Sunday Sermon for June 29, 2014, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
Readings: Acts 12:1-11; 2Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Mt 16:13-19
Today we have the joy of celebrating the two great Saints who led and built up the nascent Church: Peter its leader and Paul its greatest missionary. We see that right from the beginning the Church was hated by the worldly powers. It makes sense when you think about it. Recall that when Satan tempted our Lord, one of the temptations was to show Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world and all the glory of them; the evil one stated that all of these belonged to him and that he would give them to anyone he wishes. If the kingdoms of the earth are in the devil’s power, then it makes sense that they will be opposed to God and His Church.
People today get upset because of the various things they see the governments of some countries doing to persecute the Church. The early Christians were not surprised by the treatment they received. They were not surprised that they were hated and put to death; our Lord told them that this would happen. His words were not for the early Church only; they were for the Church in all times and places.
Many of us would consider it a great blessing that we have lived in a situation where there has not been a lot of persecution. Interestingly, when the persecutions stopped in the fourth century, the Christians did not feel like they were truly living their faith. It had become too easy; they felt like they were becoming soft. I think that if we are truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that that has happened to a great extent in the lives of many today.
When we look at the rejection of the Church’s moral teaching, the decline in Mass attendance, the terrible reduction in the number of people receiving Sacraments, we have to admit that there is a problem. It does not require a radical commitment to the Faith in a society where anything goes. But when things are difficult, people have to either leave or take things very seriously. No one wants a persecution to begin, but the Church thrives under persecution and it languishes in times of ease.
In the first reading we hear about the fact that St. James had already been killed by Herod and that St. Peter was thrown into prison. We are told that this was on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), although it was quite a few years after our Lord’s crucifixion. The persecution had been ongoing since the time of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. So this was the norm for the early Church.
Anyone who would accept baptism knew that this would mean a radical change in lifestyle to live as a Christian, but they also knew that they would suffer for being part of this new way. Somewhere along the line we lost the realization of both of these aspects of what it means to be a member of the Church. St. Paul tells us in the second reading that God had rescued him from the lion’s mouth and that the Lord would rescue him from every evil threat. The great Saint says this in the context of preparing to be martyred.
So, the rescuing can be the opening of the prison cell as it was for St. Peter in the first reading; it may be keeping them alive in the frequent brushes with death as had happened in the life of St. Paul. Both, however, were ultimately put to death for their faith in Jesus. They did not doubt the Lord or His power because they were persecuted, jailed, or martyred. Instead, such treatment only made their faith stronger. When we read the letters of these Saints, they speak to us about the fact that suffering and persecution in a gift in which we should rejoice.
The immediate question we have to ask is how this can be done. It comes from the profession that St. Peter made as we read in the Gospel. This profession is the same that every Christian person makes. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. More than this, we are made members of Jesus through baptism. This being the case, we not only believe His words when he tells us that we will be persecuted, but we have the privilege to continue the work of our Lord, not only in the pleasant parts of His life, but especially in His suffering and death. Are you willing to suffer and be rejected because of Jesus? Are you willing to die for Him? As it was with Saints Peter and Paul, these were considered ordinary aspects of life for the early Christians. It is also what the Lord is looking for in us.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.