A great question is put before us today. Who do you say I am? Who is Jesus Christ? What is he to me? What difference does he make? And the Church gives us the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul, so that we may boldly celebrate and proclaim our answer. With united voice, with joy and conviction, with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with worship and ceremony and sacrament, we proclaim our faith, the faith of the Church, the same faith that was held by her founding Apostles. You are the Christ, we say, we sing. You are the Son of the Living God. You are our Saviour, and our Lord, and our God. You, Jesus Christ, are our hope, and our joy, and our all. In you we know we have the forgiveness of our sins, and adoption into divine sonship, and the promise of eternal life. For you died for us, and you rose again from the dead, and now you live in the glory of heaven. To you be praise and honour and thanksgiving and power and glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.
Last Thursday another great question was put to all the citizens of this country. Should we go Out or stay In? Leave or Remain? And in spite of today’s festivities, the consequences of this question surely continue to fizz around inside our heads, as do the personalities and ideas and ambitions of the politicians involved. Well: we need politicians, and political leaders, and we rightly engage in political activity and debate. We also insist on and stoutly defend our legitimate freedom to disagree with one another on a range of policy decisions that may affect us all. But politicians come, and politicians go, and so eventually do all the pressing issues of the day. And while causes of division are never hard to find, and especially when they are held up before us, to incite party spirit, and bitterness and faction and rivalry, so all the more do we need to affirm what unites us in faith, and what are our ultimate goals, and desires, and loves, and what is supremely important to us in our lives.
So at the end of Sunday’s Pilgrimage Mass Bishop Hugh remarked that our unity in the faith remains always fundamental to us. We are one in Christ; so there is no more Jew or gentile, no more male or female, no more division between native born or resident with origins from far away; surely also, no more campaigners for Leave or Remain. And if we are one in Christ, then we are one also under the leadership of SS. Peter and Paul, and one in the Church which rejoices to take her origins from them. SS. Peter and Paul could not be called apolitical, any more than the Catholic Church can, yet they remain above and beyond our contemporary political struggles. While this world lasts, they will never drift into historical irrelevance, and when the world finally comes to an end, their positions in heaven of leadership, and of honour and glory, will endure into eternity.
Today then we honour St. Peter, first in rank among all the Apostles, centre of unity and communion for all Christians and for all the Churches. We honour him in his function as Rock, and we honour also the man: so impetuous, brave, loyal; so humanly flawed, and so repentant; great Saint, and martyr, and now intercessor in heaven.
And we honour St. Paul, Apostle of the gentiles, expounder of the mystery of Christ, so different from Peter, yet also like him so ardent, brave, loyal; so humanly flawed, and so repentant; great Saint, and martyr, and now intercessor in heaven.
Outside the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (as I recall from a visit many years ago), there stand two colossal statues in white stone; much larger than life size: Peter with his enormous keys; Paul with his great sword. Thrillingly for me then, both statues exude strength. These are strong men, with strong faces, and strong arms, and strong convictions, and the statues proclaim that they will not fail us. The statues suggest also that we too need to be strong in our faith, and to take our stand on its strong foundations. We are to know without hesitation or ambiguity that our faith will not fail; to be clear and certain what we believe, and where we are going, and how we are to get there. But of course there is paradox in all this, because neither Peter nor Paul held any sort of political power; both could be classified as failures in human terms; both knew a great deal about conflict, even within the household of the faith, and both came to a bad end.
Yet, in the words of today’s second reading (2 Tm 4:7), they ran their race to the finish; they were faithful to the end. Through them, the power of God was active; through them, the message of salvation has come to us. Now they have inherited the promised reward - in the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). And if the whole world as we know it falls apart, the truth of this remains.
If SS. Peter and Paul, and the Church as a whole are above and beyond politics, we are certainly not. Politics affect us as they affect everyone. Yet St. Paul urges us to set our minds on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth (Col 3:2); to consider heaven as our true homeland, (cf. Phil 3:20) from where we are expecting our Saviour to come. For his part, St. Peter reminds us that if here we have to bear various trials, that is only to test our faith, as gold is tested in the fire (1 Pt 1:7). And both Peter and Paul, with slight variation of formula, begin all the letters that bear their name by wishing us grace and peace.
May grace and peace, then, be the special gift and fruit of today’s celebration. Through the intercession of SS. Peter and Paul, may we receive an ever more abundant outpouring of God’s grace, his free gift, his loving mercy, his gracious favour, his help, his call, his transforming power. And may we enjoy Peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and with all the Saints, and a deep peace, in spite of whatever turmoil there may be from within or without, in all our hearts.