Saints Peter and Paul

Homily for June 29th - Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

by Fr. Tommy Lane

We remember today Saints Peter and Paul who guided the early church just after the time of Jesus. Both died as martyrs for the faith in Rome, in the early 60’s, just thirty years after the death of Jesus. Peter was crucified upside down in the courtyard to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica (in the courtyard behind the arch where the Swiss Guards stand on duty) and Paul was beheaded between Rome and the sea, in a place now called Tre Fontane (Italian for three fountains after the legend that the three springs in the spot mark the three places where Paul’s head bounced after being beheaded). Peter was buried in the nearest cemetery which was on top of Vatican Hill and St. Peter’s Basilica was later built on top of Peter’s tomb, the main altar being directly on top of his tomb. (Announcement of the results of excavation by Pope Pius XII and an account by an archeologist) Paul was also buried in the nearest cemetery and the Basilica of St. Paul’s outside the Walls was later build on top of his tomb, the main altar being directly on top of his tomb.

Each of these two saints is important for different reasons. Peter is important because he was the first Pope and kept the church united which was growing very rapidly in the years following Pentecost. In the first years after Pentecost it was Jews who accepted Jesus as the Savior and so the early church was a very Jewish church. But as time went on Paul began to preach also to non-Jews, the Gentiles as they were called. All of us are Gentiles. His preaching was very successful and he brought huge numbers of non-Jews into the church, so much so that the number of Jews in the church was greatly outnumbered by non-Jews. It is because of Paul that we are now in the Church. So both Peter and Paul had very important tasks in the early church, Peter maintaining the unity in the church which during his lifetime had already spread throughout the Middle East and Europe, and Paul who taught the Jews that Jesus is the fulfillment of their Old Testament hopes and taught the non-Jews that Jesus is the Savior. Whenever you see statues of Peter and Paul, usually Peter is holding a key, symbolizing his duty as head of the church, and Paul is holding the Bible, symbolizing his preaching.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul tells us something of the difficulties in his preaching journeys (2 Cor 11:24-25,27):

Five times I have been given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and once I have been in the open sea for a day and a night; I have worked with unsparing energy, for many nights without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty, and often altogether without food or drink; I have been cold and lacked clothing.

Three times Paul set out from Syria where he was based and preached all over what we now call Turkey, and in his second and third journeys he preached all over Greece also. Although not one of the Twelve Apostles we call him an apostle of the nations.

It is interesting to note the personalities of both Peter and Paul. Peter was impetuous, telling Jesus that he would die with him on Holy Thursday night if necessary (John 13:37) but later that night he denied he knew him. We also remember Peter’s objection to Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem and Jesus said ‘Get behind me Satan because they way you think is man’s way and not God’s way’ (Matt 16:23). Yet what made Peter a suitable candidate for Jesus’ call was his love, so three times Jesus asked him if he loved him and asked him to look after the flock.

Paul was a controversial character in his own way. He had a fiery personality. In his early life he channeled that fire towards persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem, even witnessing the death of Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus (Acts 8:1). After his conversion Paul’s preaching was fiery and upset the churches. In Acts we read that Paul then returned to Tarsus, and the next sentence says it all, “the churches throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria were left in peace” (9:31). Paul spent 10 years back in Tarsus before he began his preaching. It was a time for him to cool down and learn what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant for us all. Why did God call Paul? Paul was a highly educated Pharisee and it would be only someone like him who could see that faith in Jesus demanded a totally new relationship with God for Jews, and also he had a very strong personality which he needed to help the Jews to accept that Jesus was the Savior of all peoples, and that because of Jesus there is no difference between Jew and non-Jew. Paul had the strong personality needed for that daring challenge and the insight to see that faith in Jesus the fulfillment of their Old Testament hopes was now required for salvation.

As we look at the personalities of Peter and Paul, we see that God called them to use their personalities to spread the Gospel, Peter to use his impetuous love to look after the flock, and Paul to use his training as a Pharisee and his strength of character to ensure that the non-Jews would be welcomed into the church. It is a reminder to us that our talents and our weaknesses too can become God’s means of helping others, if we allow. We don’t have to be perfect for God to work through us, God can work through us, faults and all, as he did with Peter and Paul.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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