Today's feast of St Peter and St Paul is a Roman feast. It celebrates the fact that we are Catholics, and our full communion with the Church of Rome.
Peter and Paul, the greatest of the apostles, were both martyred in Rome, the ancient imperial capital. Peter had left his fishing nets to follow Jesus and become a fisher of men and women. Paul had left his Pharisaic background, remaining (at least occasionally) a tentmaker, and had become the apostle to the Gentiles. They travelled from Galilee and Tarsus in southern Turkey -- to Rome, via Jerusalem and many tribulations.
In our first reading Peter is released by an angel from prison and a probable death sentence. He had continued to preach the gospel in Jerusalem against the wishes of the Jewish authorities. In the second reading the author celebrates:
I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith.
In the book of Acts we have a partial record of Paul's journeys round the eastern Mediterranean to preach the gospel and some of the many sufferings he endured because of his mission.
In the gospel from Matthew, Jesus asks Peter:
Who do you say I am?
Peter replies both as an individual and as the leader of the apostles:
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
By telling us this Matthew wants us to reply with Peter: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'
This is the faith of that early Church for which Matthew is writing. This is the faith of the Church that preserved the written texts of the gospels, epistles and so on, and also treasured these texts as the Word of God. This is the faith that we live and believe as the Church today.
Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He is the one to set God's people free. He refuses the path of political revolt against the Roman Empire. He sets God's people free by dying triumphantly on the cross, hanging between heaven and earth and so reconciling God and humankind. He rises from the dead that we might rise and live with God.
Jesus tells Simon that this faith in Jesus was revealed not by flesh and blood, but by God. Faith is a divine gift to Peter as it is to us, and not always an easy gift for us. God gives us, as he gave Peter and the early disciples, not only faith but also hope and love -- the three gifts that Paul writes about so eloquently to the Corinthians.
For Peter, previously called Simon, there is more. Jesus says:
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven
Peter himself is the rock on which the Church is built. Peter who is later recorded in the gospels as betraying Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest - that same Peter is the rock. Peter who despite the forceful arguments of Paul will find it so difficult to abandon kosher food and eat with non-Jews - Peter is the rock. Peter, this stormy ill-educated provincial fisherman, is the rock on which God has built his Church.
As Catholics we believe that the Petrine ministry did not end with Peter's death, but continues in the ministry of the bishops of Rome. Just as the college of bishops carries on the mission of the apostles, so the Pope, the bishop of Rome, carries on the Petrine mission of presiding over all the churches in love.
The papacy, along with the whole Church of Rome, is the focus of Christian unity. To be fully Christian means living in full communion not only with the apostles from the past, but also with their successors living today.
Particular popes may have had particular failings, just like Peter. Such failings may not be helpful, but they can encourage those of us who know our own failings, encourage us to persevere in faith, in hope, and in charity. We journey on, in communion with Peter and Paul, the pope and the whole church.
As Catholics we are sometimes tempted to emphasize Peter and rather marginalize Paul, perhaps reacting to much Protestant emphasis in preaching on the epistles of Paul. Let us be able to say with Paul:
The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.
St Peter and St Paul are now safe in the heavenly kingdom praying for us. Let us remain steadfast in faith, hope and charity and join them and all God's saints in peace.