Jun 29, 2021: Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles (ABC)

Introduction

This feast celebrates the two pillars on which Christianity was built: Peter is associated with the community in Jerusalem and Paul with the Gentile converts. Together they represent the universality of the Church.

Peter, the Rock, was the chief of the Apostles, their leader and our first Pope. Peter was put to death in the reign of Nero sometime between 64 and 67 AD. There is no historical evidence for the tradition that he was crucified, either upright or upside down, but this is no reason to discount the tradition. For centuries Peter’s tomb was believed to have been under what we now call Saint Peter’s Basilica. In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that his skeletal remains had been found beneath the high altar.

Paul, the Pharisee who was converted during his trip to Damascus was also executed in the reign of Nero, in 67 or 68 AD, possibly at the same time as Saint Peter. The place of martyrdom in local Roman tradition is the site of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Since he was a Roman citizen, the mode of execution according to the same tradition was decapitation.

The red vestments worn on this day remind us of the price that the commitment of these men exacted of them. The focus here is not on the offices either of them might have held within the community but on the character of their witness of faith.

When June 29 falls on a Sunday, the feast supersedes the celebration of the Sunday in Ordinary Time.

1st Reading – Acts 12:1-11

In those days, King Herod laid hands upon some members of the Church to harm them.
He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword,
and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews
he proceeded to arrest Peter also.
–It was the feast of Unleavened Bread.–
He had him taken into custody and put in prison
under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each.
He intended to bring him before the people after Passover.
Peter thus was being kept in prison,
but prayer by the Church was fervently being made
to God on his behalf.

On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial,
Peter, secured by double chains,
was sleeping between two soldiers,
while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison.
Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him
and a light shone in the cell.
He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying,
“Get up quickly.”
The chains fell from his wrists.
The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.”
He did so.
Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.”
So he followed him out,
not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
They passed the first guard, then the second,
and came to the iron gate leading out to the city,
which opened for them by itself.
They emerged and made their way down an alley,
and suddenly the angel left him. 
Then Peter recovered his senses and said,
“Now I know for certain 
that the Lord sent his angel 
and rescued me from the hand of Herod
and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting.”

Today’s first reading occurs in 45 AD, some 15 years after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. The point of this reading — a point made more than once in Acts — is to teach how futile are the attempts of even the powerful to stifle the preachers of God’s word.

About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them.

This is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of the hated Herod the Great, who had ordered the census which caused Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem. Herod Agrippa I was a child when his father was executed, so his mother sent him to Rome, for both his safety and his education. There he grew up with various members of the imperial family. This explains both the privilege he enjoyed with his Roman overlords and the disfavor in which he was held by the Jewish people. His Roman privilege enabled him to expand the territory over which he ruled; the Jews’ hatred of him led to his eagerness to curry favor with Jewish leaders.

He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword,

James, son of Zebedee and Salome, and elder brother of John the apostle and also one of the twelve, was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. He was the first martyr among the apostles, having been beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in 44 AD, as noted here.

and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Because Israel was occupied by the Romans, the Jewish leaders had only as much power and authority as was granted them by their occupiers. However, since Herod Agrippa was always trying to please them, they exercised considerable influence.

Both James, the recognized leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and Peter, the recognized leader of the apostles, became victims of the antagonism of the Jewish leaders by way of the pusillanimous king.

(It was the feast of Unleavened Bread.)

Passover marked the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted for seven days. This time mark has no bearing on the story except that Herod wanted to wait to arrest Peter until the feast was over, since executions were unlawful during festivals.

He had him taken into custody and put in prison under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each.

A very heavy guard. The similarity between Peter’s imprisonment and impending execution and the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death are striking. The restraints Peter was forced to endure suggest this similarity was not lost on Herod.

He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.

Peter was most likely being kept in the Tower of Antonia, the headquarters of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, which was northwest of the temple area.

On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter, secured by double chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison.

A Roman night guard was divided into four three-hour watches with a squadron of four soldiers assigned to each watch. Peter was chained on each side to a soldier, which the other two kept watch outside the cell. Although the Christians prayed for his release, clearly there was little chance this would occur.

Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists. The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.”

The author provides all these details so that the miraculous character of Peter’s release will stand out boldly.

So he followed him out, not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.

Even as the events unfold, Peter is not fully conscious of what is happening — his deliverance is all God’s doing.

They passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself. They emerged and made their way down an alley, and suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter recovered his senses and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting.”

The author makes it clear that the future of the Church is being directed by the hand of God and not by the political maneuverings of humans.

