Thoughts on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

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June 29th

 I have not been disobedient to the heavenly vision.
Peter in Acts 26:19

 It pleased Him who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace to reveal His son in me that I might preach Him among the gentiles.             Paul in Galatians 1:15

As a national literature, the story of the Old Testament is a tale of catastrophe.   God finds the world He created in perfection in darkness, chaos, and emptiness, and while He remakes it into a world of light, order and fullness, the man and woman, two perfect persons He has placed in the garden of delights He has made for them, choose to obey the serpent. Brother murders brother.  There is unlawful liaison between angels and womankind.  God, seeing that the intentions of men’s hearts are ever evil destroys mankind in the great flood.  Noah comes to dry land, there to fall into drunkenness and incest.   Tower-builders seek to know God on their own terms.   Sodom and Gomorrah defy the very form of nature.   Israel desires to be like the Gentiles, to have a king over them rather than the Lord.   While the law is given on the mountain, on the plain below Israel fashions a golden calf and worships it. Prophets filled with God’s Spirit are sent, but these are rejected and murdered. 

         Not a happy story. Finally the maker of all things, whose will and purpose is indefectible, came down to make human nature His own, to restore it to Himself and as He who owed no debt for rebellion to offer Himself in atonement for our sins, restoring us to the Father, and giving the threefold promise: that He would rise victorious over death, that He would send His Spirit to dwell in those whom He calls, and that He would return again in glory when time had run its course. Meanwhile He called twelve apostles, men sent by Him to perpetuate His word and power in fulfillment of the promise.    Two would be called not with greater power but with special apostolic vocations in fulfilling God’s promise.   To Peter He said,   You are Peter the Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church (Matthew 16:17–19).    Paul He foreknew and would meet on the Damascus road, sending him to the Gentiles, so that Paul would present himself to the Roman Church as one “called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God . . . to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among the nations” (Romans 1, 5).        

          These commissions, one delivered, the other foreknown, rang hollow as the sun set on the day Christ died.  Peter had run away. If Saul knew of the trial and death of the would-be Messiah no document records it.   Perhaps Saul was among those who walked by wagging their heads saying, “He saved others, He cannot save himself.  If He is the Messiah, let Him come down” (Matthew 27:40–43).   And from the ninth hour on the Day of Passover, the day on which the Lamb was slain, until the morning of the third day, when Peter found the tomb empty, there was a silence over all creation.

If time had then run out, it might be justly concluded that God’s project for the creation of the renewal of Adam in Christ had failed.   The past was a story of the triumph of human folly and angelic rebellion.   The Old Testament is the scene of sin, punishment, and wreckage.   For his rebellion God condemned the serpent to crawl in the dust and to eternal warfare with the woman and her seed (Genesis 3:4–16, Revelation 12:1–6); for their rebellion God made the things He had commanded, till the garden and multiply, onerous (Genesis 3:16–19), and took from them the gift of life for which they had been intended (Genesis 2:17.  God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin, destroyed the cities of the plain, brought down the great tower, and finally destroyed all mankind except Noah.    For their rebellion He sent His own people into captivity and for their present blindness He made them subjects of the Greeks and Egyptians until the city of David was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A. D.  The Lord is not tolerant but He is patient. But while sin abounded, the prophetic expectation that God would redeem His people had never died and would be gloriously fulfilled.    

  It is persistent error of modernity to imitate the ancient Gnostics by locating Jesus in an alien myth, now the progressive myth that, while Marcion-like in seeing Jesus’ teaching as progress over the Old Testament God of Justice, also sees him as a way-station along the path toward an ever-more-enlightened interpretation of His person and message, ending in Jesus the inclusive, sentimental friend of mankind who teaches His followers to cooperate with the world in making it a better place.  In fact the moral history of the world as epitomized in the history of Israel is the story not of progress but of frustration, of the triumph of death.   Jesus does not represent progress but fulfillment; He is the center.   There will be no other name through which mankind can be saved.  In that dark night before faith came with confidence, while the world waited Peter and Paul were still part of the old unbelieving world     

           Then came the morning of the third day, faith came and the world blossomed anew.  For forty days, beginning in the garden where Peter found an empty tomb (John 20:4–7) and Mary mistook Him for the gardener (John 20:15), down the Emmaus road (Matthew 28:7, Luke 24:13–27), in the room where frightened disciples waited (John 19:1-30), there were assurances that He lived, some so real that one could touch the glory (John 20:26–29. 1 John 1:1–4).  On the fortieth day He left them and ascended to His Father in heaven, but to His disciples He gave this instruction: they were to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:3–5).           

            Then on the fiftieth day what had been purchased by the cross was made present and powerful. Peter, who had run away, taking the leadership to which Christ had called him, became a lion, announcing the fulfilment of the history of Israel as foretold by the prophets (Acts 2:15–36).  Paul meanwhile was walking toward his destiny, anxiously studying the law, intrigued by the new-sprung heresy that challenged Judaism, watching with approval as the first witness to this new thing,the deacon  was stoned to death (Acts 7:58), moving ever toward his meeting with the Master He had persecuted on the Damascus road, when would begin the years long preparation that would make the apostle to the Gentiles.   Peter and Paul, these would be remembered as the lynchpins of the apostolic enterprise,

 On the day Christ died Peter was the frightened son of a petit bourgeois family of Capernaum, the northern town at the very seam between Jew and Greek, owners of a family fishing enterprise, otherwise not remarkable; a man of generous and even impulsive temper to whom God had given the grace to confess Jesus’ Messiahship. Paul, first named Saul after the great king of his  tribe of Benjamin,  was then the promising pupil of the famous rabbi Gamaliel, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, zealous for the law, unimpressive in appearance (2 Corinthians 10:10), and sometimes beset with some pain or temptation which it was  God’s good pleasure to cause him to bear (2 Corinthians 2:17). We do know much about their educational attainments, although is at least of interest that they like the other apostles were literate and more.  What we do know is that they became obedient under the hand of God’s indefectible power and promise.

Their presence now dominates the city in which they met their deaths as heralds of the Good News of Christ.  By the time Pope Clement wrote to the Corinthians in the eighties, Peter and Paul were famous in Rome. A century later Saint Irenaeus made them the founders of the Roman Church, and asserted that with that Church every other Church should agree.

It is difficult to make the case that as Pentecost found them either Peter or Paul was of exceptional intellectual stature, yet having given themselves to God and submitted to His purpose they preached and wrote words that made a new world.   The power of the apostolic college, of their words, remains a mystery that lies within God’s providence.  We can know that they were taught by God, the words of Christ confirmed in their minds by the presence of the Holy Spirit of truth.  The source of their greatness was not the scope of their missionary activities but their obedience to the will of God.   Peter had obeyed the heavenly vision; Paul had been faithful to Christ whom He saw on the Damascus road.  

Now both apostles, Peter with the keys to the kingdom of heaven and Paul with the sword of his martyrdom, placed there by Pius IX,  greet pilgrims from the steps of the Vatican basilica, and places where their relics  rest, St. Peter’s and St.Paul’s-outside-the-Walls are among the most visited churches in the city.  The two are together in the apse mosaics of thirty churches, welcoming Christ as he returns with the archangel’s shout and the sound of God’s trumpet.   Made great by obedience to the vision.

 

 

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