“With what garlands of praise shall we crown Peter and Paul, the greatest among the heralds of the word of God, distinct in their person but one in spirit. The one, the chief ruler of the Apostles; the other who labored more than the rest. Christ our God fittingly crowned them with immortal glory, for He alone possesses great mercy” [Vespers, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul].
How wonderfully the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fits into the liturgical scheme of our Holy Church as yet another manifestation of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These two great pillars of the Church offer us significantly more practical wisdom than we imagine. The confession of Peter—that Jesus is “truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God”—is the rock of faith upon which the Church is built. And the perils of Paul, wherein he came to rely totally on the sufficiency of God’s grace, is something for all of us to consider.
But in addition to their individual lives and struggles as recounted in the festal readings, it is their combined witness and testimony from which we can learn a great deal.
We’ve probably all heard of Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th century English mathematician who, among other things, formulated the laws of gravity and motion. In doing so, Newton coined two words to describe the forces of motion: centripetal and centrifugal. Centripetal force is what keeps things down on earth though the planet revolves at incredible speed. Centrifugal force moves things away from a center point—like going around a curve on a roller coaster and your body is forced toward the outside. Can’t we see these ‘forces of motion’ wonderfully illustrated in the persons of Peter and Paul?
Peter, as seen in his epistles, was always encouraging the early Church and Christians in the Roman diaspora to maintain unity within a hostile environment. He instructed Christians to band and keep together, regardless of the distance that separated them, in order to bear witness to Christ. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Peter was a centripetal force for the Church.
Paul, on the other hand, was the missionary apostle; the centrifugal force of the Church that challenged her, and led the challenge, to expand her mission to include the Gentiles: “...I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:15-16).
Do you see the wisdom here? The Church was, is and must always be ‘a Body in motion;’ living and active, never stagnant. And the forces of motion and perfectly exemplified, respectfully, by Peter and Paul. Without the centripetal force of Peter, the Church would have become little more than loosely connected groups ‘doing their own thing’ with no cohesiveness or foundation upon which to build in a unified manner. And without the centrifugal force of Paul, the Church would have remained a relatively small Jewish sect in Palestine. The Church needed both of these ‘forces’ to implement the great Commission of Our Lord to teach and baptize all nations!
In like manner, we—as individuals and members of parish communities—need to practically apply these same forces of motion today. Our lives must be centered on Jesus Christ, anchored in intimate communion with Him Who alone is the Source of our being and the Author of our Salvation. We need centripetal force to keep us grounded in faith as we go about our daily activities and face the trials and tribulations of life. And the Church wonderfully provides this in her worship, sacraments, and ascetic life. But we also need the centrifugal force that ‘moves’ us to adapt to changing circumstances and relationships, helps us to gain new insights into God’s love for us, and share our faith with others!
The laws of motion are also important for practical administrative purposes within the Church. Every parish must recognize two types of goals in its collective life: maintenance and growth. We must be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us and concerned with the welfare of our parishioners. But we must also be willing to adapt, expand and widen our scope to fulfill our function as the Church to ‘teach all nations’.
May we learn from the example of Peter and Paul of the diversity of spiritual gifts within the Church that, though they may not always reflect uniformity, nevertheless serve a common purpose: to reveal, manifest and announce the living God that all may know Him and love Him as we do, and keep the Body of Christ ‘in motion’!