In light of yesterday’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells anyone who follows him that they must love him more than they love anyone else and take up their cross, on today’s solemnity we can safely say that both Peter and Paul adhered to the conditions of discipleship set forth by the Lord.
Rather than white, the usual liturgical color for solemnities, today’s color is red because both Apostles met martyr’s deaths in Rome. Peter, tradition tells, literally took up his cross and was crucified. As it is handed on, he demanded to be crucified upside down because he did not feel he was worthy to die in the exact same manner as his Lord.
Being a Roman citizen, Paul was spared the ignominy of crucifixion and was beheaded after losing his appeal, which he began when he was brought before King Agrippa.1
“Martyr” is the Greek word for witness. In a real sense, every Christian is called to be a martyr, that is, bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The content of Christian faith can be extracted from this densely compacted statement: “Jesus is Lord.”
During Jesus’s passion and again after Pentecost, Peter experienced first-hand what following Jesus meant. His miraculous rescue from Herod’s prison enabled Peter not only to continue but really begin apostolic ministry. Eventually, he made his way to Antioch and then on to Rome. Tradition tells us that the Gospel According to Saint Mark is made up of Peter’s preaching in Rome.
Paul, who did not know the Lord during Jesus’s mortal life, first came on the scene instigating his fellow Jews to stone the deacon Stephen to death. As he was going to Damascus to continue persecuting Jesus’s followers, he had a life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. Eventually, Paul the strictest of the Pharisees, somewhat ironically, became the apostle to the Gentiles.
Without Paul’s letters, our Christian scriptures would differ “little from the [Jewish] apocalyptic literature of the day.”2 It has been argued, not without controversy, that without Paul “Christianity would have most likely remained one of many sects within Judaism.”3
“Apostle” refers to one who is sent. When, in the creed, we confess that the Church is “apostolic,” we not only refer to apostolic succession but to the fact that the Church, the people of God, is sent. We are sent to proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Or more succinctly: Jesus is Lord.
While Paul and Peter famously disagreed and even denigrated each other publicly, one thing they had in common is that they did not play it safe.4 Following Jesus is not the easy path. Being Christ’s disciple is to enter through narrow gate.5
There is a tradition that has Peter leaving Rome just as Nero’s persecution was beginning. As he was fleeing the burning city along the Appian Way, it is told that he encountered the risen Lord but Jesus was going in the opposite direction, toward the city. Upon encountering Christ, Peter asked him: Domine, quo vadis? (“Lord, where are you going?”) Following Christ, Peter turned around and went back. It is reckoned that he was crucified on Vatican Hill on 29 June 67.
Even after being taken captive to Rome and remaining in the city under house arrest for some time, Paul continued to share the Gospel. It seems Paul believed that he would win his appeal. Therefore, he planned to take the Gospel farther West toward Spain.
It seems pretty clear that over the centuries many Christians, especially those who live comfortably in affluent societies, have learned to play it safe. Pope Francis, who presides over the see of Saints Peter and Paul, thus giving him a universal and evangelical ministry, is urging and showing the Church how important it is to take risks for the Gospel, what it means to live lives that demonstrate Jesus is Lord.
We proclaim Jesus is Lord, not primarily by our moral rectitude but by taking the side of poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, those deemed expendable by the world. As benevolent as it sounds, when done persistently, this usually proves unpopular and annoying. The most false of all Gospels is to stand pat on what you have and be unconcerned with those who have not. As the late Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara, whose cause for sainthood is finally underway, once quipped: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
When Jesus bids someone “Come follow me,” he leads them to the cross. As Peter, Paul, and a great cloud of witnesses down through ages show us, the only way beyond the cross is through it. Today on this solemnity each one of us should ask Domine, quo vadis? and follow where he leads