Within the recent past, the church has been tossed to and fro in storms of controversy. Not one storm—many storms. And not in one country—in many countries. It has been the target of fierce persecution, and it has also allowed evil to corrupt it from within. Whether in circumstances of harassment or scandal, the lives of many have been diminished, their confidence undermined and their faith tested.
Without minimizing the suffering in our current situations, we should remember that dire trials are really not new to the church. From its very beginning it has faced opposition. The first reading for today’s feast describes one such situation. Herod has killed James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and arrested Peter, the same Peter who earlier had denied even knowing Jesus.
Despite its trials, the church has survived and even flourished. This is not due to the strength and holiness of its members. Though Jesus told Peter that the church would be built upon him, “the church’s [real] foundation is Jesus Christ its Lord.” He is the one who commissioned Peter; he is the one who assures the church of protection. It is Jesus who stood by Paul and gave him strength to bring the Gospel to the broader world. The church may have been built on Peter the former denier and spread by Paul the former persecutor, but it is the church of Jesus Christ, and it will endure because of his promise.
Today we marvel at the transformation of these previously weak human leaders. Peter’s newfound passionate commitment to his Lord and to the fledgling church resulted in his imprisonment. The church’s attachment to him is seen in their prayers on his behalf. Paul too is jailed. He does not see this as failure, but as the destiny that is his in consequence of his commitment to the Gospel. He faces death, and he knows it. Though Peter is rescued, he too will be captured and ultimately put to death. That is the price of his commitment.
Today we celebrate the fidelity of these two men, sinners like us all. Initially, they were both found wanting. When they eventually repented, they were forgiven by God and by the church. Though they were victims of persecution, their commitment to Christ and to the church made them heroes. Their victory is evidence that the gates of hell shall not prevail.