I was a very stubborn little boy! Persuading me to do something I didn’t want to do was very difficult. Some of you may say that it still is, although I think I am a little better than I was back then! Rather like the story of the sun and the wind competing to get a coat off a man’s back, the more people tried to force me to do something, the more grimly I resisted. What would persuade me was not force but love, and thus my mother would persuade me to do all sorts of things that I would otherwise have resisted – including having lessons in public speaking from the age of 4 onwards!
Most of us have gates in our lives. Things we refuse to do. I hated swimming as a child after one unpleasant ducking. Again it took the love and care of one person when I was at University to show me it could be fun. And now I am a fanatic!
When people are depressed they can feel that there is no way out of the darkness that they are in; and perhaps this is what St Peter felt like in our 1st Reading (Acts 12:1-11) when this little group of the 1st Christians was being persecuted. He was in prison and expecting to be executed just as James had been. Then, in the darkness, a light suddenly appeared, and in some marvelous way he found the gates of the prison were opened for him, and he was free. Do remember, that this is a story for anyone who feels there is no way out of their particular darkness. Sometimes a way out will be offered in a way we never expected, and we need to look out for these things.
But we Christians must not expect miraculous deliveries from our problems all the time. Sometimes we are simply meant to struggle on with whatever challenge we face. We see St Paul talking about this in our 2nd Reading (2 Tim 4:6-8 17-18) where he compares life to a battle “I have fought the good fight”, or a race “I have run the race to the finish”. But it isn’t all struggle and sweat! Paul points out that God supported him through all he had to face. So he writes “The Lord stood by me and gave me power”, thus reminding us that we too can find support from God for the challenges and struggles life will throw up for us.
Finally, in the Gospel (Matthew 16:13-19) we heard what an amazing challenge the Christian life is. It is easy to think that “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church” is simply addressed to St Peter, and by extension to those who have succeeded him in leading the Church. Yes, we might say, and quite rightly, we must pray today for Pope Francis. For leading the Catholic Church made up of Millions of people all over the world is a daunting task. Pope Francis was however quite right to turn the tables on the crowds on the night he was elected. They were waiting for him to bless them, but he told them to pray for him, and made them all go silent as he bowed his head for their prayers.
That action reminds us that each one of us is called to BE the Church. It is no good thinking the Church is simply there when we need it, to help us and bless us. The Church is also us, you and me, here for other people to help and bless them. I remember once getting to a death bed after a person had died, and the lady actually apologised that she had said prayers for her mother, and given her a blessing. I told her she was quite right. Of course it is wonderful if a priest can be there when a person dies, but you must always remember that you too are called to bless others.
That woman, far from doing the wrong thing, had in her prayers and blessing, opened the gates of heaven for her dying mother. She was, without realizing it, acting on the words Jesus first uttered to Peter “You are Peter…. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against you.”
We must remember this when we die. When we come to the gates of heaven, (metaphorical gates of course) and are asked why we have the right to come in and be with God, we must be careful what we say. If we start listing the things we did to help people, we may find a list given to us of all the things we failed to do. No! When we are asked that question we simply reply. “I have tried to be a follower of Jesus, to be a friend of Jesus.” And once we have said that, then immediately the gates of heaven will be thrown open, and like Peter who even denied once that he knew Jesus, we will be with God in his light for ever. Then, like Peter being helped out of prison, we may well say “Now I know it is all true”. What I sometimes doubted, is now a reality for me.