Witnesses to the Resurrection

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Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Last year I was in Rome for a short sabbatical and had the amazing privilege to visit the excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter. Ancient Christian tradition tells us that St. Peter was crucified but upside-down since he did not think himself worthy to die the same way as Jesus, in the circus of Emperor Nero on the Vatican hill. The obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s square was brought from Egypt to Rome by Gaius Caligula in 37 A.D. The guide suggested St. Peter must have gazed upon that same obelisk as he died a witness to the resurrection. And today, that granite column stands tall, a silent witness to the tumultuous history of one of the world’s greatest cities. Rome is the Eternal City, retaining its prominence on the world stage, having seen so much of human history through the centuries. And as I reflected on the magnificence of that great basilica in the Eternal City, and the high altar built over the tomb of the Galilean fisherman, I imagined that it all started when a “carpenter from Nazareth turned itinerant preacher” walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called the fisherman Simon son of Jonah to become a fisher of men. Simon left his nets and followed Jesus, who gave him the name Peter, and told him it was upon his faith that he would build his church. It sounds more dramatic from our perspective, because we know what happens after. But at the time, it was no big deal, just a carpenter telling a fisherman that the world will never be the same again.

There is no marker over the grave of the apostle. It seemed everyone just knew where he was buried. And over time, monuments stood over his final resting place. But no one ever wrote down where it was exactly. So going simply on the oral tradition, the current basilica was built over the spot in the 16th century, replacing another that stood there since the 4th century. Many popes have been buried underneath the basilica close by where St. Peter’s remains lay. And when Pope Pius XI died in 1939, in the midst of World War II in Europe, the new Pope Pius XII authorized a full-scale archaeological dig to make room for the old pope’s remains. They uncovered parts of a necropolis, literally, a city of the dead complete with walls, streets, benches, and funerary monuments in excellent condition. Directly under the high altar, they found a victory monument with a box containing some human bones. And on the wall close by was graffiti that seemed to say “Peter is here.”

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Many centuries later, a magnificent monument stands in honor of a fisherman’s faith in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It wasn’t always so magnificent, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. As Peter experienced himself, a lot of it seemed like a dream. Perhaps it is another way of saying that God is hard at work in the world, and will bring about the fulfillment of his will. But when we are open to God’s wonderful and amazing plan, the consequences will defy our wildest dreams.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome is where the human remains of the apostle St. Paul now rest. Christian tradition says he died two miles away from where he is buried. And in 2006, Vatican archaeologists revealed the apostle’s tomb was beneath the altar. It is a magnificent monument, a fitting tribute to such a prominent figure in the history of Christianity. But it all started when an overly-zealous Pharisee from Tarsus on the northern shores of the Mediterranean dragged people out of their homes who professed faith in a man from Nazareth who claimed to be the Son of God. Saul simply wanted to weed out this new strain of religious faith that was getting the unwanted attention of the local religious leaders and the Roman authorities. But a conversion experience turned him around. He became the great apostle and teacher to the Gentiles, establishing communities of Christian believers into Greek territory. Eventually, he too was arrested, tried, and executed for his faith in the resurrection.

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The Apostles Peter and Paul stand before us today as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They themselves were not perfect people, nor perfect Christians. Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus. Paul persecuted the members of the young church. And going by how we measure our present leaders, they would fail miserably. They were harassed and hounded, sent to prison, beaten, mistreated, falsely accused, spoken ill of, condemned, and executed, for their unwavering faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Whatever their success was never of their making. God was at work in them, and brought about tremendous good through them. So God can do tremendous good through us, if only we place ourselves at the service of his plan.

We honor Saints Peter and Paul because they were reliable witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God chose them for a most vital role in his loving plan of salvation, and they would use their gifts to build and nurture the Christian faith. We are beneficiaries of all their hard work. Our own faith stands on the foundation of their unwavering witness. And the faith of those who come after us will stand on the same foundation, accompanied by our own witness of faith and life. Persecution will come. We will experience opposition, disrespect, and violence. But we cannot back down. The same Word of God that gave courage and strength to Peter and Paul will sustain us. And the God who was faithful to them will be faithful to us. We cannot confine our admiration of these heroes of our faith to words and songs and physical monuments. We are ourselves living monuments to the faith they professed. And we point to the awesome and glorious mystery of God-with-us wherever we are, whether near or far, among neighbors or strangers, in this building or out in the streets, in Rome or in the Shenandoah valley. Like Peter and Paul, our lives point to Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and rose from the dead, who lives and reigns forever and ever.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2014