Feast of St Peter & St Paul 30th June 2019
Licensed Reader Mrs Sherry Angelis
He is bold, brash, forward, opinionated, impulsive, assertive, warm, kind, helpful, caring and one who often speaks out and acts without sufficient thought. Naturally, he loves to be the centre of attention and is always the life of the party. Inside himself, though, there lives a small boy with a heart of gold who can be insecure and frightened.
Shimon Bar-Jonah is born around year one of our Lord, in Bethsaida – meaning house of fishing in Hebrew. It is a beautiful city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where the River Jordan enters. Shimon, or Simon in English, grows up in the usual way in that troubled part of the world at such an extremely difficult time. He goes into the family fishing business with his brother Andrew. He marries and probably has children. So, for close to 30 years, life is as he expected it to be – very hard but quite simple.
Of course, unforgettable is the first meeting of Jesus of Nazareth with Simon. Apparently, Andrew is already a believer in the words of John the Baptist and might have spoken endlessly to his brother about the New Prophet. Thus, when Jesus shows up on the shoreline and tells these two seasoned fishermen, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men,” they do so immediately.
Undoubtedly, fishermen hold a special place in the Lord’s heart. And, you may well recall that, within Christ’s elite group of 12 disciples, it is 3 fishermen, one of whom is Simon, who are with Him at some very pivotal moments in His life, such as Jesus’ Transfiguration and His last night in Gethsemane.
It just so happens that, within this particular rough and rugged fisherman, Jesus recognises qualities needed for His own band of disciples. You might say that Simon is chosen for who he is and in spite of it.
Simon begins like the others, as a follower and learner of Jesus with all of the entire renunciation of home, family, and other callings which this implies. His knowledge and faith for the present need only the call of personal attachment to the Master.
We certainly know Simon’s story as we learn it from the various Gospels. We know much of his actions and reactions. Gradually, over a 3 year period, Simon is formed and transformed as he follows the Lord. Surely one of his greatest breakthroughs is found in today’s reading from Matthew. Simon is the first of the disciples to openly acknowledge Jesus, not only as the Messiah, but also as the very Son of the living God. From that moment on, Simon Bar-Jonah is called Peter, and Jesus Christ proclaims Peter is the rock upon which He will build His Church.
Now, let’s skip to the miraculous Pentecost after Christ’s Resurrection. On that day, Peter, the uneducated fisherman, so jagged and unpolished around the edges, is like the caterpillar exiting the cocoon as a magnificent butterfly, or the ugly duckling becoming an elegant swan. His first public speech would make any orator envious. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, definitely has no printed sheets or even hand-written notes in front of him, yet he captivates his audience of thousands with such eloquence. Peter truly is the Rock – the Church begins here!!
Thousands more will hear Peter speak over the next 30 years, as he spreads the gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and humanity’s Saviour. Some of his vibrant missionary work is reported within the book of Acts. As is his fellow-worker Paul, Peter is beaten, tortured, and jailed for his beliefs and his message. However, God is with him all the way, even sending an Angel to release Peter safely from prison.
The Holy Spirit, too, continues to be with Peter and within his ministry for the rest of his life. You may recall one particular Spirit-sent vision in which Peter sees 3 times a great sheet bound at 4 corners, descending towards him and filled with ritually unclean animals. And, thrice, he is rebuked by a heavenly voice telling him, “Do not consider unclean that which God has declared clean.”
Thus, Peter’s eyes are opened to the fact that God’s mercy and magnanimous salvation are to be spread to all the Earth, to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is a huge turning point and positively changes Peter’s entire apostolic career. Although few specifics are known about much of his career, later evidence connects him not with the Jewish churches in Palestine but with the Gentile ones that were emerging throughout the Roman Empire.
Peter courageously labours in Rome during the last portion of his life, and at a terrible time of horrendous persecution of Christians. Here, another wondrous vision is reported to have appeared to him. This is one you may not be so familiar with but it is fascinating. The Apocryphal Acts of Peter is thought to be the source for the tradition about the famous phrase “Quo vadis, Domine?” which means “Where are you going, Master?” According to the story, Peter, fleeing Rome to avoid execution, asks the question of a vision of Jesus, to which Jesus allegedly responds that He is “going to Rome to be crucified again.” On hearing this, Peter decides to return to the city to accept martyrdom.
The death of St. Peter is attested to by both Tertullian and Origen. The latter wrote: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he, himself, had desired to suffer. This is why an upside-down cross is generally accepted as a symbol of Peter, who would not have considered himself worthy enough to die the same way as his Saviour.”
Saint Peter is honoured with various titles, each in its own way, describing some kind of role he played in his life. For example: Prince of the Apostles, the Apostle to the Jews, the Fisherman, the Rock, the Shepherd, the first Bishop of Antioch and Rome, and finally, the first Pope of Rome from whom all other popes are descended.
Down through the centuries, innumerable churches, too, have honoured Saint Peter by using his name – churches from the largest and grandest to the smallest and simplest.
I will never forget the 31st of May, a number of years back, that also happened to be the anniversary of my daughter Sofia’s death. On such an extremely special day, I was visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in the very heart of Rome. There were hundreds of people present, and the magnificence of the largest Christian Church in the world took my breath away. I walked around a bit, and by God’s amazing grace, I found an alcove with an awesome painting of our Lord and Saviour holding a child. I was holding a photograph of my daughter. I went down on my knees and prayed; for just the perfect amount of time, I found myself in complete silence, totally alone with Jesus and with Sofia. I felt I was at home and in exquisite peace.
The following Sunday I had returned to our own St. Peter’s, and in being with that small congregation, I felt the very same way: at home and at peace.
Nowadays, I truly feel this way when I am here with all of you at St. Paul’s. It is never about the building, but about the people around us. We, as Christians, know how to care for one another, and others as well. For this, we must surely thank our God for blessing us with His enduring love and mercy.