“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” The response is a confession of faith. Through this statement Peter gives a personal witness to and affirmation of Jesus’ identity. The context is important. Jesus asked a very similar question just before saying: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” The answer comes, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The answer is inadequate for although Jesus is a prophet, he is so much more.
It is Peter who responds even though the question is asked of all those gathered there. Hence, Jesus says to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Furthermore Jesus confirms Peter’s leadership role saying: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Then Jesus confers on Peter the “keys of the kingdom” as the symbol of his authority.
Peter’s confession of faith will later be one of witness. After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter will go forth announcing and proclaiming Jesus as the Lord of life. Peter the fisherman will now be a “fisher of men,” as Jesus foretold when he called Peter to discipleship back at the beginning of the public ministry.
The role of Peter in the life of the church cannot be underestimated. He was the leader of the Twelve whose authority came from Christ himself. He is human like all other disciples who has to deal with failure and weakness. Recall the thrice denial or the confrontation with Paul as to Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentile Christians in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-13).
Yet he heroically goes forth from Palestine traveling and proclaiming until he reaches Rome. There he is eventually martyred for his faith in Christ Jesus. His humility is recalled in the tradition that he did not deem it worthy to die like the Lord so he asked his executers to crucify him upside down. Hence the iconographic symbol for Peter is the inverted cross.
St. Paul, like Peter, was an apostle but not one of the Twelve. Paul’s encounter with Jesus came after the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection and the early proclamation of the church. In fact Paul was persecuting the church for this proclamation. The first mention of Paul in Acts of the Apostles comes at the execution of St. Stephen (Acts 7:58), the first martyr, of which Paul (then called Saul) was a participant.
Paul, a Roman citizen and a Jew, was raised as a Pharisee. He was devoted to the law and its study. He was zealous in his faith and saw the Christians as a distortion of that faith. That was until the Lord appeared to him in a blinding light saying “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) The moment of encounter was one in which Paul’s whole world and outlook on life would be questioned.
The encounter with the risen Lord forced Paul to reexamine his understanding of the law and the identity of Jesus and his followers. Jesus directs Paul to go to Damascus and it is there that he is baptized. Before becoming the great missionary that he was Paul spent many years with the first Christians learning from them about Jesus and the Way. Then when he was ready Paul spread the Gospel throughout the ancient near east, Asia Minor (today Turkey), Greece and eventually, like Peter, Rome. His travel to Rome, however, was under arrest and conviction having made an appeal (the right of all Roman citizens) to the emperor.
In today’s second reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, St. Paul’s life is described as a “libation.” A simple definition of “libation” is a drink which is poured out as an offering to God. Paul’s life has been spent in love as a service to the Lord. He offers himself with Jesus and following the example of Jesus.
Peter and Paul are great witnesses to the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus. Each one, in a way particular to each, spread the one Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today as we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul we remember their lives of discipleship and leadership in the church. God used them as his instruments for continuing the saving work of Christ.
Their witness links us to Christ as they were the first to “hand on” the Gospel to a new generation. Their personal witness to the Lord builds up the church and invites others to know the love and mercy of the Lord that they themselves knew and experienced.
The Lord supported them in their lives even despite many hardships and challenges. Their response of faith filled them with courage, determination and persistence. The call to discipleship and eventually leadership in the church was an extraordinary encounter with the Lord. Their whole perspective on life was transformed through this encounter. They left family and friends, the left their work, they journeyed into foreign lands, they faced rejection, arrest, torture and trial. Yet they were filled with joy and peace knowing that the Lord was with them.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul we give thanks to God in Christ Jesus for their role in spreading the Gospel. We are uplifted by their faithfulness and encouraged by their witness.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.