Leadership and Discipleship
(Mass during the Day Readings: Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19)
Introduction to Mass
Today's feast commemorates two figures from the period of the early Church who had very different personalities and who for the most part worked independently of each other to spread the Christian message in the period immediately after Jesus' Resurrection.
It was only later that they came to be seen as individuals who, although they were called by God to carry out very different tasks, actually complemented each other and reinforced each other's efforts to launch the Christian faith into the stream of world history.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
I suggested at the start of Mass that Saint Peter and Saint Paul were very different personalities. But in spite of all their differences of temperament and personal history they both became examples, for later generations of believers, of Christian leadership and Christian discipleship. That's what the readings for today's feast bring out.
We're all familiar with the preferred model of leadership in the world of modern business and politics. If you want to get on in that world you have to at least appear to be easy-going and flexible, not committed too strongly to any particular set of principles or policies. You have to be a "team-player". You have to be charming and relaxed and fluent, always able to sell things convincingly and even emotionally. If you can cultivate these skills and qualities you can exercise great influence in the modern world.
When we read the pages of the Bible on the other hand it doesn't seem that God wanted too many smarmy manager types to announce his message or exercise any kind of spiritual authority in his name.
In the gospel today Jesus implies again that there's a difference between God's values and ours: he draws a distinction between the world of spiritual realities and the world of "flesh and blood". Peter was someone who didn't have many of the qualities that lead to success in worldly terms.
What he did have, it seems, was a genuine sensitivity to spiritual matters, a basic openness to God, a sense of humility about his own faults and weaknesses. These qualities led him to recognise Jesus for who he really was and it was on that basis that Christ commissioned him as leader of the apostles.
God's habit - as Saint Paul says somewhere else - is to take people that the world considers contemptible and turn them into powerful witnesses of his presence and his work in the world. And certainly by the time Peter came to exercise the leadership Christ summoned him to, his experiences of Jesus' death and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, had all had their effect on him, and he was a different person: he had become the "rock" that God could build the Church on.
Whenever the Church starts to slide towards worldliness and starts to think that we need leaders with good management skills and marketing skills more than we need people of deep faith in God, that's when we need to remember the type of person Jesus picked to lead the Church in that first crucial phase of its life.
Saint Paul, for his part, illustrates a different set of qualities. Paul, as we all know, had been a fanatical Jewish believer and a persecutor of the first Christians, who was brought into the Christian community by a spectacular conversion experience and a direct encounter with the risen Christ.
Because of his own experience Paul felt strongly that becoming a follower of Christ means a complete turning-around of our life, a life-long struggle to break with old habits and move forward constantly towards greater knowledge of God, greater closeness to God.
In his letter in the second reading Paul describes the Christian spiritual life in terms of fighting the good fight, running the race to the finish. He wants to emphasise the element of discipline and effort that's involved in being a disciple, the element of constant training and sacrifice that's involved if we expect to make any progress.
There's a tendency today to see religion or spirituality as something that soothes away the stresses of life and produces certain pleasant feelings: a relaxation technique more than a whole demanding way of life. People often come to the Church expecting to be able to avail themselves of all kinds of services that will be of benefit to themselves in a purely selfish way.
Saint Paul's words show what a radical misunderstanding this is of the life of Christian faith and discipleship. Paul sees the life of faith first of all as directed towards God, not towards ourselves. The gospel message directs us away from serving ourselves and towards loving and serving and adoring God.
Obviously this is a challenge and, for some people, an affront to their self-importance. It runs counter to the preoccupation many people have now with their own "personality", their supposed talents and unique tastes.
For Paul the spiritual life is more like the sort of hard work and discipline that an athlete has to put in to become a good runner, or perhaps the constant practice and life-long training that someone has to undertake to become a top-class musician. Paul's idea of what discipleship really involves is worth bearing in mind, I think, at a time when people tend to think of spirituality in more or less self-indulgent terms - and when elements in the Church even try to attract people to become members on that basis.
So maybe those are some of the lessons we can take from the example of these two great apostolic figures, and some of the features of Christian discipleship that each of us can try to imitate in our own personal following of Christ.