Monday, June 29, 2009
When I first entered college I was in the midst of a period of faith searching. I had stopped going to church because at the time I felt it didn’t have anything to say to me, or at least, what I was hearing at Sunday services didn’t move me. Not that I stopped believing. I continued to read my Bible and sought a relationship with God in places other than church – usually in nature. I would spend many hours hiking in the Gunpowder State Park, meditating and communing with God. And I grew to love early morning walks on the beach at Ocean City, where I would stop as the sun began to crest the horizon, sit on the sand, and just enjoy the awesome nature of God as the day began. For me, these were significant moments of commune with God, and I still find great solace and inspiration during forest and beach walks.
As wonderful as these times were for me, I still needed to search out where my faith life was heading. And at college I soon became friends with a sort of ragtag group of Christians. I still wonder how we ‘found’ one another, but I suppose like believers from the earliest days of Christianity God finds a way to bring together those of common belief. We weren’t brought together by a common theology of belief – there were Baptists and Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. I had one friend that belonged to the Salvation Army Church and another that described himself as a ‘Jew for Jesus,’ someone that practiced messianic Judaism, accepting Christ as the Messiah. We often gathered during any free time we had – especially for lunch – and occasionally attended services at each other’s churches. These times with this group of friends did a great deal to help me find my faith and understand what it meant to be a Christian in today’s world.
I recall one day at lunch we discussed who we thought was the first Christian. This was the sort of theological question we often discussed while munching sandwiches in the student union. There were a variety of opinions, as you might expect with such a diverse group (despite our common belief in Jesus Christ). Some suggested Mary, because she was the one who said that great “Yes” to God when asked to bear His Son. Some favored John the Baptist, for his pronouncement of Christ as the Lamb of God. Others suggested Andrew and John because they were the first called to follow Jesus. I favored Simon Peter, because as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel he was the first to stand up and proclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) I don’t know that we solved this little puzzle to our satisfaction that day, but I’ve never stopped thinking about Peter and his place as a believer and why he was chosen by Christ to be the foundation of the church.
If one could make the case for Peter as the first Christian, you could also make the case for Paul as Christianity’s greatest convert. His influence on the Christian faith is inestimable – I know non-Catholics that have suggested Paul’s letters are of greater significance than even the Gospels for our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. And while I myself will always go back to Christ in the Gospels as my own foundation, I cannot diminish the importance or great influence of Paul on our faith.
On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul we celebrate two great pillars of our faith. Two men that despite a variety of obvious shortcomings were chosen by Christ to lead his church, not just in their own time but two thousand years later and beyond. Christ chose Peter that day to be the rock upon which his church would be built, a rock that not even the gates of the netherworld could overcome. Talk about great responsibility. And Christ chose Paul on the road to Damascus, despite his persecution of believers. Chosen to preach, chosen to share the Word of God throughout the world.
Both men certainly had moments of doubt and shame. We all have. And that’s one of the reasons they are great models of faith for us. Because like us they were all-too-human. They stumbled and struggled and yet they persisted. They were both great missionaries for Christ, taking the Good News everywhere they went and bringing new believers to Christ. There were plenty of times when they each could have given up and turned away from Christ completely, but they did not. Even in the face of certain death. They both learned from their mistakes and setbacks – as we all should – and grew stronger in their belief for it.
I will always remember with great fondness that time of searching for my faith. Searching for something I could grasp hold of, say it’s mine. Take ownership of what I believed. And those people that surrounded me and helped me find my way. And to this day the people that continue to help me find my way. To stay rooted, to stay strong, to keep the faith. And as disciples, we all have that ability to help others find their way. Because despite all that Peter and Paul were and the fact they were each chosen personally by Christ they still weren’t able to do it alone. They had to have help. They needed the support and strength and love of other believers to help sustain them. We all do. Like Peter and Paul, Christ has extended a personal invitation to each one of us. An invitation to believe, an invitation to serve, an invitation to go out as missionaries in the world and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations. That is the model of these two great pillars of our faith. They are the model of what Christ expects of each one of us.