They are such different people, but both were captivated when their eyes fixed upon a world beyond their own, when their ears latched onto the words that were describing it, and something inside of them locked onto the Person who represented it.
Paul, as the Pharisee Saul, was in the midst of bringing the first Christians in the Church to justice when he himself was arrested by his vision. It became the lens through which he saw the world for ever afterwards. His voluminous letter-writing pours out for decades the flow of what he heard and saw of the Crucified and Risen King in his Paradise.
For St Peter, it is the other way round. The Gospel read today relates what he saw in plain sight, putting together everything he had known and inherited from the faith of all who had gone before him, that the Son of Man standing before him was no figure of legend, no golden age of prophets and patriarchs coming back, for this son of man was none other than the Son of God, the anointed prophet, priest and king whose every aspect, inside and out, is not an evocation in the memory, but the living presence of God Himself in the living present. What Peter saw and held in the flesh was the lens through which he would shortly see his own vision, for the encounter we have heard about today leads next into the story of another - the Transfiguration of Christ. Here Peter sees Jesus, not like St Paul as the Universal Lord in Paradise who had previously lived on the earth, but as the Son of Man among us now, shining with the light of the Kingdom from which He had come before, with which He is constantly in touch, that He is bringing for the present and the future of the world, and to which He is returning, taking us up and along with Him.
It is important to bear in mind how different these perspectives are, one from a mystical experience of the heavenly dimension, another from the mystical intuition in the world of how God is active and present in humanity, suffusing it with his light. It is important, because both the spiritual and the natural come to the same thing: the point of meeting and recognising Christ.
An old joke has it that some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. You could just as easily say that in our materialist world, with its assumptions about the purpose of life, finance, trading, politics, work, social belonging, and - behind it all - the way we live and think as individuals, God has been fully excised: “We are so earthly minded, there is no heavenly good.” Thus God is no longer second nature to us, no longer “closer than our own breath”. St Paul would say (Galatians 2.20), “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives within me”; but we do not all find this way of putting it makes sense in our material way of existing. Thus prayer becomes a formula to follow, a technique to apply, an activity that we do. Some of us give up hope in prayer, because we cannot feel its effects, or sense the presence of Christ. Others of us may feel uplifted in worship, by beauty or inspiration, but it is in the moment and does not last - it does not seem to constitute the different state of being that we expect it ought to lead to. So, we believe, we follow, we love, we worship, we seek to live accordingly. But we can be dejected that the sense of ready communing with God in Christ is not there. It is the same for priests, lay people, monks and nuns. For some people it is the reason why they give up the practice of their faith and why some never take it up in the first place.
But take heart. Today we learn that St Paul had just one spiritual experience, massive and searing as it was, and it had to last a lifetime. It never went away from his mind and experience, and it echoed around and across him for ever. We also learn that the Holy Spirit came with the gift of faith to St Peter in the natural course of things – seeing God Himself in a human being, the Son of Man; out fishing, making an earthly tent to shelter the out-of-this-world vision he would behold on the mountain; weeping at disowning the Lord; not being physically there at the Cross; eating bread and fish with the Risen Christ; being regarded by Jesus not as some kind of angel or, as we would nowadays say, ‘guru’, but as a solid rock: praying, and living to God, and faith in ordinary.
In other words, the Kingdom of heaven is brought to natural people. It is so that natural people can realise that they are spiritual people too. As the Lord himself said to Peter, “It is not flesh and blood that has revealed what you see to you, but my Father in heaven.” This is why the Son of God comes into the world not as an apparition, or a supernatural phenomenon, or a Greek hero half-god, but in real human flesh and blood to reveal He is the living Word of the Father. He communes with us in our nature, so that we may commune with Him in His. We pray this whenever we take the Word of God’s own prayer to be our own: “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
We know this because, in the years ahead for both Peter and Paul, their great moment of mystical, spiritual perception did not gave them an escape from the world. Both were pursued, imprisoned, persecuted, publicly mocked and disgraced, then martyred. St Paul describes how what could have turned into a lifetime of spiritual elation on account of that one bewildering encounter on the road to Damascus, was pierced with suffering. The Lord sent him a thorn in the flesh, to turn his mind again and again to the struggle of living in a world of tears. Elsewhere he writes of putting on the armour of Christ to battle it out with the darkness, and then enduring to the end to be the last one standing in the combat between the good and evil that rages around us and through us.
