Episode 4 of 5 in our current series, Knowing and Following Jesus.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking a fresh look at Jesus.
Today we return to where we began – our awareness that when Jesus enters a person’s life, he often makes uncomfortable demands.
We are offered two prime examples in St Peter and St Paul. Both died in Rome, probably around the year AD 64. According to tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to die as Jesus died; Paul, as a Roman Citizen, was privileged to be beheaded.
So ended the lives of two souls whom Jesus asked to follow him. To each of them, Jesus gave a new identity. Simon, the hasty fisherman, became Peter, the rock of the Church. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the preacher of Christ.
To each of them, suffering came on the path of following Christ. We’ve just heard the account of how Peter spent some nights in jail – God sent the angel to rescue him on the last possible night, not the first! And when we read, in the Epistle, that “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me”, we might recall that Paul was beaten and whipped – numerous times – frequently imprisoned, three times shipwrecked and once stoned during his journeys preaching Christ. Despite all this, St Paul persevered – because he had a mission, to encourage all who would listen to also persevere in the work of following Jesus.
In May, Pope Francis – the successor of St Peter – highlighted St Paul’s capacity for “being a nuisance” — unsettling Christians who had become too comfortable in their faith, stirring up in them the kind of zeal which is essential to move the Church forward.
Such zeal, said Pope Francis, might sound like madness, but it’s a “spiritual madness, a healthy madness.” It can lead to persecution, but even so, we cannot be “couch-potato Christians”, cozy in our comfort zones. Such cozy Christians “are well mannered, do everything well, but are unable to bring people to the Church through proclamation and apostolic zeal.”
Are you hearing this? Are you getting the message? Pope Francis is telling us that there is no room in our church for backseat Christians. Each and every one of us is called to be active for Jesus!
Two weeks ago, the homily focussed on Jesus as the man who forgives sins. If we feel unworthy to work for God, there is a remedy at hand: we take our sins to Jesus (through confession to a priest if the sins are serious) and Jesus gives us a fresh start.
Last week, the homily challenged us to decide for ourselves if we really believe that Jesus is God’s messenger to humanity, and the Saviour who died to pay the price for our sins.
This week, following Pope Francis’ lead, I want to invite each and every one of us to make a decision to do God’s work on earth. In his sermon, the Pope reminded us that the Lord “always wants us to move forward, forward, forward,” and not take refuge in a comfortable, quiet life. He reminds us that this kind of zeal is not about gaining power or possessions. It’s the strong beat of a heart which knows Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to Peter in person when he was fishing on the shores of Lake Galilee.
Jesus came to Paul in a vision on the road to Damascus.
None of us alive today can have met Jesus in the flesh; few of us will ever experience the kind of vision which St Paul had. But it’s possible for all of us to have a quieter encounter with Jesus, the kind of spiritual experience which moves us from understanding in our heads to knowing in our hearts, that Jesus is a loving presence even today. If we haven’t ever had that kind of heart-experience, stories of martyrs like Peter and Paul will frighten us – who would want to be a Christian if it leads to pain, persecution, or martyrdom? But once we receive the gift, in our hearts, of knowing that Jesus loves us, forgives our sins, and calls us to be his hands, feet and voice in the world, then we will become unstoppable!
You are not called to be Peter or Paul. Yours is not the role of filling a chair in the Vatican, or travelling around the Mediterranean, preaching. But you are called to do something for God that only you can do. You have a mission to perform, for which you are uniquely qualified. It is not easy, but not impossible. It is the challenge which God has chosen for you, and if you rise to it, on the day God calls you to himself, you will hear the most wonderful words we could hope to hear from our Master: “Well done good and faithful servant!”
Today’s celebration marks the end of the earthly journey for St Peter and St Paul. It might also mark the beginning of a new chapter for some of us present at Mass today. If you have never experienced the presence of Jesus in a way that gives you courage to do God’s work in the world, if you want to respond to Pope Francis’ call to move the Church forward, then in this moment of silence now, ask Jesus – the same Jesus who called St Peter and St Paul – to speak to your heart, and to give you a share in that same confidence which moved those princes of the Church to do such great things for God.
With thanks to Deacon Rigo Logier for pointing me to the relevant homily by Pope Francis.