Homily for the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul

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I once actually saw a fisherman by the lake of Galilee casting a net into the sea. A biblical moment. In due time, he would have drawn that net back ashore. This is the kind of thing Peter did in his young days.

Where are we in the liturgical year? A little over halfway. Every year, God the Father, casts his divine net into the sea of human time. He sends his Son (Christmas), his Son dies and is raised (Easter), and together Father and Son send the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). The Trinitarian net has been cast. And now in this second half of the year, Ordinary Time after Pentecost, it is being drawn back in, as after the Resurrection Peter drew to land the 153 fish or after his first homily on Pentecost Day caught three thousand souls in the net of faith.

In the liturgical year, the first movement is outward. It flows from the hidden mystery of God. God discloses himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He involves himself with humanity. He invites us to know him. He comes to us. The Father comes through the Son by way of the Holy Spirit. The second movement is a response. We listen, we turn, we move towards God. Moved by the Holy Spirit we cleave to the Son and he carries us Father-wards. We can call this second half of our year, this second movement, many things. Ordinary Time, because it’s a time to order our lives to God. Time after Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit is doing his work, drawing us in. Green Time, after the vestments, because the sun having shone and the rain fallen, we can grow and flower and fruit in response. Time of the Church because the Church is humanity caught in God’s net, humanity returning to God, being gathered together from the ends of the earth, humanity on the way home. Time of the Saints, because this is when most of their feasts fall, because they are the good fish, as it were, full of the Omega 3 of grace, whom the Lord has landed safely on the eternal shore and who show us the direction to swim.

It was in Lent we went into lockdown. It’s in this time we’re emerging from it.

So, after John the Baptist on Midsummer Day, we’re feasting now Ss. Peter and Paul. They bookend the apostles: Peter first, Paul last. They stand out like Neolithic pillars and create the sacred ground between for all of us to build on. Peter the fisher of men, the rock, the keeper of the keys, the shepherd. Peter the first to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, the first man to affirm the Resurrection, the first to proclaim the Gospel after Pentecost, the first to admit Gentiles, non-Jews, to the Church. Paul, the man Christ surprised and captivated on the road to Damascus, “outstanding preacher” of the faith, “master and teacher of the Gentiles”, writer of letters that are still alive today, blessed with a passionate realisation of the difference Christ makes, proto-missionary, founder of churches. Peter and Paul, different in formation and character, but held together by a common faith and love, both founders of the Church of Rome, both ending their lives as martyrs there under the Emperor Nero, both heavenly intercessors for us now and, please God, on the Day of Judgment. The saints will judge the world.

If we asked them what Christ meant to them, what their life of faith taught them, what would they say? There may be a clue in today’s readings, in a word we’ve already heard four times and a reality that runs through them all: rescue. The story of the 1st reading, of Peter’s arrest, imprisonment and liberation – all at Passover time by the way, the time of Exodus and Jesus’ resurrection – is a story of rescue, a night-time rescue (which has the same echoes). It felt like a dream, till Peter realises it’s for real. “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod” (ESV). That was a one-off incident, not many years after Pentecost. But it reveals a pattern. “The angel of the Lord is encamped, says the Psalm, around those who revere him, to rescue them” (Ps 33). And in the 2nd reading, set a quarter of a century after Peter’s adventure, Paul an old man now, picks up the pattern again. “And so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth”, he says. He’s referring to a particular incident involving a court-trial, but then widens the lens: “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom”. For Peter and Paul, the New Covenant, the Gospel, the Christ-thing meant rescue. Rescue in particular circumstances, but also repeated, ongoing rescue; an underlying process of rescue filling their whole life, its true story-line. Peter felt rescued, surely, when Christ took his hand as he sank in the lake, when after his denial Jesus turned and looked at him, when after the Resurrection Christ asked three times for his love and three times confirmed his mission. Paul must have felt rescued when floored by Jesus on the road and then launched on his mission. I think it’s this they might want to talk about: “this poor man called, the Lord heard him and rescued him for all his distress.”

We can broaden this too. “The gates of hell will not prevail”, Jesus says of his Church in the Gospel. Like Peter and Paul, two of her great embodiments, the Church repeatedly needs rescuing from distresses and terrors, from the hand of Herod and the mouth of the lion, from the gates of hell and the sins of her members. And she is. The Church fails and recovers again and again, dies and is rescued. The grace of rescue makes the Church what she is, makes her a place of grace despite us, revives and renews her. And what holds for her, for all, holds for each of us. The more we are in her, the closer to her heart, the more we’re exposed, not to a trouble-free life, but to what we each and all need desperately and daily: rescue, rescue from the named and unnamed things that harass us. The net has been cast for us to be caught, and brought like Peter out of imprisoning dreams into reality, brought like Paul safely into the heavenly kingdom – rescued.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Live-streamed Mass)