Readings: Acts 25:13b-21; Psalm 113; John 21:15-19
In these last days of the Easter season it seems as if the liturgy is preparing us for the life of the Church which really gets going with the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Our thinking over the past seven weeks has been guided by three texts, Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel According to Saint John. On the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C we read the closing verses of Revelation and tomorrow we would read the last pages of both Acts and John if it were not the feast of St Matthias this year.
Today we are almost there, almost at the moment where the events that established our faith, and the texts that record those events, open up onto our lives, our history, all that the Church has done and faced over the centuries. So we hear today about Peter, and about Paul, and already about their connection with Rome.
In Paul's case, this is where he is going to defend his teaching at the centre of the world. We can imagine that the Emperor will be as much at a loss as Festus about how to investigate Paul's teaching. In fact, not understanding anything of it, Nero will decide to scapegoat this small Jewish sect called 'Christians' and in the ensuing persecution Paul will be beheaded.
To Peter, Jesus prophesies the way in which he will die. At least this is the evangelist's interpretation of an enigmatic saying of Jesus to the effect that in his old age Peter will be girded by someone else and led where he would rather not go. We know that Peter too died at Rome, in the same persecution of Nero.
So these two great protagonists of the early Christian community, whose paths (and swords) crossed from time to time, are killed in Rome within a few years of each other. They died for the same faith, out of the same love for their one Lord.
Three times, Paul tells us, he prayed to the Lord about a thorn in his side, some physical, moral or spiritual affliction which tormented him. He did this (again, and again, and again) until he was re-assured that God's grace was sufficient for him because God's power is made perfect in weakness. Three times Peter denied his Lord, confirming beyond any doubt how weak he was morally and spiritually. But three times he affirms his love for the Lord and, even more importantly, three times the Lord re-affirms his choice of Peter to be the shepherd of the flock. Peter too learned that God's grace was sufficient for him because God's power is made perfect even in the weakness of a rock that seems completely unreliable. 'We may be unfaithful but he is always faithful, for he cannot deny his own self' (2 Timothy 2:13).
We face into the time of the Church, then, perhaps with apprehension and fear. What can we hope to be, or to achieve, left to ourselves? We see only an unreliability comparable to Peter's and a struggle similar to Paul's. In recent years this unreliability has been ever more confirmed and even the sincerity of our struggle can seem fake. We pray that, in the first place, the Spirit will re-assure us that God's grace is sufficient even for people like us, that God's power can be made perfect even in the weakness with which we are completely familiar. We place our hope, not on the memory of cowardly and vacillating men made brave and persevering, but in the Spirit that made them so, the Spirit of truth, holiness, grace and love.