a horse, medieval painters created that legend, Paul certainly was knocked for a loop when the vision of the Lord told him that instead of serving God, he was fighting the will of the Almighty. After his conversion, Paul used his intelligence and determination to spread the message of the Kingdom, traveling throughout the Western section of the Roman Empire, writing the Letters to the infant churches, and completely sacrificed his life for the Kingdom of God. The statue in front of the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls of Rome, depicts a determined Paul holding a sword. Tour guides who often tend to say whatever comes to their mind might tell you that the sword refers to Paul’s death by beheading, but if you look close at it, it is a two edged sword. It refers to Sacred Scripture. The Letter to the Hebrews says that the Word of God is living and effective, sharper than a two edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern the thoughts and reflections of the heart (Heb 4:12). The Word of God that became the flesh of Jesus Christ forced Paul to make a radical change in his life.
Two very different saints, one a large and ignorant fisherman, the other a small and educated scholar, yet two very similar saints in this: they shared the determination to live and die for the Kingdom of God even if this meant that they needed to make radical changes in their lives. Even if this meant that they had to sacrifice their lives. And sacrifice their lives they did.
There is some Peter and some Paul in each of us. Each of us harbor some of their inadequacies. Each of us also enjoy some of their strength. On the negative side, all of us tend to bungle through life like Peter, making great promises, taking great oaths, and then backing down when the situation becomes too tough, too demanding. How many times have we all, myself included, compromised standing for the Lord in order to prevent being mocked by the crowd. Sometimes we go through life like the firestorm that was Saul of Tarsus, convinced that our view of the world is correct and willing to destroy anyone who disagrees with us. Like Paul before his conversion, charity becomes secondary to making a point well, and loudly. Paul was aware of this. Paul was the one who wrote in First Corinthians 13, “Nothing is greater than love. Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not jump to conclusions. It bears all, it endures all. There is faith, there is hope and there is love. But the greatest of these is love.”
There are also a lot of the good qualities of Peter and Paul in each of us. Serious about our Christianity, we all have a tremendous desire to serve the Lord in whatever way he calls us. We all have summoned from within ourselves the muscle of Peter and intellect of Paul to serve Jesus.
There is something else that Peter and Paul and we have in common. It is dynamism. The dynamic founders of Rome received their strength from the Holy Spirit of the Father and Son. We have also received this strength, this dynamism, to some degree or other. The dynamism, the strength to lead others to God was given to us at our Pentecost, our confirmation. When we set our minds to living for the Lord, others will hear his presence calling to them from within us. That is how the Kingdom of God has spread from Peter’s fishing nets and Paul’s Hebrew studies to Rome and far, far beyond. It is the Holy Spirit, the dynamic presence of God, within you and me that has makes the Church a living reality in the world.
Determination and dynamism, these are the marks of these great saints. May determination and dynamism, mark our lives, as we strive to continue the apostolic mission of the Church.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, pray for us!