We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. (G.K. Chesterton)
Gospel text (Mt 16:13-19): Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi. He asked his disciples, «Who do people say the Son of Man is?». They said, «For some of them you are John the Baptist, for others Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets». Jesus asked them, «But you, who do you say I am?». Peter answered, «You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God». Jesus replied, «It is well for you, Simon Barjona, for it is not flesh or blood that has revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And now I say to you: You are Peter (or Rock) and on this rock I will build my Church; and never will the powers of death overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven».
We celebrate today the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. As we consider the character of both these early founders of our church, we are impressed by the fact that they as individual people are not the source of the goodness that flowed from and through them; that strength and goodness was God’s gift they would experience throughout the course of their magnificent service to others. Both men had huge flaws: Peter was impetuous, strong-willed, and often obtuse to the message that Jesus was trying to give him; Paul started off as a persecutor of the church. Seemingly not a very auspicious beginning for both of them!
In their lifetime Peter and Paul did not work so closely together. Peter was called directly by Jesus and given “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:16-18). He is portrayed in icons carrying the keys. Paul, on the other hand, probably never met Jesus face to face. His inspiration and his style of presenting the gospel came from visions and charismatic experiences. He is portrayed in icons carrying either a sword or a book. Peter and Paul were so different that Peter was surnamed the Apostle of the Jews and Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles.
If Peter and Paul did not agree in life, they did agree in death. In the early church there was a tendency to splinter into various factions, each faction claiming to follow the leadership of one of the chief apostles or missionaries. This was one of the reasons why Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were breaking up into followers of Paul, followers of Peter, and followers of Apollos. Paul reminds them strongly that these human leaders are all equally servants of the one Christ. Christ, therefore, should be their focus.
If division among believers was a problem in the days of Paul, it is even more so today. Like the Christians of Corinth, Christians today are divided, variously recognizing the absolute authority of John Calvin, John Wesley or Pope Benedict 16. We are like the weak fingers of Linus that cannot embrace one another and unite into a formidable punch. Disunity of Christians is a scandal that weakens the Christian witness to the world. How can Christian churches preach love and unity, forgiveness and reconciliation to the world when they themselves are living in disunity, unable to forgive and reconcile themselves?
Even within the walls of the Catholic Church, there are visible cracks of disunity. Today, the faithful are quick to label themselves either as conservatives or liberals. Conservatives, who often identify with the institutional authority of Peter, wage war against liberals; and liberals, who identify with the charismatic vision of Paul, wage war against conservatives. By combining the feasts of the apostles Peter and Paul, the church is inviting all her children to look beyond the conservative-liberal divide and discover a deeper level of unity in Christ. The church of Christ needs the rock of Peter’s institutional leadership as well as the vitality of Paul’s charismatic vision. Christian unity, like the unity of Peter and Paul, is not a unity in uniformity but a unity in diversity. Today the church reminds us that, even though as individuals and local communities some will prefer the style of Peter and others that of Paul, we should not let that divide us since we are all, first and foremost, followers of the one Lord Jesus Christ and children of one Father, God.
What do their lives say to us, today? That we, too, are called by Jesus into service and that our service, however small and meager it appears to us, is the gift of God as well as an ongoing invitation to us to follow Jesus as his disciples today in our difficult circumstances. Just like Peter and Paul, we are witnesses for Christ to those we come in contact with. Our “witnessing” probably will not lead to our cruel martyrdom as Peter and Paul’s (and Jesus’), but we too can “pour ourselves out” as Jesus (and Peter and Paul) did. We can, like them “fight the good fight” and, most importantly, “keep the faith.”