2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.

The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
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.
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Second Timothy is widely believed to be Saint Paul’s last letter, written from prison shortly before his death. For this reason, it is regarded as his spiritual testament.

For I am already being poured out like a libation, 

Paul is aware that his days are numbered, that his death is imminent. The first metaphor he employs is taken from a cultic context, where the rite of pouring out wine was a kind of drink offering (see Numbers 15:5, 7, 10). This practice may have been introduced into the ritual as a substitute for blood libation.

Paul states that he is being poured out like a sacrificial libation: not only is every ounce of life being exacted from him, but he views his own offering of it as a sacrificial act.

and the time of my departure is at hand.

His word for departure is ánalýō, a compound word derived from lýō, meaning “to loosen.” This word for taking leave is associated with sailors who weigh anchor or soldiers who break camp. Like them, Paul has completed a demanding tour of service and is preparing to return home.

Essentially, Paul does not see death as an end to self, but as a return to Christ.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

With his third metaphor, Paul uses sports imagery to describe his pursuit of salvation. He has persevered and preserved and guarded the deposit of faith (which, to this day, is the duty of every bishop).

From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day,

Now Paul must wait only for the conferral of the crown promised by God, a reference to Christ’s eschatological manifestation.

and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.

For a moment Paul shifts his focus away from his own fate and anticipates joining with all the others who will be awarded this victorious crown. He claims no special privilege.

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.

It seems that Paul has been deserted by his human companions during one of his trials; however, God was there to strengthen him when all others fled.

And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

A biblical image (Psalm 22:21; Daniel 6:19-22)

The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul is not referring to release from imprisonment, but of being preserved from anything that might threaten his spiritual well-being and prevent him from being led safely into the kingdom of heaven.

Gospel – Matthew 16:13-19

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.”

Today’s reading takes place shortly after Jesus’ bread of life discourse, a little less than a year before his death.

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi

This area is about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee and outside the domain of Herod Antipas. The name “Caesarea” was given the city in order to curry the favor of the Roman emperor, or Caesar. The name “Philippi” means “of Philip,” denoting that it was built by Philip the Tetrarch, a son of Herod whose territory this was; this suffix was necessary in order to distinguish it from other cities named Caesarea, principally the big one on the Meditteranean coast where the Roman procurator lived. It was an entirely Gentile community.

This geographic area was a place where many religions met. There was, for example, a great temple of white marble built to the godhead of Caesar. Caesarea Philippi was the center of the cult of Pan, the Greek god of nature; his birthplace was alleged to be nearby. There were also no fewer than fourteen temples in the area dedicated to the worship of the ancient Syrian god Baal.

It seems that, for whatever it was that he was about to do, Jesus deliberately chose the backdrop of the world’s religions of the time and would invite comparisons.

he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

This, of course, is the central question of the gospel. Who is Jesus?

The question is not self-serving: Jesus seeks to discover how his words and action are being understood by the people, and he is preparing the disciples for their own assessment of him.

The title “Son of Man” refers to Daniel 7:13. It is a messianic title that Jesus applies to himself; it is never applied by his disciples.

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist,

The answers given to Jesus’ question are telling.

It isn’t clear why Jesus should be associated with John the Baptist since in both their lifestyles and their central messages they were so different. The connection may have been made simply because John the Baptist had recently been beheaded and the memory of this exceptional man was fresh in the minds of the people.

Perhaps they were mindful that the superstitiously fearful Herod Antipas at times thought Jesus was John come back to life to haunt him. Or maybe they believed that if John really was back from the dead, he would have special powers and be able to perform the miracles which Jesus does. Many had set their hopes on John, and with his death, they transferred them to Jesus.

others Elijah,

Popular Jewish thought held that the prophet Elijah would return to announce the coming of the messiah [Malachi 4:5 (Malachi 3:23 in the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible)]. Even today when the Passover Seder is celebrated in the Jewish household, a place is set for Elijah.

Since Jesus had launched his ministry with the announcement that the long-awaited reign was now at hand, it is understandable that people would link him with Elijah.

still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Jeremiah was the prophet who in his own experience of rejection and suffering foretold the rejection and suffering of the messiah.

In some way, all the prophets had looked forward to the coming of this reign, so this reference was not inappropriate. Those who linked Jesus’ identity to them were asserting him to be a man of God.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

After hearing the various opinions regarding his identity, Jesus makes the question more personal, directly challenging his closest friends.

Simon Peter said in reply,

Although all the disciples had been addressed, Simon takes it upon himself to act as the spokesman and answer for them all.

