29 June 2008 Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul
Acts 12, 1-11; Psalm 34; 2 Tim 4, 6-18; Matthew 16, 13-19
There is a connection between the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul and the question of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Who do you say that I am?” Let us look at both disciples. Peter was the head of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. It was Paul who opened the gates of Christianity to the world. Both Peter and Paul underwent great hardships as narrated in the first reading. Herod was after the head of Christians; while Paul underwent numerous trials in his travels. Both of them died in Rome as martyrs. The stories of Peter, Paul and many other disciples have been romanticized that we treat them like one of those fairy tales in our bookshelves. It was, I believed, people like Mel Gibson in his movie, The Passion of the Christ, who took the story once again of Jesus and showed point blank what the Passion was. Use you imagination: Peter and Paul also had their lives crucified literally. What they underwent as disciples was as terrible as all the martyrs and saints of the Christian world.
We should ask ourselves today: if we are to meet the same suffering as these disciples, the same inhumane punishment as the crucifixion, will you retract your faith to save your lives? What then would make someone suffer a terrible death; to give up all that one had for the sake of someone far greater than their lives? It is no other than, to me, an act of love. We do not give our lives to people we fear. We give our lives to people we love.
And so the question of Jesus to each of us is very important: “Who do you say that I am?” Many pious individuals would easily blurt out many of Jesus’ titles: the Son of God, the Lord of Lords, My Greatest Friend, etc. I personally have some reservations about ready answers. Often when you begin to talk to the individual about how one lives their life of faith, you begin to wonder what image do they actually have of God.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said in The Golden Legend, “Some falsehood mingles with all truth.” Thus who God truly is to us, our image of God, may have some falsity into it. Let me give you an example. We all know that God loves us. But somehow our experience of God’s love is connected to how we love and how we choose to live our lives. When we equate the dynamics of God’s love with how human love often operates (it is conditional and must be reciprocated in order to be true), then a toxic image of God develops: God whose love is earned and can be lost. We say that people should get what they deserve. Therefore, people who sin and live selfish lives are not deserving of God’s love. If this is the case, then Jesus lied when he said that God sends the sun and the rain to both the weeds and wheat, or Paul lied when he said that Jesus died for us while we were sinners.
And when people with this image confess their sins, the sacrament becomes a way to earn God’s love again. So it is reduced to a transaction in which they pay the price for their sins (they sometimes complain about a minimal penance for some venial neglect), earn God’s love again, and then, they begin a life of grace for a few minutes --- until the next sinful thought. They would return the next for another confession. Often, they develop a scrupulous conscience.
This mentality becomes increasingly toxic because it prevents the penitents from asking the more difficult but transforming question about what lies behind their sinful patterns. The penitents do not experience themselves as being loved by God even in their imperfections.