Christian success comes from the Grace of God
Reflection for the Solemnity of SS Peter & Paul, 29 June 2022. Readings: Acts 12:1–11; Psalm 34:2-9; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17–18; St Matthew 16:13–19.
Christ chose St Peter as “the rock” upon which He would build His Church. But this is the same Peter who denied our Lord three times the night Jesus was arrested. He denied Him before the rooster crowed when being questioned by a servant girl—hardly the dependability you expect from a rock. It is said that St Peter wept for this sin at least once every day for the rest of his life, until there were two pale tracks down the skin of his face.
Christ chose St Paul to be the Church’s first and greatest missionary. Yet, St Paul started out as the leader of a violent persecution to crush the infant Church just after Christ’s Ascension. Christ chose him to announce the Gospel all over the ancient world, planting Christian communities in dozens of cities for almost thirty years. Paul was not chosen for his great public speaking or charismatic leadership. The Bible tells us that his critics despised him because “His letters are brawny and potent, but in person he’s a weakling and mumbles when he talks.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 (The Message)
How did these two men, so flawed, so human, become the two unshakeable pillars of the Church? What transformed them into saints, martyrs, and makers of history?
Put simply, it is the Grace of God. The same grace that has kept the Church growing for twenty centuries: the same grace we all received at baptism. On today’s Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul, God wants to remind us that our success and fulfilment as Christians depend more on His Grace than on our efforts.
What a relief that is!
The paintbrush and the gardener
One modern spiritual writer has expressed this truth by using the image of a painter. If you see a beautiful painting, you praise the painter for his genius and skill. Never would you praise the paintbrush. The paintbrush was just an instrument of the artist’s genius. Our lives are meant to be God’s masterpieces, but He is the great artist; we are like paintbrushes in His hands. We are unique paintbrushes, able to choose to jump out of the artist’s hands or move in a direction contrary to His will. We do that by giving in to selfishness and sin. Nevertheless, all the saints agree, they are but paintbrushes in the hands of the greatest artist in the world.
St Theresa of Avila expressed this truth using the image of a garden. She said the soul is like a garden, the plants in the garden are all the virtues: humility, patience, faith, hope, courage, and so on. All of these plants were planted by God Himself. Our job is to water them with prayer, to fertilise them with self-sacrifice. Watering and fertilising plants would have no effect, however, unless God Himself gave life to the seeds that He had planted there.
Making better use of confession
Admitting our need for God, and for the Grace of God is part of the virtue of humility. Humility is hard for every one of us, especially when we live in a culture that promotes self-sufficiency.
We’re surrounded by voices promising us success and peace of mind through new consumer products or new self-help techniques. Underlying all of this self-help-centred popular culture is that true success in life can be achieved solely by our own efforts. Of course, none of us really believes that. We know that only Christ can give our lives meaning. Although we have to do our part to follow Christ, His Grace is the real force behind fulfilment. As we live in this modern, self-help culture, it affects us, just as polluted water affects all who drink it.
God has given us a perfect antidote to the self-help-mentality pollution: the sacrament of confession.
Confession is a supply depot for God’s Grace. It never runs out, and it’s free. When we prepare for confession, the Holy Spirit helps us to see our sins, our failures, our weaknesses, so that we never forget our need for God. By going to confession, we give the virtue of humility an incredible workout. Most importantly, through sacramental absolution, we receive not only forgiveness, but also renewed strength to overcome our selfishness and live more Christ-like lives.
Saints Peter and Paul knew that without the Grace of God, they could do nothing. For that reason, God was able to work wonders in them and through them.
Going regularly to confession, every two weeks, or every month, is a wise and easy way to follow in their footsteps. I, like everyone else, should really get back to it.