About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, "Get up quickly." And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, "Fasten your belt and put on your sandals." He did so. Then he said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me." Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel's help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.
After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall be always in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the Lord;
the lowly will hear me and be glad. (R./)
Glorify the Lord with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears. (R./)
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the Lord heard,
and from all his distress he saved him. (R./)
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Taste and see how good the Lord is;
blessed the man who takes refuge in him. (R./)
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
What distinguished Peter among the first disciples was his God-given insight into the identity of Jesus. In response to this unique insight Jesus gives Peter a special role: he is to be the rock, the solid foundation on which the church of Jesus will stand. It is a major task to give to any of his followers. Peter's role is clarified when Jesus gives him "the keys of the kingdom of heaven". The keys suggest authority and that authority is put in terms of binding and loosing, probably a teaching role. Peter is entrusted with authoritatively interpreting the mind of Jesus for other members of the church. Yet some time late, this "rock" would try to deflect Jesus from taking the way of the cross, and when Jesus was arrested, Peter tried to deny his association with him. The Peter portrayed in the Gospels is a leader who remained a flawed human being.
Just as the gospel associates Peter with teaching authority, the second Reading associates Paul with preaching. Paul claims that the Lord "gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be preached for all the pagans to hear." He became the great preacher of the gospel to the pagans ("Gentiles") across the Roman Empire. He preached it for the last time in the city of Rome, where, like Peter, he was martyred for his faith in Christ. Today's extract from his letter to Timothy may well have been written from a prison cell in Rome. It is a very stirring text: "I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith." The image of the fight and the race suggest that "keeping the faith" was a struggle for Paul; it did not come easy to him, just as keeping the faith did not come easy to Peter either.
Keeping the faith does not always come easy to any of us. Paul's letters show that he was very aware that keeping the faith was not due primarily to his own efforts; it was the Lord who enabled him to keep the faith. As he says in today's 2nd Reading, "the Lord stood by me and gave me power." It is the Lord who empowers all of us to keep the faith; his faithfulness to us enables us to be faithful to him; his faithful love encourages us to keep returning to him even after failure. The faithful witness of Peter and Paul speak to us ultimately of the Lord's faithfulness to us all.
We are a community that relies on inspirational memory. We remember our ancestors in the faith, both to be grateful for them and to learn from them lessons for today. The two whose lives we celebrate today tell of God's power to transform and redirect a person's life. The lives of Peter and Paul were completely changed by their following Jesus. The failures in their lives and even more so their conversions, may surprise us, but they probably surprised them too! What Paul says in today's epistle, Peter might have also said, "I have run the race; I have kept the faith." This "faith" does not mean formal doctrinal orthodoxy; rather, Paul has acted as the faith required, witnessing to his faith in Jesus to believers and non-believers alike. His words give a keen insight into the cost and joy of being a disciple. In the end, Paul was imprisoned and executed in Rome during Nero's suppression of the church in the mid-60's of the first century.
Jesus intended Peter to be lead his followers after he himself left this world. He also intended, one must assume, that others would carry on this leadership after Peter. This does not mean that the Lord approved in advance every development and protocol of the papacy since then, or that all actions of the Roman curia have the stamp of divine approval. History has thrown up some popes of questionable character [though no spectacularly immoral ones since 1700]. Some have been poor admistrators, or lacked the capacity to inspire others. The ceremonial surrounding the papacy often seems too lavish for the successors of Peter the fisherman. None of this cancels the essence of Petrine leadership or its importance for the Church. The promise to Peter did not guarantee that his successors would all be saints or that all would avoid mistakes. Catholics should realize what is essential to the faith and what is not. We bear in mind the old dictum "Ecclesia semper reformanda" which also applies to the papacy. We believe in God and his love as revealed by Jesus and the Church. We do not worship the pope, but we deeply respect him as Peter's successor, a focus of unity and chief pastor of the Church.
There is a story told about Peter's death in Rome during the persecution under Nero. When he heard about Nero's plan to burn the city and blame the Christians Peter knew that if he were found in the city he would be arrested and put to death. Urged by his friends he did the sensible thing and began to leave the city at night along the Appian Way. As the night wore on the sky was lit by the flames rising from the city. Then Peter saw someone coming in the opposite direction, heading back towards the city, a face that even at night seemed familiar. "Where are you going, Lord?" (Quo vadis, Domine?), asked the bewildered Peter. "To Rome," was the reply, "to be crucified again" ... and on hearing this, Peter turned around and returned to Rome.
Celebrating these two leading apostles in a single feast is a vibrant reminder that the church needs both the papal, canonical leadership and the more charismatic, inspirational leadership of characters like Paul, ever ready to question old ways and seek new forms of bringing people into contact with Christ. We pray for both these kinds of leadership in today's church, as we honour the twin "pillars of the church" in Rome. Their memory was beautifully evoked by Saint Clement of Rome about the year 95 when he wrote about "the illustrious apostles: Peter, who endured numerous labours and ... Paul who , having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, suffered martyrdom, showing a striking example of patience." (Epistle to the Corinthians, par. 5). The best way to honour their memory is to treasure the faith they taught, and pass it on as best we can to others.