I think it is important for us to keep track of the liturgical year, with what’s happening now as we celebrate anew the great Paschal mystery each year. Three weeks ago the Easter season ended with our celebration of the great feast of Pentecost, which is second in importance only to our celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. A week later we celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, or, as it is more commonly called, Trinity Sunday. Then last Sunday we participated in the magnificent feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Today, only by virtue of the fact that the twenty-ninth of June falls on a Sunday, we celebrate one of a number of solemnities that can replace a Sunday: the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This is an ancient and venerable feast, one that is observed by Christians East and West dating from well before the schism of AD 1054.
Of course, Saints Peter & Paul are united by the fact that they both met their deaths in Rome. Paul was beheaded for an offense of which he had earlier been convicted, which conviction he appealed to the emperor. Making such an appeal was his right as a Roman citizen. He lost his appeal and was beheaded, probably in AD 67. The reason he was put to death by beheading, which was considered merciful, was also due to his being a Roman citizen. Peter was likely martyred during Nero’s persecution of Christians, which occurred in AD 64. Tradition hands on to us that St Peter, who, as we heard in today’s Gospel, was the first to confess Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), insisted on being crucified upside down because he did not deem himself worthy to suffer and die in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
Peter’s profession, which the Lord made clear was not a conclusion he arrived at on his own, but was revealed to him, was the reason, to quote an ancient sermon for today’s solemnity by Pope St Leo the Great, that Jesus entrusted “to one Apostle alone… what was communicated to all the Apostles” (Sermon 83/2).
As most of us know, there was tension between these two apostles that stemmed primarily from a dispute about the role of the Mosaic law in the life of the primitive Church. This was a very divisive issue, one that was resolved by the “Council of Jerusalem,” the proceedings of which are described in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the second chapter of his Letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that when Peter “came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised” (Gal 2:11-12). Paul here accused Peter of consorting with the so-called Judaizers, who insisted that in order to become Christians even Gentiles had to observe the law of Moses, including men being circumcised.
Conversely, in 2 Peter 3:16, concerning the complex composition of Paul’s letters, we read: “In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.” This is only one of a number of examples that could be given to show something that many people find very vexing, namely that there have been disagreements in the Church from the beginning.
It was G.K. Chesterton, who apparently came with a pithy quote at the rate of about two per minute, who observed, “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion.” Christian orthodoxy, beginning with the most fundamental mystery of our faith, that of the Most Holy Trinity, usually requires holding two or more disparate things in tension. And so I think it is fitting that the sanctuary of our lovely Cathedral, including the very ambo from which I am now preaching, is flanked by these two great apostles: St Peter to the West and St Paul to the East.
In the end, I think the antiphon for the Magnificat for Evening Prayer I of this great solemnity states the matter well: “How glorious are the apostles of Christ; in life they loved one another; in death they rejoice together forever.” You see, my friends, love, at least on this side of heaven, is not devoid of conflict and strife. In fact, it is precisely through conflict and strife that our love is brought to perfection. This is not only true of Sts Peter & Paul, but of wives and husbands, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends, and, yes, even of fellow parishioners.
The what that united Peter and Paul during their earthly lives and unites them forever is not a what, but a who: Jesus Christ. Both men sealed their apostleship with their blood. The lives and deaths of these holy apostles demonstrate the truthfulness of our Psalm response- “The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.”
Our takeaway today, I think, is encouragement. We should be encouraged by the fact that the Lord has provided and will continue to provide for his Church until He returns. The ordinations we celebrated yesterday are concrete proof of that. This should give us the courage to say, with St Paul, who was not spared a martyr’s death, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18).
Saints Peter and Paul, holy apostles and martyrs, pray for us.