“You are the Messiah,

The name means “anointed.” Although various figures in ancient Israel were anointed, the term came to be applied most distinctively to kings. Some writings in Jesus’ time used the term to describe Israel’s future leader in the period before and during the end times; he would fulfill Israel’s hopes based on God’s promises.

the Son of the living God.”

To his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, Peter adds the divine title “Son of the Living God,” a detail found only in the Gospel of Matthew. It directs attention to the Father-Son relationship and away from the military-nationalistic connotations of the title “Messiah.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.

Using a macarism (“blessed are you”), Jesus opens his discussion of the role Peter will play in the assembly of believers.

For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

God is using Simon as an instrument of divine revelation; it is not Simon’s belief (or faith) that is being proclaimed, but God’s revelation.

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,

With a play on Greek words, the author has Jesus describe that Peter (Petros) is the rock (petra) upon which Jesus will establish his church. (Kepha is the Aramaic form; it is transliterated as Cephas (Kephas) in John’s gospel, 1st Corinthians, and Galatians.) Hence Jesus gives Simon a name that had never before been used as a proper name.

The rock metaphor wasn’t strange to Jesus’ hearers. The rabbis had applied the word “rock” to Abraham, and the Scriptures had applied the word “rock” to God. Jesus applied it to Peter because Peter was the first person on earth to make the leap of faith, a leap which saw Jesus as “the Son of the living God.”

Note: Only here and in Matthew 18:17 is the term ekklesia (“church”) used, which refers to an assembly of people, not a building in which they might gather. This is a wonderful new prospect: the human race organized for the pursuit of an altogether new ideal.

and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

Jesus promises that the forces of the netherworld will not be able to encircle this church — a promise that is clearly not based on any strength of Peter’s; it is solely a gift from Jesus.

The netherworld is sheol in Hebrew, hades in Greek. It is the abode of the dead. This is where all departed souls went; heaven had been closed from the time of Adam and Eve and will not be opened until the perfect sacrifice of the Messiah.

I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

For his part, Peter will exercise the power of the keys. Controlling the keys is a sign of authority, one that is more judicial or disciplinary than managerial. (See Isaiah 22.)

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The authority to bind and loose is later given to the disciples as a group in Matthew 18:18, but to Peter alone are accorded the revelation, the role of the rock of foundation (see Ephesians 2:20), and especially the keys. This supreme authority is given to Peter for the benefit of the Church.

Just as in our first reading, the office of Peter (as holder of the keys) is a perpetual office: the position continues even though the occupant changes. Because the Church must last until the end of time, the authority will be passed on to Peter’s successors down through history. The Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope, is the successor of Peter.

Each occupant of the office of Peter is invested with the keys and the responsibility to bind and loose for the entire Church. This is consistent with Matthew’s theme of presenting Jesus to his Jewish audience as a new Moses, one who has authority from God to promulgate a new law.

The fact that Jesus was giving Peter a very special office in the Church is reflected in many other places in the New Testament:

  • Peter is always first in any list of apostles.
  • Peter gives the first sermon in the church.
  • Peter receives into the church the first Gentile, Cornelius.
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Peter to feed the lambs and sheep of his flock.
  • In his letter to the Galatians, Paul pays tribute to the position of Peter when he says that in an argument he withstood Peter to his face, implying that to withstand the visible head of the church was a great thing.

Connections and Themes

Who do you say that I am?  The church is rooted in the identity of Christ. His followers have come from every race and culture, every generation and social class. It is not a common culture that has drawn them together but a common faith. They do not consider Jesus the reincarnation of some great personage of the past. Rather, they profess him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

I have kept the faith.  Today we remember that throughout the ages the Church has been strengthened by the blood of the martyrs. This was the case in its earliest years, and it is the case even today. Both Peter and Paul are examples of how God can take those who are weak in faith and transform them into champions for the cause of the gospel. Once transformed, each of them threw himself wholeheartedly into the mission that was his. Their fate should not surprise us, for they were disciples of one who gave his last breath for the life of the world.

In so many places in the world today, modern martyrs are called upon to pay the ultimate price for their faith. We see this in Latin America, in many African countries, in the Middle East, and in Asia, to name but a few areas. Although the word “martyr” usually refers to one who dies for the faith, the Greek word (mártys) really means “witness,” one who gives testimony. Like Peter and Paul, the martyr is one whose life gives witness to the faith. However, when this witness becomes too much of a challenge to the world, the witness’s life is placed in jeopardy. Peter and Paul call us all to this kind of testimony to faith.

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