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."
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 singled Peter out from the other disciples was his God-given insight into the identity of Jesus. It was because of his unique insight that Jesus gives Peter a unique role among his followers. He is to be the rock, the firm foundation, on which Jesus will build his church. It is an extraordinarily significant role for Jesus to give to any of his disciples. Peter's role is further spelt out by Jesus giving him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The image of the keys suggests authority. The nature of that authority is expressed in terms of binding and loosing. This is probably a reference to a teaching authority. Peter is being entrusted with the task of authoritatively interpreting the teaching of Jesus for other members of the church. Yet, this same Peter would try to deflect Jesus from taking the way of the cross, and when Jesus did take that way, Peter would deny any association with him. Jesus is portrayed by Matthew's gospel as giving a significant role to someone who remains very flawed.
If the gospel associates teaching with Peter, the second reading associates preaching with Paul. In that reading Paul refers to the Lord who "gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be preached for all the pagans to hear." Paul was the great preacher of the gospel to the pagans throughout the Roman Empire. He preached it for the last time further west, in the city of Rome, where, like Peter, he was martyred for his faith in Christ. The extract from his second letter to Timothy that is our second reading today may well have been written from his Roman imprisonment. 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 second 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 living and life-giving memory. We remember our ancestors in the faith, both to give thanks for them and to learn from them lessons for today. The two saints whose lives we celebrate today tell of God's power to transform and redirect our lives. The personal lives of Peter and Paul were completely changed by their following Jesus. The twists and turns of their lives, and especially their conversions, may surprise us, but then, they surprised them too! What Paul says in the second reading, Peter might have also said, "I have run the race; I have kept the faith." Here Paul isn't just speaking of doctrinal observance; rather, he did what faith required of him, witnessing and preaching his faith in Jesus to believers and non-believers alike. His words are so personal today as he gives us 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 certainly intended Peter to be the leader of 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 Jesus approved all the developments in the papacy since then, or all claims made by or on behalf of popes; or that the Roman curia as now constituted has the stamp of divine approval. There have been in history some popes of questionable character [though no spectacularly immoral ones since 1700, I would reckon]. Some have proved to be poor admistrators, or lacked the capacity to inspire others. The flamboyant ceremonial surrounding the papacy often seems too lavish for the successors of Peter the fisherman. None of this denies the essence of Petrine leadership or belies its importance. Jesus's promise to Peter did not guarantee that his successors would all be saints or be able leaders or that all would avoid mistakes. Catholics should realize what is of faith and what is not. They should keep in mind that the old dictum "Ecclesia semper reformanda" also applies to the papacy without any loss of faith or loyalty. 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 traditional story about Peter's death in Rome during the persecution of Nero. When he heard about Nero's plan to burn the city and blame the Christians Peter knew that as the church leader in the city he would be arrested and put to death. So, urged by his friends he did the sensible thing and got ready to leave town at night along the Appian Way. As the night wore on the sky was illuminated by the flames rising from the city. Then Peter saw someone coming in the opposite direction, heading back towards the city, someone who 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, in your place;" and on hearing this, Peter turned around and returned to Rome.
Less is said about the idea of succession to Saint Paul, although his role as an animator of faith and community life was also vital in the early Church. Celebrating these two leading apostles in a single feast is a vibrant reminder that the church needs both the formal, enduring, Petrine, papal, canonical leadership and the more charismatic, personal and inspirational leadership provided by characters like Paul, ever ready to question old ways and seek newer forms of bringing Christ into people's lives. We pray for the successors to both these kinds of leadership in today's church, as we honour the twin foundational "pillars of the church" in Rome. Their memory was beautifully evoked by Saint Clement, Peter's fourth successor as head of that community when he wrote: "Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles: Peter, who endured numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him; and Paul who … having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, suffered martyrdom under the prefects… and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience." (Epistle to the Corinthians, par. 5). The best way to honour their memory is to treasure the faith that they taught, and pass it on as best we can to others.