The collect for the feast of Ss Peter and Paul prays that we might be faithful to the teaching of these saints, which is the foundation of the Church. The two proclaimed one faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and shared a martyr’s death in Rome. In just about every other respect they were completely different.
Peter, from the outset, had been an outspoken disciple of Jesus. His early life had been lived as a fisherman on the northern shores of Lake Galilee. He would have known little of the wider world that lay beyond Israel’s narrow confines.
Paul came from a quite different world. He was born in Tarsus, a citizen of Rome’s eastern empire. His letters demonstrate a thorough knowledge of this wider world. He was no conformist. By upbringing and inclination he clung to his Jewish inheritance. In his Letter to the Philippians he described himself as a persecutor of the Church and, as a Pharisee, a fanatical adherent to Israel’s ancient laws and traditions.
Both men were brought to a common confession of Jesus Christ as their Lord. For Peter, this confession came at Caesarea Philippi in Galilee. There is an important progression from knowledge to faith. Those who had been called to become Apostles had known Jesus for some time. Their knowledge had not yet become the commitment that is at the heart of faith. When Jesus probed his disciples – “But you, who do you say that I am?” – he was seeking the surrender in which knowledge becomes commitment. Peter responded without hesitation: “You are the Christ, the Son of living God.”
A life surrendered to God, however imperfect, becomes the instrument of a salvation that reaches far beyond itself. Thus Jesus could say of Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never prevail against it.”
For Paul, the persecutor of the Church, this surrender came on the road to Damascus. His encounter with the Risen Lord radically changed Paul’s life. Previously he had clung to a fanatical observance of the law. Now he acknowledged that nothing less than the surrender of himself to God would bring salvation.
Faith was the common denominator bringing together these two great saints. Only faith could unite such diverse personalities in the proclamation of a common Gospel. Such a faith has the power to unite and heal broken families, broken churches and a divided world. It allows Christ’s living presence to become the Lord of our lives.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (26/6/15).
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