Friday, June 29, 2012

Deliver Us from Evil: The Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

Today is the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, a very great feast day in the Church, and it doesn’t seem right to allow the occasion to pass without some comment.

Saints Peter and Paul represent, respectively, the leaders of the Church’s mission to the Jews and to the Gentiles (Gal 2:7).  The Church celebrates their feasts on the same day, because the Church’s proclamation of the gospel is founded on their dual mission: “the gospel … is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (i.e. the Gentile)” (Rom 1:16).

Since the earliest times, and continuing today, there have been efforts to split Peter from Paul, and claim that they had different gospels.  Peter is claimed to have preached a “Jewish Christianity,” which insisted on the continued observance of the law of Moses, whereas Paul is blamed for the idea of preaching faith in Jesus to Gentiles, without requiring circumcision or any other Jewish ritual.  Such views continue to be promoted in TV shows or popular books about the beginnings of Christianity.

A split between Peter and Paul on the nature of the gospel can’t be reconciled with the actual text of the New Testament.  It’s true that at one time,
Paul and Peter had a disagreement on the practical implications of how to behave as Jews who had now come to believe Jesus was the Messiah (Gal 2:11-21).  However, the Book of Acts makes it abundantly clear that it was Peter who first witnessed and confirmed the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism to uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 10).  Furthermore, St. Paul was willing to follow Jewish ritual if it gave him a better opportunity to preach to people about Jesus Christ (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 1 Cor 9:22).  While we generally identify Peter with the Jewish mission and Paul with the Gentile, in point of fact, they both preached to everyone, as the opportunity presented itself.

Sts. Peter and Paul were also united by shedding their blood in the same city, Rome.  Both were executed there, and their disciples/successors stayed in Rome permanently—thus Rome became the center of Christianity, as it remains to this day.

About five years ago I was in Rome on this Solemnity, wandering around in the city, on a general path from the Vatican to St. John Lateran.  I was looking for a place to do some spiritual reading, and walked into a small church—there are churches everywhere in Rome.  There was a pleasant little chapel on the upper floor of the Church, so I did my reading there.  My pocket New Testament was marked out for a yearly reading cycle, and the reading for the day was the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  I did my reading and prayed for a while.  When I got up to leave, I noticed there was a lower story to the Church, and tourists were coming in to look around.  I thought I’d go down to investigate.  When I did, I discovered I was on the site of the Mamertime Prison, the traditional location of the incarceration of Peter and Paul prior to their executions!

The readings for today’s Mass stress God’s supernatural deliverance of these two saints.  In the first reading, St. Peter is miraculously released from prison, where he awaited trial and execution by Herod.  The responsorial psalm (Ps 34) gives thanks to God for delivering those who trust in him.  In the second reading from Timothy, St. Paul says:

And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom.

While God can and does rescue the faithful from harm, we also remember that both Peter and Paul were ultimately executed for their faith.  The locations of their death were early sites of pilgrimage, and are marked to this day by the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.  So what happened?  Did God fail them at the last hour?

We need to remember, as Our Lord taught, that the ultimate evil is not physical harm or death:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28).

True evil and harm is to fall into sin. 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matt 6:13)

To complete our life’s journey without falling into sin and betraying Christ in our last moments is truly to be delivered from evil.  That is the faithfulness of God to Peter and Paul that we celebrate today.

In the Gospel Reading, St. Peter’s foundational role in the Church is affirmed by Christ:

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
(Matt 16:13-19).

Some commentators try to avoid the implication that Peter is “the rock” on which Christ will build his Church.  They draw a distinction between petros, the masculine name meaning “rock” which Jesus gives to Peter, and petra, the Greek word for rock, which is feminine.  Therefore, they claim, petros (Peter) isn’t really the petra (rock).

The problem is, this distinction only works in Greek.  The spoken language of Jesus and the disciples was Aramaic, which has one indeclinable word for rock: kepha.  This is the root for “Cephas”, the other name for Peter which crops up untranslated from time to time in the New Testament.  In Aramaic, our Lord said to Peter, “You are kepha, and on this kepha I will build my Church.”

The “keys of the kingdom” given to Peter are an image from the Old Testament (Isaiah 22:22).  The royal steward, the “one over the palace” (Heb. asher al-habbayit) wore the key or keys to the palace on his shoulder as his badge of office.  He controlled access to the king’s throne room: what he shut no one could open, and what he opened no one could shut (Isaiah 22:22).  The royal steward was second in authority only to the king.  Jesus is placing Peter in that role in the kingdom of heaven that he is establishing.

The language of “binding” and “loosing” that Jesus uses is technical language used among the Jews to describe the authority to determine halakhah, that is, the practical application of religious law.  “Binding” was forbidding something, and “loosing” was permitting it.  Basically, the authority to bind and loose was the authority to make final decisions about religious matters.  This is what we call to day “the exercise of the Magisterium.”  Papal infallibility is an ultimate implication of this authority granted to Peter, although we lack time here to work that out in detail.

Peter’s authority enables the Church to make clear decisions and speak with one voice on moral matters.  Thus we as Christians are not left in a situation of perpetual argument with one another over the meaning of Scripture, but the clear voice of Peter speaking through his successor enables us to identify right from wrong.  This is also part of what it means to be “delivered from evil.” 


De Maria said...

I've always found St. Paul's relationship to the rest of the Apostles intriguing.

St. James seems to clearly contradict St. Paul. Compare Romans 3:28 and St. James 2:24. Based upon their confrontation in Acts 21:21, I believe that is true. I think St. James' statement was directed at the one who was reputedly teaching the Jews to abandon Moses.

I also suspect that St. Paul felt betrayed by Sts. Peter and John as well. That is why he had to confront them in Gal 1 and 2.

I think he felt that way because St. Peter said that St. Paul's teachings were confusing (2 Pet 3:15-17) and St. John wrote that some had left from their group who had never been of their group (1 John 2:19). This is why, I believe, he met with the "reputed" pillars (Gal 2:9) and had it out. Read more.

Whereas both he and St. James preach justification by faith and works in the keeping of the Commandments. Compare Romans 2:13 and St. James 1:22.

Wow! This is getting long. Sorry. I'd like to mention though, that St. Paul was probably the only Theologian in the Apostolic group. He was raised and taught at the knee of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). By reputation, one of the greatest Jewish Theologians that ever lived. And he, I believe, had an insight into justification which the other Apostles did not.


De Maria

John Bergsma said...

It's interesting that in the Eastern tradition, St. John is considered the Theologian among the Apostles. Pope Benedict has also said, "The normative theologians are the authors of Scripture."

De Maria said...

St. John soars with the eagles. There is a difference between his and St. Paul's. St. John's is that of a mystic. St. Paul's is that of an educator. Although, of course, they overlap in both areas. This, of course, is simply my opinion.

What does the term "normative theologian" mean?

I'm just venturing a guess that it means that the Apostles set the standard for all other Christian theologians that followed. When I said that Gamaliel was reputed one of the greatest Jewish Theologians, I used that qualification intentionally. The Apostles were INSPIRED by God. Whether Gamaliel ever was or not, I have no idea.


De Maria

John Bergsma said...

Yes, that's right. "Normative" means they are the authoritative standard.