The feast of Saints Peter and Paul is on June 29. One way to celebrate it is to spend a little time thinking about their stories and what they mean for us. Here are a couple of reflections to consider.
St. Peter: Becoming a True Friend of Jesus.
Not long after he had risen from the dead, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Then he asked the same question again, “Do you love me?” Then a third time he asked, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter said, “Yes, I love you, Lord.”
Now Peter and Jesus were best friends. Despite his flaws, Peter was always trying to do whatever Jesus asked of him. He was always hungering after more of the Lord. During the three years that he spent with Jesus, Peter was taught, tested, and sifted, and through it all he became a true friend of the Lord. Still, Jesus chose to question Peter’s love—and three times! Why?
Some say it was so that Peter could undo the three times he denied Jesus on Holy Thursday. Some say it was Jesus’ way of reinstating Peter as the head of the church after Peter ran away. But maybe there is another reason as well. Perhaps Jesus questioned Peter three times as a way of bringing him to a greater humility and showing him that Jesus’ ways are always better than his ways.
You can imagine Jesus saying to Peter: “I know life better than you do. I know the human heart better than you do. When I say that you will deny me three times, believe it.” At the Last Supper, Peter announced that he was prepared to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33). But only a few hours later, he failed the test. By denying Jesus and abandoning him, Peter damaged his high standing among the apostles. What’s more, he himself was filled with guilt and shame. Jesus was right, and Peter couldn’t see it. But now Jesus was bringing Peter reconciliation, peace, and renewed joy.
The point is, if we hunger and thirst for Jesus, he will tell us the same thing he told Peter—that his ways are superior to our ways. And he will tell us this over and over again, not just once. Just as he made this point to Peter at every opportunity, he will also take advantage of every opportunity to convince us that he knows best. Some of these lessons may hurt our pride. But there is no other way to holiness. As the psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build” (Psalm 127:1).
Brothers and sisters, we can be Jesus’ friends. We can be a people that he can call his own. Yes, it means that we need to be taught and tested, stretched and refined, transformed and recreated. But like any close friendship, the rewards far outweigh the challenge.
Jesus wants to be with us because he loves us so much. He wants to tell the saints and angels in heaven that he has formed us for himself (Isaiah 43:21). He also wants us to tell those seven billion people on earth that we are his church, his best friends.
Jesus is always standing at the door of our hearts, always asking us to open the door and let him in (Revelation 3:20). He wants to bless us and fill us with “every spiritual blessing,” including the peace, confidence, and strength we need to proclaim his love to the world (Ephesians 1:3). He simply asks us to come to him and say, “Lord, I come to seek your face. My heart is thirsting for you. I know that your love is better than life. Come, Lord, and show yourself to me even more. Jesus, I want to be your friend.”
St. Paul: Conversion as a Call to Mission
One of the central characters in Luke’s second volume—Acts of the Apostles—is Paul, the zealous persecutor of the church who became a zealous missionary. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus worked a profound transformation in his life. This conversion story was so important for Luke that he recounted it three times: (1) a narrative account in Acts 9; (2) Paul’s defense before the Jews in Acts 22; and (3) Paul’s defense before the Roman ruler Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa in Acts 26.
In these various accounts, it seems as if Luke is giving an almost classic definition of conversion: Conversion means being knocked off of one’s “high horse,” which leads to a change in life. However, if we study these accounts in Luke, we may see some surprising challenges to this notion.
First of all, there is no mention of Paul being knocked off a horse! Luke only tell us that Paul “fell to the ground” when a bright light flashed around him (Acts 9:4).
More importantly, Paul’s transformation was not a conversion in the classic sense of turning away from idolatry (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9). As a devout Jew, Paul already worshipped the one true God. Nor was his conversion a change from an immoral and sinful life. Indeed, he told the Philippians that he was a good and righteous Jew: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). Something more profound was going on—something that changed the very foundations of his life.
Paul did experience a transformation: God had predestined Paul, set him apart before he was born, and called him to proclaim the gospel among the Gentiles. When Paul describes this experience, he doesn’t refer to it as a conversion, but as a call (Galatians 1:15-16; see Jeremiah 1:5).
This experience vastly changed Paul: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).
Paul’s encounter with the Lord reveals a wider meaning of conversion. It is not only a call away from sin and to the one true God. Conversion is also a call to mission, whether it be as a homemaker, an executive, a laborer, or a parent. Whatever our situation, God has called us and empowered us to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. We are not only called to change our lives, but to proclaim the gospel and bring others into the light of Christ as well.
Throughout our lives, we are all called to live a continual process of conversion. As Luke makes clear over and over again, conversion is first of all about what God has done and is doing in our lives. Conversion is a response to God’s activity in our lives. It is an acknowledgment of our sinfulness, and it is an acknowledgment of our deep need for God. Ultimately, conversion means trusting in God and going wherever he may lead us. We are truly converted when we pray as Jesus prayed: “Thy will be done” (Luke 22:42).