The first Christians had to be very brave people, didn’t they? They had seen Jesus die in the most horrible way possible, and they had run for their lives; and yet now they were prepared, as we see in our 1st Reading, (Acts 2:14.36-41) to stand up in public, and actually challenge the very people that had arranged the crucifixion, and might well be plotting to arrange theirs. It is this book, the Acts of the Apostles, that describes most vividly the trials and triumphs that those first Christians went through, especially the work of St Peter. and then of St Paul.
These two might stand as a model for what anyone who called to be a priest might be like. We know of Peter not only as the coward who denied he knew Jesus, but also the one who got told off by Jesus a bit earlier for misunderstanding him. Paul was no better, because, as Acts tells us, he actually persecuted the first Christians, actively going around and seeking them out and arresting them, until he met the risen Jesus and was transformed into one of the most fervent of the early Christians. Both of them remind us that becoming a leader of the Christian Church does not require someone to be perfect and holy and good. God calls all sorts of people to serve him, and some of the best are those who know what it is to struggle with doubt, or fear, or anger as St Peter and St Paul had to.
But the Bible also shows us, that not only were they not perfect before meeting the risen Jesus, but even afterwards they had their struggles and difficulties. Paul describes one of his troubles as “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) that he agonized over in prayer, and finally had to learn to put up with – whatever it was. All of this reminds us that people should not dismiss a call to be a priest or a religious simply because they don’t think that they are good enough or holy enough. A young man is mistaken if he says “I couldn’t manage to be a priest. I would find it too difficult.” The answer is, so did St Peter and St Paul; and St Paul actually wrote comforting words for all Christians, not just priests, when he writes how God said to him in prayer as an answer “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
So this story today, of St Peter’s first public speech, should be viewed within the context of all that we learn about those first Christian leaders from the Bible. Acts tells us first about Peter, and how difficult he found it to break away from some of his Jewish prejudices in which he wasn’t even allowed to eat with non-Jews. It then goes on to tell the story of St Paul and his companions, and how they travelled around from town to town, in what we now call Turkey and in Greece, preaching about Jesus and his message. We are told that he always started with his own people in each town, the Jews. From them, he began to speak to those attracted to Judaism. He preached a new kind of Judaism open to all men and women, a Judaism that, as we also learn from Acts, would begin to be called “Christianity.” (Acts 11:26) We learn too that this led to much opposition and that Paul was often attacked and beaten and even imprisoned for this work. The story ends with his arrest by the Romans and him awaiting trial and eventually execution in Rome.
Despite all these troubles, the new groups of believers, began to meet in each town, gathering in the largest house that one of them owned, and celebrating what we now call the Mass. The Apostles always appointed someone to lead these new Churches in prayer, the people we now call Bishops, and it was these local leaders who later appointed others to help with the work. First they appointed Deacons (as we will hear about next week) and then the Presbyters – later called Priests.
Those first Christians had to be brave didn’t they? For almost 300 years, they were faced with persecution of one kind or another, and many men and women were killed and became the first Martyrs of the Church. (See the 1st Eucharistic Prayer) Despite all this, even because of it, the Church grew into what we belong to today. We may worry that the Church seems to be struggling, with so much opposition from outside, and so many failures from within. So it is worth remembering that this is not unlike the early Church; and if it survived and grew, so can we – not in our own strength but through the grace and power of God.
That’s why today all over the world we pray for more people to represent Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in this special way ; to respond to the call to be priests or religious, and so lead the Church forward just like Peter and Paul did so many years ago. Catholics in Europe are always worrying that there aren’t enough priests, but most people do not want that priest to be them, or their son or their grandson or their brother or nephew. And that’s the current problem that we need to pray about.