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Universal Triumph

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul  |  Fr Peter Harries considers the significance of the feast of St Peter and St Paul. 

Today’s feast of St Peter and St Paul binds us to Rome, the city where they were both martyred within a couple of years of each other. Christianity is a universal faith, for people of whatever nation, race, language or sexual identity. But our faith is also particular. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived in Nazareth, and died in Jerusalem and there in Jerusalem was raised from the dead by God. Particular events in particular places, though with universal significance. As Christian people we usually live as members of a particular diocese with our bishop. But we are also in full communion with the Christian people of Rome and the Bishop of Rome, whom we refer to as Pope, as the visible head on earth of the universal Church.

St Peter in today’s Gospel professes that Jesus is truly the Christ, the son of the living God. He rejects as inadequate the idea that Jesus is simply one of the prophets of old come back to life. Yes, Jesus is indeed a prophet, but he is much more than a prophet; he is the Christ, the Messiah, born to save God’s people. The setting of this profession of faith is not where we might expect in the ancient holy city of Jerusalem. Rather it is in a particular place, in the largely pagan newly-settled region of Caesarea Philippi. There, staying amongst the recent migrants in/near a city of no great importance, St Peter makes his profession. In the world we may well feel we live in a place ignored by the political powers that be, while our taxes are spent profligately elsewhere. It was in such a place like ours that St Peter recognised Jesus and was given his authority. Our own particular nowhere-very-special place is the particular place where we live out God’s love in praise, prayer and love of neighbour.

St Paul in the second reading today describes his life in prison in Rome at the end of his life as being him being poured away like a libation. I know that many scholars think that a later disciple of St Paul wrote this letter in its current form, but that doesn’t change the theological message. St Paul was suffering because he lived and preached the gospel that Jesus rose from the dead and especially that salvation was possible for non-Jews just as much as Jews, through the forgiveness of sins. This preaching had lead him into trouble in Jerusalem, as St Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet in his suffering, St Paul trusts that he and all his fellow Christians will triumph over the forces of evil and will be brought safely to the heavenly kingdom. There they - and hopefully we - will be crowned as kings, fellow heirs of Christ our brother and our redeemer. 

St Luke has also told us in our first reading that St Peter had also been imprisoned in Jerusalem ready for execution. His planned death was part of King Herod’s power politics to consolidate his own personal rule. God had other plans and the angel liberated St Peter from prison so that St Peter could continue as an evangelist and as the leader of the early Christian community. St Peter however left Jerusalem. The new particular focus of God’s people, who were and are spreading universally, is not the ancient holy city of Jerusalem. Paradoxically it will be Rome, the capital of the frequently oppressive empire, the city where both St Peter and St Paul died. 

This feast of St Peter and St Paul is undoubtedly a triumphalist feast. Jesus promised St Peter that the gates of Hades, the underworld, can not prevail over the Church. Today we celebrate the triumph of two particular individuals in Rome, yet by celebrating this in our own particular place, we also place them within the universal context of the Church scattered throughout the world. God’s triumph is not yet fully realised for us. We may suffer like St Peter and St Paul, but our sufferings because we are members of God’s holy people are united mystically to the sufferings of Jesus Our Lord for the redemption of the world. Suffering and triumph. In worldly terms these are opposite. St John in his Gospel is very clear that the moment of Jesus’s greatest triumph is his suffering and death on the cross, defeating evil and uniting heaven and earth. Jesus’ universal triumph happened both at a particular time and place, but with universal significance. Today, and every day, we as Church live out in our particular circumstances, with prayer, praise and acts of charity, the triumph of God. We do it as Church united to Pope Francis, the successor of St Peter and St Paul, who has inherited those promises made long ago to St Peter, the visible rock on which the Church is built.

Acts 3:1-10  |  Gal 1:11-20  |  John 21:15-19

Peter H. Harries O.P.

Peter H. Harries Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.


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