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The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

“Do You Love Me?”

Readings: Ez 34:11-16; Ps 87; 2 Tim 4:1-8; Jn 21:15-19

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of two great icons of the church, St. Peter and St. Paul. There is an irony to this joint celebration, for they were very different people. Peter was poor and unlearned; Paul was a scholar. They came to know the risen Christ in very different ways. Most of all, these are two people whose ministries constantly clashed. They headed two distinct Christian missions, Peter to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles. They came at ministry in very different ways.

In their humanity, they give us insight into our own inadequacies when it comes to the faith. Peter is remembered as the one who denied Christ. Paul is known for his persecution of Christians. Both were brought to their knees by Christ’s redemptive love. Their faith in the grace of God brought them face to face with the risen Christ. They answered the call of God and preached the word faithfully. Their faith ultimately led to their deaths. These two great leaders, literally founders of the Christian faith, give us a dynamic picture of the Christian Church in its infancy.

In the reading from Timothy Paul is reflecting on his life of faith. He sees it as a race that he has won well, not so much by his success, but by keeping faith through all the trials and difficulties of his life. He knows that through it all the risen Christ has been there beside him sustaining him so that he can continue to spread the Good News of the Gospel.
Paul underwent many trials. His safety was assured not by the Christian community or even the Jewish community but ironically by the Roman authorities. They respected Paul’s birthright as a Roman citizen. That gave him the right to a fair trial. Though he languished in prison for many years while the Roman officials tried to keep peace with the Jewish authorities, he was able to reach many through his letters to the fledgling Christians. One writer describes Paul’s prison cell as the “first Christian seminary”[i], an apt description if you think about it. It was certainly the central hub of Christianity as the Gentile world was brought into the fold.

Then there is Peter, one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, the rock on which Christ would build the church. Under Peter’s leadership thousands of Jews were converted to the Christian faith.

The dialogue between Jesus and Peter in the Gospel is a turning point in Peter’s life. A conversation that began between them before the crucifixion needs to be completed. Peter had denied Jesus. The shame and guilt remained a barrier for him in their relationship and in his ministry.

“Do you love me?” Jesus says to Peter. The question must have startled him. When the question comes again he wonders, "Is it all a nightmare? Is there something I should say?” He sees himself as a traitor. All he can think of is how guilty he feels. For the third time Jesus questions Peter. He continues to call him back into a loving relationship. He knows that going through failure and coming out on the other side strengthens us.

Peter finally gets it. "You know that I love you. I love you with all my heart." It is a turning point in Peter's life, a moment of conversion for him. And Jesus calls him to ministry. This is not a prize for getting the right answer. This is an affirmation, his ordination if you will. "Feed my sheep!" Jesus says to him. It is the beginning for him of a lifelong ministry of literally building the Christian Church from the ground up.

Paul’s experience on the Damascus road although a very different experience from that of Peter, is a turning point as well. His conversion is sudden and dramatic, seemingly coming out of nowhere. As that light from heaven flashes around him he realizes that Christian faith means much more than he could ever have expected. He realizes the life-bond that exists between Jesus and his followers. It is a moment of transformation that is reflected in everything he does from that moment on. There in the dust of the road, blinded by the brilliance of the light, he realizes how Jesus identifies with him. “Do you love me,” Jesus is saying to him. He realizes that God is calling him to build up the Church he has set out to destroy.

When has Jesus said to you, “Do you love me?” More importantly, what was your answer? Perhaps there was a time when your faith was challenged and some almost inexplicable experience brought you closer to God than you could imagine. And you found yourself saying, “Yes Lord! I love you.”

Perhaps it was a time of denial, of floundering and then you finally found the words to articulate your faith clearly. The words that came out of your mouth were, “You know that I love you.”

Perhaps there was a time when you felt utterly alone and abandoned by God and then somehow you discovered that you were not alone, that you were not abandoned, but that you were beloved. And you found yourself filled with joy as you cried out, “I love you, Lord!”

Perhaps there was a time when you felt such a burden of guilt that you thought that you would never be able to face God again, and then you experienced an amazing sense of forgiveness washing over you. The only words you could possibly utter were, “I love you Lord!”

Perhaps there has been a time in your life when you felt such grief that you never expected to be happy again, and then that sense of calm, of peace, of joy, came into your heart like a ray of sunshine. And with a sense of relief you said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Such experiences of turning to Christ are uniquely our own. Often it is difficult to even articulate such times in our lives. Whatever the experience, the heart of the matter lies in our response to Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” That has, after all, always been the question when coming into relationship with another.

In a real sense this celebration is about us, about you and me, about our call to ministry. Like Peter and Paul, we are all called to build up the Church, not this particular church, but the Church of God. As we preach the gospel in our daily lives, as we live our life in Christ, as we live out our faith, as we form community, we willingly lay down our lives for the faith. We respond to the great love of God. Amen

[i] “Daysprings” Sam Portaro

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