Sunday Homilies


Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Matthew 16: 13-19

Gospel Summary

In his gospel Matthew establishes an inseparable link between the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the church. Further, Matthew affirms that the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the church are inseparable from the action of the heavenly Father. Simon from a revelation of the heavenly Father, not from flesh and blood, confesses Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In response, Jesus confers upon Simon a new title, the Rock. Upon Simon, the Rock, Jesus, the Christ, promises to build his church. The gates of hell, Jesus further promises, shall not prevail against it. And to Simon Peter (from petra, the Greek word for “rock”), Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven with authority to “bind and loose” with divine sanction in the universal church (my church). On this feast of Peter and Paul, one should note Paul’s affirmation that the heavenly Father, not flesh and blood, also revealed Jesus as Son to him (Gal 1:16).

Life Implications

In order to appreciate the lasting significance of the saints in the Catholic faith-tradition, we have to see the saints in relation to Christ, and thereby in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is through the creative action of the Spirit that we can see the saints as members of the church in divine-human personal communion. In this context we can then look at the unique personalities of the saints, and examine their unique roles in actualizing Christ’s mission in the world.

Peter certainly has both a unique personality and a unique role in actualizing Christ’s mission in the world. Christ gives him his role as the solid Rock upon which he will build his church. However, Christ also calls him a rock that might cause him to stumble. By trying to talk Jesus out of following his heavenly Father’s will, Peter becomes an agent of Satan (Mt 16:21-23). It is no surprise that history teaches us that this characterization of Jesus applies not only to Peter, but Peter’s successors as well. Christ continues to build his church upon the popes, Peter’s successors as bishops of Rome; but like Peter they too at times can be like rocks on the road. Christ, however, does not permit evil to prevail over his church despite our human failings.

The gospels make no attempt to whitewash Peter’s failures: he boasted about his loyalty to Jesus, but then denied him three times with curses. Despite his glaring weaknesses, you get the feeling from the gospel accounts that Jesus was fond of this rough-and-ready, uneducated fisherman. Peter was a constant, sometimes helpful companion in the crucial events of Jesus’ life. After the threefold “Do you love me?” Jesus, now Risen Lord, says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21: 15-17) Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Peter’s unique role in the early church as chief shepherd who cares for Christ’s flock.

If Peter denied Christ three times with curses, Paul persecuted the Body of Christ with great zeal. Then one day on the road to Damascus, he heard those life-changing words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asked for the identity of the voice, he heard, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” From that moment of faith’s recognition, Paul completely identified with the person of Jesus and his apostolic mission for the salvation of the world.

The lasting significance of Peter and Paul is that they are witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection. To believe that Jesus is truly risen and alive in us is possible only as a gift of the Holy Spirit (I Jn 3:24). The resurrection of Jesus, Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, is beyond the power of human reason to prove or to disprove (Summa Theologiae, III, q.55, a.5). Human reason (“flesh and blood”) at most can offer only arguments for or against the reality of the resurrection. Yet, our affirmation of faith is from the solid ground that human reason provides. The historical testimony of Peter and Paul supports our faith not only because they proclaimed the Lord’s resurrection, but because they gave their lives in martyrdom. Today, we pray to share in the gift of Peter and Paul’s faith, and promise—despite our own failings—to be witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection by our good works of love.

Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.

Image: Carlo Crivelli, Saints Peter and Paul, c. 1470s.