Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season,
if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:
that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold
that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise
and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ….
(1 St. Peter i. 6,7)
Many people like to undermine the credibility of the ancient Christian witness because so little is known of those early Christian disciples and martyrs who gave their lives and selves to transmit its truths to posterity. Most clergymen are known to become mildly irritated at one time or another when a Red-Letter Saint’s Day pops up, and they have so very little to tell their flock about the Saint they are celebrating. Inquiring minds question the clergyman: Who were his parents? Where was he born? What did he do before he met Jesus? Was he married? Did he have children? Where did he end up? Was he a martyr? And so forth. And in most cases, with most of the questions, the clergyman must answer: We don’t know. And if he is intelligent enough, he might also add, And we don’t need to know!
Now the Saints whom we celebrate today—Saints Peter and Paul—we do tend to know more about than the other Apostles or even the Mother of our Lord. We don’t know anything about Saint Peter’s wife, except that he had one, and that her mother was once sick and Jesus healed her. And we don’t know about the exact nature of Saint Paul’s thorn in the side, except, again, that he had one, and that it wasn’t his wife, since he didn’t have one of those.
Yet we do know that Saint Peter’s original name was Simon, or Simeon. He was the son of Jonah, had a brother named Andrew, came from the village of Bethsaida, and had some kind of fishing business along with James and John the sons of Alphaeus. Simon was later called Peter, as we read in today’s Gospel. The word in Latin is Petrus, derived from the Greek Πετροσ and related to the Aramaic word for kepa, which became, again in Greek, Κηφασ, all basically meaning rock. So we read of either Simon Peter or Cephas in the New Testament as the rock upon whom Christ Jesus intended to build his Church.
The rest of what we know of Simon Peter can be read in the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of St. Paul, and St. Peter’s own Epistles. Suffice it to say that St. Peter was an eyewitness of the adult life of Jesus Christ, denied the Lord whom he knew, witnessed His Resurrection, received the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, and then went on to contribute in no small way to the conversion of the nations. Tradition has it that he died a martyr at Rome, crucified upside down by the Emperor Nero between 64 and 67 A.D. He was crucified because, like his Lord, he was not a citizen; he was crucified upside down because he did not deem himself worthy to be hung right-side-up like his Master.
St. Paul, on the other hand, was a late-comer to the Christian religion. By his own admission he had played no small role in the attempt to stamp Christianity out. He was born as Saul around 5 A.D., as a Jewish citizen of the Roman Empire (unlike Peter), in the city of Tarsus on the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Turkey. In all probability Saul studied at the ancient university of Tarsus, renowned for its philosophical instruction. There he would have become familiar with the Greek schools of thought prevalent in the early Roman Empire – Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. By his own admission, he was circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. iii. 5,6)
Saul’s knowledge of the Law and Prophets led him first to persecute the infant Church, and then, while on the road to Damascus to round up and arrest more Christians, he realized the futility of keeping the Law perfectly when he was confronted by Jesus Christ in a vision. Once he began working as a Christian he used his Latin name Paul, since his ministry was mostly to the Gentile pagan world. What we know about him we learn from his companion St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, and then from his thirteen Epistles or Letters. Tradition has it that he too died in Rome, a martyr under the same Emperor Nero, but by beheading, the punishment reserved for citizen traitors.
What is most remarkable about Saints Peter and Paul, and all other Saints who were like them, known to us or known only to God, is this. Far beyond the miracles that they performed, or any details of their personal lives that the Scripture reveals, both Saints Peter and Paul were men who came to embrace the living Christ fully in their hearts after much trial and tribulation. Each of them had, in his own way, denied Jesus Christ. Each of them had to be broken; each had to repent and die to his former self before Christ came alive in him.
In the first instance, we have St. Peter. His zeal and passion for Christ needed to be moderated by faith, hope, and love before he could become a true disciple and shepherd of the embryonic Church. You will remember that in Christ’s darkest hour, Peter denied his Lord not once, but three times. The Peter who should be the rock on which the Church would be built had to be completely broken and ground to powder before converting truly to Christ. When later, Peter exhorts his friends to come to Christ, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious (1 St. Peter ii. 5), he speaks as a man who had at one time disallowed, disowned, dismissed, and denied Jesus Christ. For this precious stone, [now] made the head of the corner, had been to him a stone of stumbling, a rock of offence, because he had stumbled at the Word [of God in Jesus Christ], being disobedient. (Ibid, 8)
Peter, the disciple whom Christ loved, knew only too acutely and piercingly his own sin against Jesus Christ. Peter denied Jesus, and we read that once the cock crowed, he went outside and wept bitterly. (Ibid, 62) Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him, but He said also, Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. (St. Luke xxii. 31) So Simon Peter did, as prophesied, indeed turn back to the Lord; he repented, waited, watched, and finally was converted through Christ’s Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Ghost into his soul. Like the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Simon [whose] sins which [were] many, [were] forgiven; for [he] loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (St. Luke vii. 47)
And the same holds true in the life of St. Paul. Paul sinned grievously against Christ. As a Pharisee he spent no small amount of time, energy, creativity, and zeal hunting down, persecuting, and devising methods of eliminating the followers of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that his vengeance and revenge reached such pique that breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, [he] went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this Way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Acts ix. 1,2) Saul was hell-bent on destroying Christianity in the name of the Jewish God. And the Jewish God’s Son, Jesus Christ, met him on the road to Damascus, having decided that his zeal and fervor should be put to better use. Paul was thrown down off of his high horse, slain in the Spirit with a Vision of the Ascended Christ, and converted.
Paul’s conversion was doubted for some time by the Jewish-Christian community. The Jewish-Christians, led by Peter, were suspicious and cautious over Paul’s conversion. But Paul, for his part, eventually won them over through the Grace of God working in him. And his effort was successful because he was so cruelly and painfully honest about his own sins against Jesus Christ and His disciples prior to his conversion. With all humility and self-abasement, he fully and completely confessed that he had persecuted the Church of Christ. He said, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. ii. 20)
What is most remarkable about Saints Peter and Paul, and all of the other true Saints for that matter, is their receiving and passing on of the life of Jesus Christ. Peter would have agreed with Paul’s summary of the new life which they both found in Christ: But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ… for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in Him… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Phil. iii. 7-11) Both Apostles, Peter and Paul, were always dying to themselves, coming alive to Jesus Christ, and calling and welcoming others into the new Mystical Body that was being made by Him. They knew that this was the only way home to the Heaven of God’s love.
So on this Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul, let us pray that we may be determined to embrace the death and life of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls as they did in theirs. Christians don’t worship Saints, not even Saints as venerable and sanctified as Peter and Paul. But they do venerate, honor, praise and thank God for them. Why? Because, as Austin Farrer reminds us, out of them Christ’s dying and rising faith has overflowed into the hearts of others, out and into human history. Through them the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ molded and shaped a new Mystical Body, a communion and fellowship, the Church. Through them, from soul to soul, heart to heart, and mouth to mouth the Real Presence of Jesus Christ’s faith walked into history. Isn’t it high time for us to receive, try, and test this faith once again? St. Peter says that it is of more value that precious gold. And both he and Paul died and lived through Jesus Christ that we might receive this treasure from heaven. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: