6 Trinity 2008

The Feast of Saint Peter the Apostle
The Sixth Sunday After Trinity
June 29, 2008
Verses 17 & 18 of St. Matthew 16:13-19
‘Thou Art Peter’

Saturday morning during breakfast I happened to have watched EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network, the Roman Catholic channel) and saw the opening of what has been titled, the Year of St. Paul, a full year-long religious observance to be kept and celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009. I was pleased to note the opening event was celebrated on an Ecumenical tone. In attendance was of course, Pope Benedict XVI. But also in attendance His Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (and the chief patriarch of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church) and various church leaders representing other branches of Christendom.

I watched as these two great Church leaders walked side by side in procession to the entrance of the ‘Basilica Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls’ in Rome, and then as the two of them stood side by side in silent prayer before what had once been the burial site of St. Paul.

On the Roman Church’s calendar today, June 29th, is listed as the Feast of Saint Peter and St.Paul. Hence, The Year of St. Paul that will be kept in the Roman Catholic Church began on the Eve of the feast day commemorating both of these two great saints, both of whom are buried in Rome. But on the Anglican, or English Church calendar, June 29th is the liturgical date on which is commemorated and celebrated the Feast of Saint Peter, alone. Whereas St. Paul is commemorated on June 30th as well as on January 25th (being the feast of his Conversion).

What do we know about St. Peter this great saint, also known as the Prince of the Apostles? Our knowledge of his life and personality is derived chiefly from the Gospels, the Book of Acts, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, St. Peter’s own two epistles and holy Tradition.

According to the Gospel of St. John, Simon was a native of Bethsaida, a village near the lake Tiberias, but when our Lord began his public ministry, Simon Peter is found at Capernaum. In St. John’s account, Simon was introduced to our Lord by his brother Andrew and upon this first meeting with our Lord is given the name ‘Cephas,’ the Aramaic Hebrew equivalent of ‘Petra,’ the Greek word for ‘rock.’ Shortly thereafter, Simon-Peter was present at the first miracle of the wedding at Cana.

As we heard last Sunday in St. Luke’s Gospel account, the fifth chapter (and as occurs also in St. Matthew) another meeting is recorded at which, at our Lord’s command, although somewhat against Simon’s own better judgment, he obediently lets down his nets for an unlikely catch and draws up an enormous draught of fish, so many that his net began to break. Be beckons his partners to help him. Jesus then went to Simon’s house and there cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. Which infers that Simon Peter (even if the first Pope) had a wife! Simon’s house and his boat are now at Jesus’ disposal on any future occasion he is in Capernaum.

Sometime later, Simon (along with his brother Andrew and ten others) is formally called by our Lord to be an Apostle, one of ‘the Twelve.’ And to be the chief of the Apostles: In all of the lists of the Twelve, he is named first. He was also present on certain special occasions when only a small group of the Apostles were invited by Jesus to join him. Those occasions being the raising of Jairus’ daughter from her dead bed, the Transfiguration on the Mount and Jesus’ Agony in the Garden.

He frequently opens his mouth and usually takes the lead, which quite often leads him into some very embarrassing moments. For example, when he tried walking to Jesus on the water and ended up sinking and had to be rescued by Jesus. And when he suggested doing some carpentry on the mountaintop to provide some shade and comfort for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (not knowing what he said), or when he spoke up to protect Jesus from any future harm, only to have Jesus bring him up sharply by telling him that he was a not being a help but a hindrance, and was on the side of men not God!

And of course, he initially refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet after the Last Supper, but then reconsidered after Jesus responds, and then asks Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his hands and his head. Clearly showing by what he said, he wasn’t using his head! And his feet – well his foot – he shortly will put in his mouth! Because just a short time later, on his way with Jesus and the others to the Mount of Olives, he would foolishly boast to Jesus that although the others might desert Jesus, he would never desert Jesus and was even ready to die with him! Jesus cautioned Peter.

Next, we remember how he over-reacted with a sword, cutting off a servant man’s ear. And how after Jesus’ arrest he followed behind the soldiers but stood in the shadows, soon cursing and denying any association when asked whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples. And then, the cock crowed! He remembered his own promise and Jesus’ prediction and bitterly repented of his denial.

On the other hand, Simon-Peter sometimes said the right thing! We heard in this morning’s gospel, his great confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Our Lord tells him, this truth has not been revealed to him by flesh and blood (by human deduction), but by the Father in heaven (by Divine Inspiration). Peter then receives the promise ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church,’ together with the keys of heaven and the power of binding and loosing.

