Christ chose St Peter to be the first pope, to be, as he said in today's Gospel, "the rock" upon which he would build his Church.
- But this is the same Peter who denied our Lord three times the night Jesus was arrested, before the rooster crowed.
- He betrayed his Lord, Savior, and friend when being questioned by a servant girl.
- That's hardly the kind of dependability you would expect from a rock.
- It is said that Peter wept for this sin at least once every day for the rest of his life, until the tears wore two pale tracks down the skin of his face.
Christ chose St Paul to be the Church's first and greatest missionary.
- And yet, Paul started out as the leader of a violent persecution designed to crush the infant Church soon after Christ's ascension.
- But Christ chose him to announce the Gospel all over the ancient world, planting Christian communities in dozens of cities for almost thirty years.
- And he didn't choose Paul because he was such a great public speaker and charismatic leader.
- He was short, bow-legged, skinny, and had a weak and whiny voice.
- The Bible tells us that his critics despised him because "His bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account" (2 Corinthians 10:10).
How did these two men, so flawed, so human, become the two unshakable pillars of the Catholic Church?
What transformed them into saints, martyrs, and history-makers?
God's grace: the same grace that has kept the Church alive and growing for twenty centuries; the same grace we all received at baptism.
On today's Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul, and as we begin the Jubilee Year of St Paul, God wants to remind us that our success and fulfillment as Christians depends more on his grace than our efforts.
What a relief!
We see this truth dramatically at work in today's First Reading.
- King Herod, egged on by the same leaders of Jerusalem who had done away with Jesus, arrested Peter for spreading the Christian faith.
- And Herod puts him under maximum security while waiting for the trial.
- In his prison cell, Peter was secured by "double chains" - his wrists were chained to the wrists of the two guards sleeping right beside him in the prison.
- At the main entrance to the prison building and at the interior entrance to the lower section of the prison, more guards kept watch, just in case.
- This is why Herod had four squads of four guards: each squad was on duty for two three-hour shifts per day.
The Bible records all these details to convince us that Peter's escape was absolutely impossible, naturally speaking.
But what is impossible for man is possible for God.
- So an angel appears, the manacles fall off Peter's wrists, an angelic light guides him through the maze of dungeons, past the outer guards, and through the locked iron gate of the prison complex.
- Could Peter have done any of that if he had been depending just on his own smarts and abilities?
- Only the power of God could have freed Peter from the depths of that dark prison.
- What Peter had to do was belive, cooperate and obey.
We are Peter.
Our sins and selfishness are the chains that bind us to frustration and anxiety.
The devil and the sinful world are the guards that hold us back from spiritual freedom.
And by our own strength we can do nothing to escape.
It is God's grace, freely given to us in Christ, that
- forgives our sins,
- enlightens our confusion,
- strengthens us against temptation,
- and leads us to a truly fulfilling life,
- starting here on earth and reaching its pinnacle in heaven.
From our perspective here on earth, this seems like a paradox.
First God asks us to follow him and strive for the wisdom, holiness, and happiness that come from following him.
But then he tells us that "without him we can do nothing" (John 15:5).
St Ignatius of Loyola discovered a perfect formula for dealing with this paradox.
- He said that we should pray as if everything is up to God, and work as if everything is up to us.
- We all want to become mature, wise, joyful Christians.
- And so we have to pray, to seek wisdom and grace by meditating on the Scriptures, by receiving well the sacraments, by begging every day for God's help.
- But at the same time, we have to work at it.
- We have to take up our crosses each day: making an effort to overcome our tendencies to laziness, arrogance, impatience, self-centeredness, and over-indulgence.
- We have to pray for the salvation of sinners, but then we have to reach out to our neighbors with our words, our example, and an invitation to come and meet Christ.
- If we work without praying, we will be like dry riverbeds, because we won't have any of God's grace flowing through our lives.
- If we pray without working, we will be like stagnant, smelly ponds, because we will have no outlet for the grace we receive.
This week, and throughout the Jubilee Year of St Paul, which begins today, let's follow in the footsteps of Peter and Paul, who worked hard, but depended more on God than themselves.
Let's make St Ignatius' maxim our own: let's pray, each day, as if everything were up to God, and let's work so that Gods grace flows through us.