The Feast of Sts Peter and Paul celebrates the two outstanding apostles of the Church. In many ways these two men were different. Peter was from Galilee, a fisherman, poor and uneducated. Although St Jerome tells us that Paul too was a Galilean, his enforced exile to Tarsus as a child opened other possibilities for him: he was well educated and knew his way around the Roman system, perhaps even being a Roman citizen. He trained in the rigorous code of the Pharisees. He was a lawyer but also a skilled tentmaker. How is it their stories became intertwined? What brought these men to give their best efforts and ultimately their lives for the embryonic Christian faith?
The answer lies in the fact that both these men came face to face with Jesus Christ, who called them to follow him. That encounter and call transformed their lives forever. Peter, impulsive and rash, struggled all through Jesus’ ministry to understand and believe in the meaning of Christ. In Matthew 14:22-35 as Jesus walks on the water, Peter impulsively demands proof that it is indeed Jesus by allowing him also to walk on water. As he takes his first few steps, he begins to be beset by doubts and sinks until Jesus reaches out and holds him up. The words “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” seem to be a recurring theme for Peter as he struggles, and often fails, to make sense of this life changing relationship. Yet it is the same Peter who responds to the prompting of the Spirit and declares boldly “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Ultimately Christ draws out the best of Peter to whom he entrusts the leadership of the Apostles and who will go on to preach the first sermon of the Christian Church at Pentecost, while on fire with the Holy Spirit.
We meet Saul in the Acts of the Apostles, full of righteous zeal against these dangerous Christians, approving of the stoning of St Stephen. It is while on a mission to hunt down Christians in Damascus that he has his literally earth shattering encounter with the Risen Christ. He is left blinded, dazed and confused. Stripped of all his certainty, power and assuredness, he must be led by the hand into the city, not knowing where he is going, lost and frightened. Through the power of the Spirit the scales fall from Saul’s eyes so that he can see. But in seeing not only with the eyes of the body but also with the eyes of the soul, Paul is reborn in baptism. In this new life, he goes on the preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the Mediterranean as far as Rome, hoping to travel on to Spain, ‘the ends of the earth’, and leaving us the precious teaching of his epistles and the wonderful example of his life and ministry. For both men these words seem appropriate. “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).