Thursday, June 29, 2006

Peter, Paul, the Church, and You

“Labors, imprisonments, and countless beatings.” That’s how St Paul describes his vocation as a servant of Christ. He also adds “revelations,” but along with the revelations he received a demon to beat him even more. Not something we’d like to put in a vocations brochure! Yet even with such a job description for Christians, the early Church flourished. Today’s Church offers all kinds of compromises with an affluent, secular, and self-centered society, and therefore she languishes for lack of vocations, faith, and fervor. So perhaps it is good that we celebrate the Apostles today and try to learn something from them.

Since the Liturgy presents this feast of the two prime apostles as the feast of the Church, it must be that the chosen readings (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9 and Mt. 16:13-19) tell us something about the Church and what it means to be a part of it. There are several basic elements that come across in the readings: the profession of faith, Peter as foundation, labors and sufferings, grace and mysticism. That’s a lot for a blog post, but I’ll try to touch on each one of them.

First, the profession of faith. The disciples took a while to discover who Jesus really was. They had been asking questions like, “who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Jesus decided it was time to clear things up, so He started gathering information about what others thought. Then He asked the pointed question: but who do you say that I am? As a result of what Jesus called a revelation from God the Father, Peter made the classic profession: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God! The Church has held to this faith ever since. So the first thing about being a member of the Church is to hold the faith expressed and handed down by the apostles. This faith is “foundation of the foundation,” for it was only after Peter professed his faith that Christ said Peter would be the rock upon which He would build his Church.

Peter as rock would be the strength, and hence the power and service of authority, in the Church—a Church against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail (some current events notwithstanding!). For this, Jesus gave him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. He didn’t say, “I give you the keys of the Church,” but “the keys of the Kingdom.” This shows that the two are intimately related. To have the ultimate authority in the Church is to have binding and loosing power that applies even to the Kingdom of Heaven. When sins are forgiven through the ministry of the Church, Heaven confirms it. When the Church offers the Sacrifice of Christ on her altars, Heaven “sends down the divine grace and Gift of the Holy Spirit” (Byzantine Liturgy).

We might ask how Peter being the rock of the Church applies to us. Peter may be the only rock, but he himself says in his first epistle that we are all living stones in the spiritual temple of the Lord (1Peter 2:5). We’re chips off the old block, as it were, but we have our coherence in the unity that comes through Peter (and his successors) as head of the Church of Christ. Peter as rock also expresses the teaching authority of the Church as well as her hierarchical and sacramental structures. So to be part of the Church is to hold the faith of the apostles, to recognize the authority of Peter, to accept the structure of the visible Church and to participate in her sacramental life.

But there is much more, and for this we turn to St Paul. The epistle reading highlights his labors, sufferings, and mystical experiences. So to be part of the Church is also to work for the Church, whether it be through ordained ministry, works of charity and mercy, evangelization, or any other way of making the truth and love of Christ accessible to others. Since we still live in a fallen world, this will entail suffering. We may experience opposition, persecution, ridicule, or mere indifference. St Paul was well aware of the cost of discipleship, as he detailed it in his epistle: he was scourged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked; he suffered from hunger and thirst and exposure, and from enemies—both those he recognized as enemies and those he thought were friends but who turned out to be enemies—and the list goes on. The powers of Hell will not prevail, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try, and the whole history of the Church bears that out. To be a Christian is to accept the Cross and to follow Christ, come what may.

Yet this difficult and demanding life attracted countless followers. Why? Partly because they intuitively recognized its truth and authenticity, and also because they experienced the power of Christ in their lives. Along with his sufferings, Paul experienced profound divine revelations and consolations. This is the mystical dimension of the Church. The Lord doesn’t just throw us into the lions’ den; He sweetens our sufferings with the grace of his presence and divine assistance. Despite all his sufferings, it was Paul’s glory to be able to say: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” This is the fulfillment of the mystical life, the profound awareness of the divine indwelling by which our whole being is united to God. When we are able to realize that truth in our own lives, then we will be able to experience that even in the midst of severe trials or sufferings, the grace of Christ is sufficient for us. How else could Paul say he was content with weaknesses, insults, and hardships? It was only because Christ was everything to him that he could endure everything for Christ.

We see, then, that to be a genuine member of the Church Christ founded on the Rock of Peter, we not only embrace the faith and visible structure of the Church, but we are willing to labor and suffer as members of the Body of Christ, and we’re also open to the grace of divine consolations and indwelling. It is indeed a rich and complex mystery, one that involves our whole life and that prepares us to be caught up to Paradise like St Paul—not only for a brief ecstatic experience, but for an eternity of joy with God and his angels and saints.

So let us ask saints Peter and Paul to intercede for us (and for the whole Church, which is in one of the worst crises of her history) that we can manifest in our lives what it means to be members of the Church: apostles, prophets, laborers in the vineyard, mystics, servants and lovers of Christ—in a word, saints. When Christ appeared in a different form to his apostles after his resurrection, the Gospel says: no one asked, “Who are you?” for they knew it was the Lord. When we live as fervent and on-fire members of the Church, the Lord does not have to ask us, “Who do you say that I am?” For we know that He is Christ, the Son of the Living God.