Scripture reflection – Saints Peter and Paul – 28th June

These two saints, considered the foremost of the apostles, have a joint celebration, which may acknowledge their deaths during the same period of persecution in Rome. In an early division of ministry, Paul was especially chosen to preach to the Gentiles (see Acts 22:21). Peter began as head of the community in Jerusalem but after the events told in our first reading, went ‘to another place’, and later to Rome, which has since then been the See of Peter’s successors. The book of Acts begins with a focus on Peter; then from chapter 13, Paul takes centre stage.

Acts 12:1-11
This account gives us the background for the name of our parish, St Peter in Chains, and is presented with all Luke’s typical skill in setting a dramatic scene. James, one of two of the apostles of that name, was the first one to be martyred. He and his brother are frequently called ‘the sons of Zebedee’ in the gospels, and were among the first fishermen called as disciples and part of the ‘inner circle’ who were with Jesus at several significant times, such as in the Transfiguration. Peter was in grave danger of the same martyrdom till this miraculous rescue.

Luke tells us that the church ‘prayed fervently’ for Peter in prison, but does actually say that his rescue came through prayer. We are also left to ponder the mystery of why some are rescued, some die and some go through more suffering before the end of this life. In the case of both Peter and Paul, times of rescue did finally come to an end with both being martyred in Rome under the persecution of Nero. According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside-down while Paul, holding Roman citizenship was spared the cross, and was beheaded. The mystery of suffering will be taken up in the responsorial psalm.

Psalm 33/34:2-9
This is one of the psalms written in an alphabetical acrostic – that is, the first line of each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. This form is of course lost in translation. It may lead to a certain freedom from logic. There is, however, in this one a strong theme running through all the verses, full of thanksgiving and confidence in God. This fits well between the first two readings.

This knowledge of death awaiting us all does not cancel the trust we are called to have in God. In his translation and commentary on the Psalms, Robert Alter says:

‘Part of the spiritual greatness of Psalms, part of the source of its enduring appeal through the ages, is that it profoundly recognizes the bleakness, the dark terrors, the long nights of despair that shadow most lives and, against all this, evokes the notion of a caring presence that can reach out to the broken-hearted.’

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Many modern scholars believe that this letter was not written by St Paul. The reasons are many and may be found in commentaries. One of mine is The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, where Robert J. Wild, S.J., writes: ‘Although written by someone else under Paul’s name, these letters are not “forgeries”’. In the philosophical world at that time, ‘the writing of pseudonymous epistles was a long-standing tradition. The writer sought to extend the thought of his or her intellectual master to the problems of a later day.’

The selection made suitably for today’s feast is not about such issues, but part of the conclusion to the letter to show Paul’s attitude when he was in prison and facing death. Similar comments are found in Paul’s own writings. It is full of faith and confidence in God, and a model of hope for Christians of any age.

‘Poured out as a libation’: It was common for both pagans and Jews to make a sacrifice of wine, and that is the background for this vivid image of willingness to die as a witness to Jesus.

Matthew 16:13-19
The story of Jesus asking his disciples ‘who do you say I am?’ with Peter’s answer of ‘the Christ’ or ‘the Messiah’ is found in Mark and Luke as well, but only Matthew goes on to give this ‘commission’ to Peter. It sets him apart as the leader of the disciples, a role Luke shows him carrying out in the early chapters of Acts. The power of ‘binding and loosing’, however, is later given to the other disciples as well in Matthew 18:18.

In English translations, we lose the pun on Simon’s new name, a play of words which is ‘pure’ only in Aramaic, kepha, but shows through the Greek petros and petra. It should be understood as ‘you are a rock and on this rock I will build my church.’ (I rather wish we could call Peter ‘Rock’ but it is a little late to make that change.)
The Greek word for ‘church’ is used only by Matthew in the New Testament – ecclesia – which has passed into our language as the adjective ‘ecclesiastical’.

Keys of the kingdom: Isaiah 22:15-25 mentions the holder of the keys of the royal household and the idea is one who has been placed in charge by the master, acting in the master’s authority. ‘Binding and loosing’, has several possible interpretations, such as: Stating rules and exemptions; Imposing/lifting excommunications. Forgiving or not forgiving sins, or performing exorcisms. It is usually seen as meaning that God will ratify what Peter enacts. An interpretation I like better is that found in the Anchor Bible book on Matthew, authors W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, who see the Greek verb form as ‘will have been bound/loosed.’ It is the Church on earth carrying out heaven’s decisions, communicated by the Spirit, and not heaven ratifying the Church’s decisions.

In Caesarea Philippi where Matthew locates this story, there is – according to a website I found – a place called the ‘Rock of the Gods’. This is described as a deep cave whose opening was thought of as ‘The Gates of Hades’. If this is accurate, it gives Jesus’ choice of words to Peter a geographic relevance, and suggests his sense of serious humour as well – the ‘real’ rock is Peter and the impressive pagan shrine there is a power that will not prevail against him and the church.

Joan Griffith