Today we celebrate two very different men who were called by God in an extraordinary way that they could never have imagined. St. Paul was highly educated and respected, and Peter was a fisherman and probably not very well known. Because of their encounter with the person of Jesus, both of them found their lives completely changed forever. Both dedicated the rest of their lives to preaching about a man that very few people had even heard of and as a result both of them were eventually killed for their faith.
One thing that was so important for both of them is equally important for us; that is, it was because of an encounter with the person of Jesus that they were changed. Our faith is also based on an encounter with this person Jesus. Even though we may never have physically heard or seen him, we have encountered him and that encounter keeps drawing us back to him. People often ask me as a priest why I didn’t want to get married. I always say the same thing: of course I would like to be married, but this call from Jesus was stronger and almost irresistible.
In his letter to the Galatians, one thing which Paul says is very striking. He says, ‘The good news that I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’ In other words, he is reminding us that this message is not from human beings, but directly from God. Jesus taught it directly to Peter and the other Apostles, and Jesus also taught it directly to Paul after the resurrection. Jesus appeared to Paul several times. First he changed him from being someone intent on wiping out the first Christians to being one of its strongest preachers. Many of the first Christians were afraid of him because they found it so hard to believe that he had really been converted. That was the kind of reputation he had. Then through other revelations Jesus also taught him all about this path that God was and is revealing to us. Paul says the same thing when he talks about the mass: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you, that on the night he was betrayed...’ He is saying that he learnt this directly from the Lord and not from any of the other Apostles.
I think today it is very important for us to remember that this message we believe in was not made up by bishops or popes or any of us—in spite of what The Da Vinci Code would suggest—but that it is something that has been given to us by God himself, and that in spite of bad preaching, bad example, scandals, etc., the message does not change. It comes from God and God is continually inviting us to follow this way of life that He offers us.
It is easy to become discouraged sometimes when the ones who deliver the message, me or anyone else, do it badly. This is why even though scandals are terrible and damaging, they shouldn’t affect our faith, because our faith is about Jesus Christ and our life in God that Jesus is inviting us to. He is telling us that we will only find true life in God and that God is the only one who makes sense of this life for us. Apart from God our life means nothing. With God, our life means everything.
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus says to Peter,
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).
In doing this, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his successors. But why would God do something so apparently crazy as to entrust his authority to human beings on earth? We all know how unreliable we can be and what a mess we could make of it. The reason He did this was because Jesus was saying that he would be with his pope and bishops to act and teach through them. They would be instruments for the Lord God to use. We still believe that today. We believe that God teaches us through his Church, through his bishops. It doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle with the teaching, but it does mean that we believe it comes from God and that is why we try to respect it and struggle to understand it, rather than just throwing it to one side. Do you think that I would be obedient to my bishop if I thought that he was just acting as a man when he sends me here and there and everywhere? No, I believe that the Lord acts through him and so I try to obey him and respect him. And we believe that the Lord has given us these men to guide his Church, because he said so himself. We don’t know why he picked them, or picked us priests, perhaps we would have done differently, but we believe that God acts through them and that God has given these men to us as our leaders in the faith.
Think also of the line ‘And the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it.’ We see plenty of evil in the world around us, but the Lord tells us not to be afraid of that. His Church will never be defeated, because it is from him.
I am sure that the reason God often picks weak and sinful people to pass on his message, is to make it all the more obvious that God is the one working through them. Most of the prophets were weak people who did not want to pass on God’s message, as they knew it would mean persecution, and they were right. But God insisted that they did. The great king David who killed Goliath, had been a shepherd. Moses murdered someone and then had to go into exile. St. Peter publicly swore he never knew Jesus. God is not afraid to use weak people.
For me one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God, is the fact that in spite of such a sinful people and so many sinners making a mess of things, his Church keeps on going and people keep on hearing about Jesus Christ and continually try to live the way of Christ, just as we are doing now.
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. The gates of the underworld will never hold out against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you lose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.