St Peter too will have no life of ease and admiration ahead. In the hill towns east of Rome there is the ancient tradition that he went between them, house to house from protector to protector, until at last he gets a pass from an influential sympathiser to go to Rome and build the Church there as his Saviour promised he must. Eventually, fleeing pursuit, he finds himself along on the road back out of the city, where he encounters Christ coming past him and he asks, “Lord, where are You going?” When Jesus answers that He must come again to suffer and be crucified, Peter turns round, as once Christ set His face to Jerusalem, to behold Rome once more and his own certain death (Acts of Peter 35).
Both Paul and Peter we venerate as Chief Apostles and the pillars of the Church at Rome, a Church with which we, 2000 years on, live in unbreakable communion because of them. Yet both Paul and Peter knew they were inadequate people: not only inadequate to the task, but unsatisfactory as human beings. We have just sung the psalm with them (Psalm 11): “Save me, O Lord, for there is no longer left a just man.” But the Lord’s reply is not, “I know; I forgive you.” It is that the Church is not for the perfect but for sinners. It is that he chooses the weak to make it strong, and a man whose spirit almost broke down to become the Rock on which the Church, undoing the bonds of sin, still stands. He says, “My power is made perfect in weakness. For that you need my grace in everything.” And St Paul responds, “I am glad of my weaknesses; I even boast of them, because my weakness is where the power of Christ dwells in me.”
This profoundly human and disarming honesty of St Paul about himself rings so very true in the moment when your priest marks thirty years since his ordination. Pope Francis wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (paragraph 47) that “the Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” How much truer is this of a priest serving the Eucharist, whose purpose is to take on the yoke of Christ, his Cross and the priestly vesture, bear the gospel out to the people and then, with the gifts of sacrifice which are to be the oblation of Christ Himself on the Altar, walk at the head of you, the people of God, into the court of heaven itself and show you that it lies open to your eyes, drawing you in deep.
A dear priest friend of mine, who died last year, was a man of great learning, many strengths and evident weaknesses, one who long contended with the mastery of alcohol over him. He felt compromised by his inadequacy and deadened the reverberation of his failings - and the terror that he had let God down and was unworthy to approach Him - by blocking it off with drink. Eventually his body gave way and, glory be to God, he lived out five more years as a semi-invalid, but conquering and last and free of what had almost destroyed him. It will not surprise you to learn, however, that at the height of his difficulty, this was a priest who was transparent with truth and love, and who – unknown and unfelt by him – brought a declining parish to life again, and brought new souls close to their Saviour. His solace and refuge was the Mass; the people’s solace and refuge was also to find him in his preaching and the confessional, living the mercy and forgiveness that he was receiving from God, and freely offering to them too, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the medicine and nourishment of the Eucharist. He was the finest priest I ever knew, truly a wounded healer. And it was all because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness; when there was no other resource available, Christ’s grace was sufficient.
One of the Desert Fathers said that the only ambition of a young monk is to be an old monk. It is the same with a priest. As priests, ours it is just to be this kind of person who was taken up by the grace of ordination, not because of his suitability and achievements, but because of his imperfection and weakness to walk before you in and out of the third heaven and bring back to you a lifetime’s impression of the glory of God in His Kingdom; and, by opening these Holy Doors, Liturgy after Liturgy, to invite you even now in this natural world that we inhabit, also to follow in with our eyes and ears to see what the world can no longer behold, and hear what may not be told that yet we love and long for: our recognition of Jesus, the Son of the living God
So it is that priests are lent St Peter’s keys, to unlock on earth what binds people to this world, and open in heaven the doors that get stuck on earth and need the loosening of grace. Please, friends, pray for your priests and love them. Please pray that many more, like St Paul, will be taken up in the world for the sake of the Kingdom that is coming. Please do not despise us for our imperfections, but be glad of our weaknesses, since that is where the power of Christ dwells in us. For this is your condition with ours. These thorns in our side are the crack in being a natural human, where the light shines through and grace leaks in, so that natural people can also be spiritual - sinning and needing God’s medicine now, but already holy and treading for ever the pathways of the city of peace.