Yesterday was the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul who formed and guided the church in its earliest days and proved so crucial to its development and success. This is the sermon I preached:
Whenever you see their statues, Peter holds a key, symbolising his Papal authority, whereas Paul holds the Bible and the sword of truth, symbolising his preaching gift and means of his martyrdom.
To be healthy the Church needs a double edged fidelity. First fidelity to divine truth which comes from the Apostles. Because only such fidelity delivers unity, whereas divergence ushers in chaos and disharmony. Something to ponder in days of fracture when many, especially high ranking clerics it often seems, chase the zeitgeist and overhaul scripture to appease worldly thinking. Second there needs to be fidelity shown by the ultimate guardian of divine truth. The holder of keys in every generation- the successor of Peter- The Holy Father in Rome. The best Popes are NEVER mavericks who innovate but those who ensure the faith is constant. As the book of Hebrews makes clear, the faith is to be the same yesterday, today and forever.
When we ponder the impact of Peter and Paul we could be forgiven for assuming each led a blameless life. Not so! Peter was ever impetuous and lacked diplomacy and tact. He promised to die with Jesus, only to give in to cowardice and deny knowing him three times. Peter never caught on. Indeed he dismayed Jesus so much he was once scolded, ‘Get behind me Satan’. Peter was far from perfect then. He got things wrong again and again. An ill educated fisherman with a habit of being impetuous, stubborn and wrong headed.
And Paul was prone to weakness. He had a fiery temper. In his early life he persecuted Christians, rejoicing in the murder of St. Stephen. But even after his conversion he did not become sinless. The temper remained. He wrote of a perpetual sin he struggled with that was like a thorn in his side. He upset many people, even entire churches. In Acts we read that Paul returned to Tarsus, and the next sentence says it all, “the churches throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria were then left in peace”. Paul was a pain. Modern prelates would have shunned him for he stood by the truth and couldn’t care less if it offended people. He was a zealous firebrand. He fell out with people, most famously Barnabas and Peter himself! He was quarrelsome and hard work.
Both Peter and Paul were fallible and challenging figures. But then we have ever preferred Saints after death- when we can romanticise them and pretend we would have stood with them- to when they are actually living and being shunned and rejected because they challenge us profoundly!
So what made these obviously imperfect men great? How did they become giants of the church despite the flaws? Clearly they were not better than other people, or more gifted or virtuous. So it must boil down to God not man. The reason was divine grace flowing through them. It is ever the Holy Spirit who creates something wonderful out of broken souls he inspires. Ugly lives become beautiful only when sanctification occurs. When hearts and souls are authentically offered to God for the sake of his kingdom. Then lives, however damaged, are blessed and hallowed. Yes it was divine grace that made Peter and Paul, like all other Saints, into something amazing.
Not that they didn’t have gifts to bring to the table. All of us are a mishmash of gifts and imperfections. Paul was highly educated. He had the intellect needed to become the first theologian. Peter was pastoral, he had the warmth and strong personality needed to guide the Church and hold it together. Neither was perfect- but both were made perfect by God.
As we look at Peter and Paul, and consider how God calls imperfect people to do his perfect work. We are reminded that the call to be a Saint is for the many not the few. We too are called to live the life of grace. Sainthood really is open to all. Which is to say despite our obvious weaknesses, despite the shame of former sins, God still wants to work in us. And if we enter into a sincere relationship with Christ we will be transformed also.
We don’t have to be perfect, God can work through us, faults and all. But only- and this is the crucial point- if we strive for sanctification. If we don’t live compartmentalised lives and reserve only a portion for God. The insane but widespread fallacy of Sunday only Christianity. We need to bring God into the whole of our lives. Praying in the home with our families, living by the truth of the Gospel in the workplace.
What are your gifts that can help our parish here grow? Is it your generosity, friendship, encouragement, devotion? How will you use your gifts in service of God this coming year? God doesn’t need perfect people to build his kingdom. What he needs are fallible people who nevertheless, like Peter and Paul, trust in him, stand by him and do not count the cost. We need more Peters and Paul as a matter of urgency. Will you be one?