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An unlikely pair of characters

June 30, 2013

This homily was delivered across three parish masses celebrated on

The Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul (Sunday 30 June 2013)

[You can listen at ]

From the earliest days of the Church there has been the tradition of Saints Peter and Paul sharing the same feast day. What they have in common is that they were major influences on the development of the Church in Rome – it was the place where they both preached, both ministered to the first Christians, and where they were both martyred.

Let’s have a look at some of the similarities and differences between Peter and Paul:

Peter and Paul came from very different Jewish traditions

Peter was a pretty conventional, traditional Jew, born in Bethsaida, an obscure village in rural Palestine. Peter, being a practicing Jew, would have gone to the local every Saturday and would have made pilgrimages at least once a year to the Temple in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, although Paul was a Jew, he was brought up a long way away from the influence of the Temple in Jerusalem – Paul was a descendant of Jews who were exiled six centuries earlier. He was born in the city of Tarsus, which is now in Turkey. As a result, Saint Paul’s Jewish faith was much more exposed to the influences of Greek and Roman culture – indeed, Paul inherited Roman citizenship from his father.

 Peter and Paul each played to their strengths and because of their different backgrounds they found themselves ministering to different groups of Christians – Peter bringing the good news of Christ and ministering those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and in Rome; and Paul working as the Apostle to the Gentiles – converting and leading non-Jewish Christians across the Roman Empire.

The message for us today couldn’t be clearer. We all have different backgrounds, traditions and talents. God can use them. We should recognise that God prepares each one us for our own unique part in fulfilling the Church’s mission in the world today. This is the idea of the Church being the Body of Christ – Jesus the head and then many inter-dependent other parts of the body. A question to ponder: have you identified where your strengths are for bring Jesus Christ into the world?

 At first Peter and Paul were fierce opponents

By the time he was in his mid-30s Saul was a well-known Pharisee. He considered the first Christians, led by Peter, to be an affront to God, and he resolved to eliminate this scourge. Indeed, Paul was happy at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen; Paul even got warrants from the Temple authorities to travel to Damascus and round up the Christians there. People were frightened of Paul because he was a religious zealot.  

 But, just as God had plans for the fisherman from Bethsaida, so God had plans for this over-confident, arrogant young zealot from Tarsus.

Now, of course Peter knew Jesus intimately, but another thing Peter and Paul have in common is that:

Both men had life-changing encounters with Jesus after the Resurrection

Although Peter was with Our Lord throughout His earthly ministry, we learn from John’s Gospel the private conversation Jesus had with Peter after the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.[1] It’s when Jesus told Peter, three times to “Feed my sheep”, closing with the instruction, “You are to follow me.” A life changing encounter. The man who ran away when Jesus was arrested becomes a fearless preacher, a remarkable leader, and dedicated the rest of his life to evangelizing the Jews.

In contrast, Saint Paul was not on the scene during the three years of Jesus ministry, but like Peter he also met our Lord after the Resurrection. About to arrive in Damascus to persecute the Church, suddenly, in a blinding light, Paul hears Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”[2] Note that. Why are you persecuting ME? Jesus is the Church. Another life-changing encounter. The man who self-righteously started out on a self-appointed mission to eradicate the Church suddenly has his whole world turned upside-down. He is to spend the rest of his life travelling the world evangelizing the Gentiles.

Another interesting thing:

Both Peter and Paul each left secure jobs to follow Jesus

Peter ran a successful fishing business in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee and it was his brother Andrew who introduced him to Jesus: Andrew had originally been a follower of John the Baptist, but when Jesus approached for baptism John the Baptist said to Andrew the famous words we now hear at every single Mass: “Behold, the Lamb of God”.[3] The Jews has been searching for ‘The Lamb of God’ ever since the time of Abraham, 2,000 years earlier, so Andrew immediately decided to find out more about Jesus. The next day the first thing Andrew did was to go off to tell his brother Peter about the good news: Peter came to see for himself, and joined Jesus’ disciples.

There something in this story for us too. Do we build up each others’ faith? When we are at home with our families and friends, do we learn from one another, pray for one another, talk about our faith with one another? Or do we, through embarrassment, avoid discussing our Christian beliefs with each other? Remember, Andrew encouraged his brother Peter…. and the rest is history.

And what was the secure job that Saint Paul gave up in order to follow Christ? We know that Saint Paul was actually a skilled tent-maker by trade. This information suggests that Paul, like Peter, was a member of what we might call the skilled working or middle class. It’s helpful to realise that Peter and Paul were from neither a very privileged nor a poor background – they were from ordinary backgrounds like most of us, which is reassuring. So we again share something in common with Peter and Paul – these two saints show us that ordinary people like us can and do make it to heaven. Of course, there are poor people amongst our congregation, and there is poverty in this City and elsewhere in the world.