New Testament scholars and critics have argued for centuries over this controversial passage: The dispute is to whether the ‘rock’ refers to Peter himself or to his confession of faith. After all, Peter’s confession of faith is soon followed by that sharp rebuke from Jesus, when the ‘rock’ abruptly becomes a major obstacle in Jesus’ way.

Just as Jesus had called Peter aside with James and John to be present with him on those special occasions noted earlier, so Jesus had him accompany John, entrusting to them both the preparations for the final Passover he would eat with them all before his Passion.

According to St. Luke’s account, after the Resurrection, Peter was favored with a special appearance of the Risen Christ. According to St. John’s account, our Lord appeared to him and several other of the disciples at the sea of Tiberias (not very far from where it all had begun), where Peter now makes reparation for his triple denial by a triple protestation of love and receives from the Lord both the Charge to feed Jesus’ Sheep and the prediction of his martyrdom.

After Jesus’ Ascension, Peter immediately takes the lead of the Apostles in calling for the replacement of Judas, and throughout the first half of Acts he appears as the head. Peter speaks on the day of Pentecost, preaching the first Christian sermon, and three thousand converts come to Christ as a result. What a sermon that was! He is also the first of the Apostles to perform a miracle in the name of Jesus, healing a man lame from birth. He is also the greatest miracle-worker among the Apostles, whose very shadow as he passes by heals the sick.

It is Peter who opens the church to the Gentiles by admitting Cornelius the centurion. His authority is again evident at the first Apostolic Council at Jerusalem, which permits official entry of the Gentiles into the Church and does not require them to first become Jews, nor to have to submit to circumcision, but to abide by four simple rules. Of the later years of his Apostolate outside Palestine very little is known.

Peter was not perfect. Few of the Saints were! For example, his visit to Antioch is mentioned by St. Paul in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. What is also found there is Paul’s sharp rebuke of Peter for giving way to the demands of certain Jewish converts to Christ to then disassociate himself from the Gentiles! Peter had done an about face! Once again the ‘rock’ had become an obstacle!

The ancient tradition of associating St. Peter with Rome is quite early. In his First Epistle, Peter seems to hint of himself being in Rome (alluded to as ‘Babylon’), along with his traveling companion, St. Mark, who Peter refers to as, ‘my son, Mark.’ It is also believed that St. Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written, was an account given him first-hand by St. Peter. And that St. Mark was thus St. Peter’s scribe.

St. Irenaeus states definitely that Peter and Paul founded the Church at Rome and instituted its Episcopal Succession. St. Clement of Rome, held in primitive times to have been St. Peter’s immediate successor at Rome, conjoins Peter and Paul as the outstanding heroes of the Faith and implies that Peter suffered martyrdom there. Peter may earlier in his life have escaped the wrath of King Herod, but death would come for certain for him in the reign of Emperor Nero.

He was advanced in years, when martyrdom came, as foretold by the Lord. To Peter he said, ‘Truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ Tradition attests that St. Peter, like his Lord, was crucified. But that at his own request he asked to be crucified head down, as he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. And his wish was granted him!

That is what we know about him. Quite a lot really! But what do we learn from him? He was above all a man of action, intensely enthusiastic, passionate and yes, impetuous. His passionate love of Christ, though at first mixed with self-esteem and unable to stand up to severe trials, was purified by failure and through suffering.

After Pentecost he showed his leadership abilities and fearlessly faced persecution. His true humility shows itself strikingly in the Gospel of St. Mark (his scribe), where his person appears in a far less favorable light than in any of the other gospels. The man who was once such a brash and boastful man had become a self-effacing saint.

As to his burial site, there are considerable historical reasons for believing that his tomb in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, is authentic. It’s as certain and genuine as was his life and faith!

So then what do we learn from him? We, who time and time again, like Peter, stumble and fall. As followers of Jesus Christ, who aspire to imitate the lives of the saints, we all should be ardent believers: who take action, and are enthusiastic and passionate about the Faith. Whose own lives have been purified by our many failures and through our share in suffering. Who are fearless in the face of persecution. Leading lives that are truly humble and genuinely self-effacing. And by the nature of our baptisms, whose lives have been buried with Christ.

‘Blessed are you, Simon, bar-Jona!’ ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ The Lord is glorious in all his Saints!