Cathedral of St Stephen
29 June 2021, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
Neither Peter nor Paul knew what they were in for when they said yes to the call of Christ. Neither do William, Jack, Luke and Francis. Neither did I; neither did you. We all sign a blank cheque.
For Peter, saying yes to Jesus meant some hard things. It meant leaving the world he knew – the Lake and his trade, his kin in Galilee. It was a small world, but it was comfortable enough and at least he knew it. Saying yes meant treading the roads of Palestine, living with insecurity following “the Son of man [who] has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). It meant following Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane at night and then into the High Priest’s courtyard and into the act of betrayal and the bitter weeping that follows. It will mean that he sees, from afar, Jesus hoisted on to the cross on Calvary and laid in the tomb nearby. It will mean a new commissioning beyond betrayal on the beach beside the Lake: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17); and it will mean that Peter will “stretch out his hands” (John 21:18), with someone else fastening a belt around him and taking him where he would rather not go. It will mean that he dies a martyr’s death in Rome, upside down on a cross, they say, in what was then Nero’s Circus and is now the Vatican City.
For Paul, it meant persecution from the first in Damascus. It meant suspicion of him in the mother Church in Jerusalem. It meant splitting from Peter and Barnabas at Antioch. It meant copping all the accusations once he started his own missionary team in the wake of the split. His missionary career sounds like a litany of woes: “Five times I have received the forty lashes less one”, he says. “Three times I have been beaten with rods, and once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked, a day and a night adrift at sea; on my journeys in danger from rivers, from bandits, from my own people and the gentiles, danger in the city, in the wilderness, at sea, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Cor 11:24-27). The climax of all these woes would come, for Paul as for Peter, in Rome where he was beheaded on the road to Ostia.
Given all of this for both men, the obvious question is, Why did they keep going? Why didn’t they, at some point, simply decide that this wasn’t worth it and go back to the small comfortable world they had known? Were they masochists? Unlikely. Did they keep hoping against hope that things might get better when in fact they only got worse? Also unlikely.
The reason they kept going is far stranger than that. Peter and Paul may have had twinges of nostalgia for the world they’d left behind, but they persevere to the end for two reasons. First, they had an unshakeable sense of a call that had come to them very directly and personally from Jesus. For Peter, the call came at Caesarea Philippi and was confirmed on the shore of the Lake. For Paul the call came on the road to Damascus. Secondly, both men came to see that, in their experience of suffering, they were actually living the Paschal Mystery. In the Letter to the Philippians Paul speaks of himself as “reproducing the pattern of the Lord’s death” (3:10). The pattern is a death that leads to life. Paul sees that his experience of suffering, of loss and persecution, only serves to give his mission greater power. Every attempt to stop or silence him only gives his mission greater impetus – just as the ultimate attempt to stop and silence Jesus on Calvary only provoked the resurrection. The two apostles came to see that the Paschal Mystery wasn’t “once upon a time”, an event confined to the past. It was happening here and now in their lives as they kept saying yes to Jesus and responding to his call to be apostles.
What we have heard from the Scripture today speaks of both Peter and Paul being rescued by a power not their own. In the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Peter’s rescue from Herod’s prison; and Paul, writing to Timothy, says that he “was rescued from the lion’s mouth” and puts his faith in “the Lord [who] will rescue me from all evil attempts on me”. The pattern of rescue was part of their living the Paschal Mystery; and even their death was a kind of liberation, putting the seal on their apostolic mission and ensuring that their memory would be celebrated and their voices heard for ever. At the end they may have had flashes of memory of the Lake and of Tarsus, the people they had loved, the life they had known. But at some deeper level they would have known an overflowing gratitude, even a joy, that the Lord crucified and risen had led them to this point of what may have seemed ultimate defeat but which was ultimate triumph.
The men we ordain today have also been called very directly and personally by Jesus, and I urge them never to lose hold of that sense of call, never to forget it. Go back to it again and again, explore it more and more deeply through your life, allow its power to grow in you. They will also have “to reproduce the pattern of the Lord’s death”, to show forth the Paschal Mystery in their life, allowing their weakness to become strength, their defeats to become triumphs.
For this to happen, they too will need to be rescued – again and again – by a power not their own. They will have to be rescued from a life half-lived, a life small and safe and comfortable perhaps but only half-lived. They will dream at times of going back to the Lake or to Tarsus, but they will wake from the dream knowing that God calls us not to be half-alive but to be fantastically and fully alive with the life of the Risen Christ.
There’s always a risk that we can say yes to the Lord but never really leave home, preferring to stay in our own comfort-zone, our own little world, rather than set out boldly on the path the Lord opens up before us, the path into the vast world of Easter. William and Jack and Luke and Francis will have to be rescued – again and again – from the prison of self, the lockdown of a narcissistic, self-serving world in which “I’m special” and others exist simply to serve my needs and my goals.
If these four men, our brothers, allow Jesus Christ to rescue them in this way, they will shed blood. But at journey’s end, at the end of a wonderfully surprising and fulfilling life as a priest, each of them will say with St Peter, “Now I know that it’s all true: the Lord really did send his angel to rescue me” and with St Paul, “The Lord has rescued me from the lion’s mouth, from all evil attempts on me, and has brought me safely to his heavenly kingdom”. Amen.