And that is why Pope Francis reminds us always to remember the real poor people of our world. The question for us is whether or not we use the talents and opportunities we have gained because of the privileges we enjoy: Are we willing to give up our security, our reasonably comfortable life-styles to trust in the plan that God has for each of us. Do we step out in faith like Peter and Paul?

Here’s a strange thing:

Both Peter and Paul used different names in their ministry

Saint Peter was originally known as Shimon bar Jonah. Simon, Son of John. And Shimon is Hebrew for “hearing” – a good name for a man who heard the Voice of God. The modern English version of his name would be ‘Simon Johnson’!

Now, the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is full of references to God as a rock – the idea of God the Rock appears 24 times in the psalms alone[4] – and the idea is that God’s nature is unchangeable, “solid as a rock”.

So in today’s gospel, when Jesus says to Peter “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”, He is telling Peter that the new Church of Jesus Christ will be firmly founded on the rock that is God. And the Aramaic word Jesus used to re-name Simon would have been ‘kepha’. This doesn’t mean just any old rock, but a rock that has been shaped and is ready to be used to build something. So when Jesus says “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” what He is saying is that upon the firm, unchangeable foundations of God, Jesus is going to use a specially shaped, specially selected stone, henceforth to be known as Peter, to build up the Christian community.

With these words Jesus marks the moment when he changes Simon Johnson’s name to ‘Peter Pope’. Jesus is announcing to all the disciples that Peter, who has been on a spiritual journey with Jesus and has now reached a critical point in his existence – is now ready to have his developing leadership and authority recognised by Jesus.

As Christians we are all on a spiritual journey that continues throughout our lives, seeing us develop in maturity and understanding no matter how old we are, always growing in our relationship with God through knowing Jesus Christ more and more.

So the question arising from Peter’s name change is that we may need to ask ourselves, “Am I ready to take a greater part in the mission of God’s Church by bringing Jesus Christ to people who do not know Him properly?

Now, what about Paul changing his name? Why did Saul change his name? Well, he didn’t really change his name. He just changed which of his names he used. Saul is a good Jewish name (Saul was the first King of the Israelites, before King David), so it was a very suitable name for a zealous young Pharisee like Saul. But it was also common in those days for people to have a dual Roman name, and Saul, being a Roman citizen, also had the Roman name Paul. He explained that the way he spoke and did things was in order to “…. become all things to all, to save at least some.”[5] In other words, he adapted his style, including the name he used, to fit in to the customs and culture of those he was preaching and ministering to.

This is something we could do well to ponder in this Year of Faith, this time of the New Evangelisation of our country. We need to speak to people in a way they would understand, tuned in to the issues that they are facing in their lives today. This does not mean we chase popularity, changing what God’s Truth for something that might be more popular. But it means identifying with the problems faced in our modern society, understanding our culture, and bring God’s message to people in a way that makes sense.

So the questions for us all is arising from Paul’s style are:

Do we walk the talk?

Does what we do or say reflect our Christian beliefs?

And if we were asked about our Faith, have we thought about it enough to be able to explain it properly?


The final similarity I would bring to your attention is that:

Both men were martyred in Rome, possibly in the same year

Saint Peter was crucified and buried in Rome, underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, and St Paul was beheaded on the via Ostia at a place now covered by the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Some scholars say they both died in the year 67AD.

Peter and Paul suffered the ultimate martyrdom of execution. That is not likely to be our fate. Yet being a Christian in our modern world is not easy. We are often faced with ethical and moral dilemmas. The questions we might ask of ourselves are those of the Christians before us, down the centuries;

Are we willing to stand up for the Truth as taught by the Church in the face of prejudice and hostility?

Are we willing to defend the unloved, champion the cause of the poor, and declare our faith in public?

Despite our own very human shortcomings, our stubbornness, our pride and arrogance, we know we share these inadequacies with Saints Peter and Paul. So they are great examples of how the promises of the New Christian Covenant between God and mankind is something that is realistically achievable for each and every one of – that we too can strive and succeed in getting to heaven.

That such an unlikely pair of characters were the first leaders of the Church is truly astonishing. But we shouldn’t be astonished. We know, through faith, that with God, anything is possible.

[1] John 21: 15-23

[2] Acts 9: 1-9; Acts 22: 6-11; Acts 26: 12-18

[3] 1 John

[4] e.g. Psalms 18 and 62

[5] 1 Corinthians 9: 22

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