In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul – the feast of two of the greatest leaders and teachers in the first generation of Christians, and the two men who, after our Lord himself, by their life and their teaching, arguably had the greatest impact on the shape of the Christian faith we believe and practice.
This feast has been celebrated on this date since the 200’s AD. Many of the early Church fathers believed that June 29 was the date on which both Peter and Paul were martyred in the same year, although some of the fathers, particularly in the Latin West, say that they were both martyred on June 29, but in different years. The oldest extant source – a work by one Dionysius the Corinthian – says simply that Peter and Paul were martyred “about the same time.”
Paul, we know, was beheaded at a place near Rome, now called Tre Fontane, a little east of the Ostian Road, near the 4th century basilica dedicated to him – San Paolo Fuori le Mura, where ancient tradition says that Paul was buried. In December, 2006, the Vatican announced that an ancient sarcophagus had been discovered beneath the high altar of the basilica with bones inside of it, and an inscription in Latin reading: “Paul, Apostle [and] Martyr.”
We know also, from ancient sources, that St. Peter was crucified in the Circus of Nero, along with many other Christians, in the shadow of the Egyptian obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s square – and we know that Peter was buried nearby, along the Cornelian Road. And, as at the tomb of St. Paul, in the time of the emperor Constantine, a basilica was erected over Peter’s tomb – St. Peter’s Basilica, which was rebuilt in the 17th century, but occupies the same site as the basilica built by Constantine.
We know that during the Valerian persecutions, which began in the year 258, Christian burial places were confiscated by the state authorities, because they were places of worship, and in order to save the relics of the apostles from desecration, Christians moved the bodies of Peter and Paul to a catacomb on the Appian Way, now underneath the ancient (4th century) Basilica of St. Sebastian, which was until the 9th century called “The Basilica of the Apostles,” because of this episode of Christians hiding the bones of these two apostles there. Its not unlikely that July 29th is in fact the anniversary of the day, around the year 258, when the apostles’ relics were moved to this catacomb to preserve them from desecration. In later years, after the persecutions ended, the Apostles’ relics were returned to their original respective resting places, where the basilicas bearing their names were erected to honor them. The basilicas, as I say, which remain to this day, and where their relics have, in recent years, been rediscovered.
So much for the history of this commemoration. But what does it mean? What does it mean FOR US?
There are two dimensions of this feast, two implications, that strike me most.
Firstly, it is a testament to the fact that we do not make up Christianity as we go along. Both Peter and Paul preached the Gospel throughout the ancient world. They both wound up at Rome, and they were both murdered there on account of what they taught. They both chose rather to die than to deny the faith that had been entrusted to them by their divine Master. And many came to believe in Jesus, and to be baptized in his Name, because of what Peter and Paul (and the other apostles) taught. Paul wrote to the nascent Christian community at Thessalonica on point. He said: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2.15). As I said above, no man, apart from the Lord himself, has had a greater impact on the shape of Christianity, as we know and practice it, than these apostles. And there is no other Christianity to be known or practiced than this one – and the attempt to reconstruct one, that has become fashionable in recent years, is misguided and futile.
About half way through the first millennium, a Christian ruler in the region of Pontus, along the coast of the Black Sea, asked his clergy what he should make of the faddish new philosophies that were being introduced into Christianity in his time and place. His clergy told him, “Our teaching is that of the fishermen from Galilee, not the sophisticated philosophers.” We would do well to listen to their wisdom in our own time, as interesting new teachings increasingly compete with what was entrusted to us from Peter and Paul and the Galilean fishermen.
Just so, St. Irenaeus of Lyons spoke of the faithful preservation of the apostolic teaching by the Roman Church, and spoke of that church’s apostolic foundation as a guarantor of the truth in matters of salvation. Irenaeus said:
“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about….
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”
And he went on to list the bishops of Rome, in succession from Peter and Paul to his own day, lest anyone be tempted to think that he was making it up: Liuns, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telephorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, and Eleutherius. And Irenaeus concludes that, “this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
Which leads me to the second dimension of this feast that I find most noteworthy: the visible unity of Christians, for which our Lord prayed urgently the night before he died for us (John 17). Irenaeus said that there is ONE life-giving faith handed down from the Apostles. And the visible unity of Christians with one another must have, as one of its preeminent sources, a common fidelity to this “deposit of faith.” We must count ourselves among those who believe in Jesus through the Apostles’ word (John 17.20), in order that the unbelieving world may see our unity in the truth, and come to understand that God loves the world to such an extent that he sent his only Son into the world, in order that we might have peace.
The task of unity is not easy. Peter and Paul themselves did not always get along. In Galatians Paul says that he “opposed Peter to his face,” (Galatians 2.11) when they met at Antioch and Paul thought that Peter was behaving hypocritically. But they maintained the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4.3), that was the Lord’s own gift, despite the difficulties they had with one another.
And several centuries after their martyrdoms at Rome, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote about how their commemoration together on June 29 was itself an icon of the unity of Peter and Paul with one another, in Christ. And he exhorted his hearers to inhabit that same unity with in the Apostolic preaching of the person of Jesus. Augustine said,
There is one day for the passion of two apostles. But these two also were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day, consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, [and] their preaching.
In more recent times, Fr. Paul Wattson, the Anglican (and then Catholic) priest who founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, and who was the originator of the “week of prayer for Christian unity,” and who himself had a great devotion to Saints Peter and Paul, wrote about how this visible unity of Christians is the best kind of witness to a lost and unbelieving world. Echoing the words of our Savior in John 17, Fr. Paul wrote, “we must have unity, and as a result of unity then the world will be conquered, the cross will everywhere triumph and Christ will be recognized universally as the Savior of all people.”
On this feast of Saints Peter and Paul, therefore, let us pray for the visible unity of all Christians, and let us commit ourselves, or renew our commitment, not just to pray for unity, but to WORK for it, difficult though that task may be. And let us make a special effort to repair the breach that our own progenitors in the faith introduced in the 16thcentury with “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church,” as St. Irenaeus wrote some eighteen hundred years ago, “founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.