Saints Peter and Paul are among the very few human beings who are honoured with a Solemnity in the liturgical calendar of the Universal Church. But they are an odd couple, for all that. If it were left to us to choose the two saints we would most like to live with it is highly improbable that we should choose these too. Of course, they owe their fame in the Church to the apostolic ministries to which God called them. But the New Testament allows us to get to know them rather well, and the personalities we get to know are not really very likeable.
We know St Paul's personality perhaps as well as that of any person in the ancient world, and we know it because of what he has revealed of himself in his letters. Now, it is possible to draw up a list of attractive things about St Paul from his letters. But a list of the unattractive things would be much longer. Paul is impatient, manipulative, hot-tempered, argumentative, ungenerous to those who disagree with him, abusive, and petulant.
Peter we know almost as well, though more from what others say about him in the New Testament. It is surprising that someone who has such a prominent role in the New Testament should be given such a bad press there. Peter is impetuous, boastful, thin-skinned, and irresolute. He bragged that he would never deny Jesus; and on the same night he denied him three times (Jn 18.15-27). When gently mocked for this by Jesus he lost his temper (Jn 21.15-17). Jesus made a joke of his infirmity of purpose, calling him the rock on which the church would be built (Mt 16.18). Paul was obliged to confront Peter face to face for his habit of saying one thing to one group of people, and the opposite to another group (Gal 2.11-14).
A curious pair, then, to be hailed as princes of the Apostles: foundation stones of the Church. And yet this celebration of their feast-day serves the useful purpose of reminding us of how much Christianity is a religion concerned with the truth.
Religions don't have to be concerned with the truth, of course. Some of them are quite clearly founded on fairy tales: Gnostic religions, for example, which encourage people to believe that they are really part of God, or religions which encourage people to believe that illness doesn't exist, and so on. Of course, Christianity, too, has many claims which seem to run counter to obvious fact.
"You must become perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect", Jesus said (Mt 5.48). But how can we possibly do that? And Paul speaks of "putting off the former way of life, the old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and being renewed in the spirit, clothed with a new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph 4. 22-24). Well, it's a nice idea, but does it happen?
The Church says it is possible, and declares to be saints those to whom it does happen.
But when we look closely at the two saints whose feast-day we celebrate today we find people who despite a lifetime of dedication to the service of Christ, remained, we might think, rather feeble examples of perfection.
When we consider our own imperfect fidelity to the Gospel it is consoling to be able to observe the example of these two saints, for they show us that this business of putting off the old self and putting on the new is not something easy to accomplish. It is, indeed, impossible for us to accomplish at all, but that need not bother us, for it is not our work, but the work of God, creating us in his own image and likeness. As the ones who are being created we have no control over the timetabling of this process. In fact, we must accept that it will never come to an end. All our hope is that our Creator will draw us further and further toward a perfection which can never be achieved completely. We can allow ourselves a little comfort in the midst of our present imperfection, knowing, as Peter and Paul knew, that God's grace is sufficient for us, for his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12.9).
Let us hope, then, that there will be given to us, as was given to Peter and Paul, the courage and the patience to rest within the creative hands of God, however slow and painful our progress towards perfection seems. For it is only by dying to our old selves, and rising to new life, that we are able to be led towards the perfection of our heavenly Father.