Homily for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

June 29, 2003

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 3:1-10; Ps. 19:2-5; Galatians 1:11-20; John 21:15-19)

"I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you."

I have a little quiz for you. You won't have to turn in your paper so just relax and think a bit.

What associations come to your mind when you hear the words "St. Peter?" And how about the words "St. Paul?"

I suspect that if you ask most Catholics those two questions they would say, for Saint Peter, "the first pope" and for Saint Paul maybe "the apostle to the Gentiles."

That's the risk we take when we call people "saint": we turn them into cardboard cutouts -- much like those life-size stand-up figures you've seen where you get to stand next to some figure like the president and get your picture taken. We lose touch with the human reality of these very real human people, who lived and breathed and faced the same life choices as you and me. And the result is that when we make them super-human (unreal) we absolve ourselves of the potential challenge they could be for us in our own growth along our spiritual journey. They're too far out of our reach.

Just think of the reality of these two important figures in the development of our church and its story.

One was a simple fisherman on an obscure lake whose name we would probably never have heard of except for the reality of Jesus. The other was a tent-maker from a town in Asia Minor that would be equally obscure.

If you wanted to give a sense of their story, what passages from Scripture would you choose?

Well, for Peter you might select that high point of his life, when he is the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ and is transformed by him in "the rock" on which he will build his church. But actually the church gives us quite a different passage. It chooses that very embarrassing moment when Jesus confronts Peter after the resurrection and asks him about his love and loyalty. And then asks him again. And, most painfully, a third time.

The three times are no accident. They are a painful reminder of the three times Peter had denied Jesus during the Passion. When Jesus first asks him "Do you love me more than these?" it brings back the way Peter had arrogantly boasted about his fidelity when Jesus said they would all betray him. "Oh, these guys might fail and run away, but not me!" Now he is very humbled and can only say, "Lord, you have the truth, you know all things."

And what about Paul? The church doesn't give us his great travels and courage in preaching. It gives us his painful confession in Galatians, how he "persecuted the church of god." Paul's story is so compelling that it's easy for us to forget Saul of Tarsus. He confesses to an excess of zeal for what he did. That's a nice euphemism for a nasty man. I don't think either you or I would want to have met Saul of Tarsus in a dark alley. Elsewhere in Acts we read that he thought nothing of breaking into the homes of unsuspecting, innocent Christians and having them hauled off to prison. Really, in the language of our day we might easily call him a terrorist. That's what he did.

The Scriptures tell us only of two meetings between these two figures. First right after Paul had been knocked off his horse and he went up to Jerusalem to find out what this church was all about; he told us he spent fifteen days getting to know Peter. And then the second time when an angry Paul rushed up there to blast Peter as a hypocrite for laying on others obligations he was not ready to live up to himself -- exactly the charge that Jesus had laid at the feet of the scribes and Pharisees.

So why do we single these men out for such a celebration? Not because Peter was "the first pope" (which is an expression Christians of the first century wouldn't have even understood, something that took centuries to develop). And not even because of Paul's great missionary travels.

No, the church celebrates them because they were outstanding witnesses. That's what 'martyr' means, a witness. In everyday language a witness is someone who puts their body where their mouth is. They live out visibly what they profess to believe. Or in another contemporary expression, witnesses don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk. And they didn't become witnesses at the time of their martyrdom, they had been walking the walk all along the journey.

Pope Paul VI wrote a wonderful encyclical on evangelization. And it contains some striking things to think about. Evangelization, it turns out, is not in the first instance about 'making converts.' It's about being present to the real situation of people, about being witnesses. Pope Paul says "modern people aren't interested in teachers, they want witnesses. It's not about doctrine, it's about revealing something in our daily lives.

And what were they witnessing to? To a gift. We don't have silver or gold -- and if we did, it would be of no account. What we have to give to the world is testimony to the name, to the power of Jesus.

In each of these men there came a single significant moment. As Paul says, "the time came when he who had set me apart before I was born chose to reveal his Son to me, that I might spread the Good news concerning him."

The good news is that we don't have to go out searching, looking for a distant God, but that God has first loved us and come to us. Jesus says, "You have not chosen me, but it is I who first chose you to bear fruit that would last."

Their mission is the same as ours: to proclaim the good news of God's love, not just in words but in deeds, in the way we live. You know, when the Gospel story ends Peter doesn't go off to some cathedral (much less to the Vatican), he goes back to his occupation, to his life, to fishing. Paul frequently reminds the communities he evangelized that we wasn't a free-loader living off the community. He worked with his hands, plying his trade. You and I are called to go about our fishing and our tent-making -- to being caring spouses and nurturing parents and welcoming neighbors and friends and eager contributors to the life of our parish community -- with conviction and enthusiasm. And with joy. Because it's all a gift we have received.

Let me tell you a brief story. Recently I happened unexpectedly to meet a woman I had had as a student in a course on ministry. A lovely, gracious person now in her late sixties. I asked her if she had finished her degree, which she had. So I asked if she was actively engaged in ministry. She answered, "Well no, I'm not. Three years ago my husband passed away and it was a very difficult time. I decided I didn't want to go back into ministry until I could be a fully joyful presence." What a wonderful insight into ministry: a fully joyful presence.

In Second Corinthians Paul describes what it's like to be part of this body of Christian witnesses: "We are called impostors, yet we are truthful; nobodies, who in fact are well known; dead, yet here we are alive; punished but not put to death; sorrowful, though we are always rejoicing; poor, yet we enrich many. We seem to have nothing, yet everything is ours!" (6:8-10)

At a singular moment each of us received a pure gift: our God revealed to us the riches of the Good News in Jesus; maybe at the moment of our Baptism, maybe at a moment when everything in life seemed lost and meaningless and hopeless. None of us has anything that we have not received -- neither silver nor gold nor beauty nor intelligence nor worldly wisdom nor fame. We have only the joyous revelation of God's free gift of love. Let us reveal that reality in all we do. With joy.