Today, the 29th of June, the Church celebrates the feast day of the two key people in the foundations of all the Christian churches. It is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. They were not ideal disciples, yet despite their difference and human weaknesses they were chosen to be God’s instruments in spreading the gospel.
Peter, originally Simon was a fisherman who made many mistakes along the way including denying Jesus. Yet he was chosen to be the “rock” upon which Jesus built his church. Peter for the Catholic Church is the first Pope. Paul on the other hand never came face to face with Jesus of Nazareth. He was Saul, the person who persecuted the early Christians. Paul while travelling on his horse to persecute Christians had a conversion experience where he encountered the Risen Christ. This encounter changed his life and the one time persecutor of followers of Jesus became the one chosen to preach the Risen Christ to the pagans.
In the gospels we read of how Peter was chosen by Jesus to be the rock or the foundations of the church. In singling out Peter and entrusting him with the “keys of the kingdom” he was given a very special ministry. He was to be the source of unity in the church. To him Jesus says, I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. This is a statement of trust. Most of us carry sets of keys with us. We have keys to our homes and to our cars. If we lose our keys we can get very anxious. We don’t give copies of those keys to all and sundry. Only to those we can trust do we give our keys.
When Jesus appointed Peter to be entrusted with the keys he didn’t leave him alone – with responsibility comes a promise of support. There are many instances in the Scriptures where God combines challenge with promise. For instance, Abraham is challenged to leave country, kindred and his father’s house for a land that the Lord will show him (Gn 12:1). Linked to that challenge is a promise of blessing and the promise that Abraham will be blessing for others.
When Jesus calls Peter he promises that his Church will not fail in its mission. Peter is the rock, the foundation. A rock is a symbol of stability and security. Through the centuries the Church has lived with crises, with persecution, with scandals, with hostility and even with hatred. The presence of Christ has enabled it to survive humiliation and bounce back in humility, to cope with rejection and respond with forgiveness, to weather storms of negativity and emerge with a positive message of hope.
A very wise historian who knew how to take the longer view of things wrote a few years ago, ‘Never lose heart. The reality is that the Church buries most of its undertakers.’ He had seen the pendulum swing back and forward several times in the story of the Church. He had seen how God has ways of reaching the hardest of hearts, ways to touch their lives and draw them back to himself. Peter and Paul reveal that while the church is divine, it is also human. As followers of Jesus and the founding apostles we are Christian but not perfect. We are a pilgrim people on a journey and all we can hope for as we approach our end is to with confidence echo the words of St Paul: I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.