Today we remember two great figures of Christianity, known well beyond its borders. Two lamp stands burning before the Lord; two olive trees; two founding fathers of our faith. Two foremost knights of the Round Table of which Christ is King Arthur; the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, as it were, of Christ’s United Kingdom.
They are what they are by the Father’s will and the choice of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit. The golden eagle of the Trinity, so to speak, swept down and picked them up in its talons, like Sam and Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings. They were chosen men. One, a fisherman, caught by Christ by the Sea of Galilee. The other, a learned rabbi, brought to the ground by him outside Damascus. Of Peter, we have two letters, the first a gem. But most of all we have his story, his character, his professions of faith and love of Christ, and Christ’s for him. Of Paul, we have 13 letters, so rich that Christian thinking is still digesting them, saints still being inspired by them – universities have chairs of Pauline theology. But here again we have a story, a personality, a lover of Christ. These two have marked history and geography. When we hear of Galilee, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi, Jerusalem, Tarsus, Damascus, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Rome, who comes to mind? “We are not talking here, as St Augustine said, of some obscure martyrs.” And today, on the day that marks their martyrdoms, they are lifted up by the liturgy for us to recall and honour, pray to and give thanks for.
What can we learn from them? First of all, surely, the hold that Christ can have on the human person. Yes, Christ can impact, impress, enchant, entrance, rescue, transform and relaunch us. Take Christ out of Peter and Paul and we’re left with Simon and Saul, the first, a poor fisherman, destined for oblivion, the second perhaps to a footnote in studies of Second Temple Judaism. Take Christ out of Peter and Paul and, forgive the analogies, but what’s left but an empty cigarette packet or a bag with all its crisps eaten? Glittering roadside litter at best. ‘Lord, to whom we do we go? You have the words of eternal life. Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you…Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’ (1 Pet 1:8). Those are all from Peter, and you can parallel them from Paul. These were men, believers, disciples, who had fallen in love with Christ, come under the sway of his magic. And everything they experienced, everything they did – little things and great things, crazy things and sensible things, their living and their dying – all of it was under his spell. Thanks to them we know it can happen, and we can long for it to happen to us. May Christ be – even a little bit – as real to us!
A second thing: like the other apostles, they were founders of the first churches, the first Christian communities. Peter and Paul worked, separately, in a great arc from Jerusalem northwards, through modern Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece and into Italy, all the way to Rome. Essentially, they have bequeathed us the Church with a capital C – what we call in our Creed the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church: our spiritual mother and home, the sheepfold, the body to which we belong, the family of God, the house built on rock, the true Jerusalem. Thinking of Peter and Paul, we think especially of Rome and of the Pope, the successor of Peter, who under Christ is the visible source and foundation of unity. Just like a personal relationship with Christ, so membership of the Church too is part of our Christianity.
And this flows into one last thing. The apostles are the first priests, the first to exercise the pastoral ministry in the name of Christ, the service of leadership. ‘Feed my sheep.’ All authority in the Church, authority to teach and to shepherd, to bind and to loose, goes back to them. From them it extends through history all the way to now and on until the end of time. It’s one way Jesus’ word is fulfilled: ‘Behold, I am with you always even to the end of the world.’ It’s part of what we mean when we call the Church ‘apostolic’. Jesus appointed the apostles, the apostles appointed successors, bishops. Priests, whom bishops ordain, are their co-workers, and deacons, whom they also ordain, are their assistants. There is a coherence here, with the bishops in communion with one another and the Successor of Peter, the faithful in communion with their bishops and priests, and all of us together, laity and clergy, in communion with Christ and the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit in the one Church, to which all humanity is called. Today is the 66th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Mgr Robert MacDonald. The day before yesterday Fr Peter Macdonald, only two years a priest, passed away. Next Friday, with God’s help, two new priests will be ordained for the diocese and one permanent deacon. Death and life mysteriously intertwined. But the story goes on. Christianity has not been swallowed up by the centuries or run into the sand. The gates of hell have not prevailed. The energy of the Holy Spirit keeps the show on the road. (Think of those plays or musicals, like the Mousetrap or Mamma Mia, which are always running!). It’s us now. Each of us and all of us, each with our own vocations. And among them the priestly ministry. Is there anybody there?
Christ, the Church, the priesthood: Peter and Paul connect to all three. May we too have the same connections!