Commentary on the Readings
SAINTS PETER AND PAUL
Through different routes, they arrived at the same destination.
With a phrase well known to us—“They were of one heart and soul”—Luke summarizes the full agreement existing in the primitive community (Acts 4:32). Yet, in the history of the church, tensions and contrasts as strong as those that occurred in the early decades are rarely recorded. The Christians of Jewish origin—jealous custodians of their people’s religious customs—demanded that they continue to comply with the requirements of the law, as a sign of loyalty to God. The more open-minded spirits instead were conscious that “the traditions of the ancients” had fulfilled their task (to bring to Christ). Continuing to impose them constituted a serious obstacle to the Gentiles who wished to adhere to the gospel.
Peter—with a conservative upbringing, though not fanatic—tried to mediate between the two groups of the community, but all were a little discontented. Paul—a fanatic traditionalist—had departed from the more rigid positions of the Jewish religion. He had come to a radical break with the past, to the point that he became intolerant of those who—like Peter—had not the courage to make radical choices. A day in Antioch of Syria, he publicly insulted Peter by calling him a hypocrite (Gal 1:11-14).
As a result, relations between the two apostles were restored. Peter, in a letter, calls Paul “our beloved brother” (2 P 3:15). Together they gave their lives to Christ and today we celebrate their feast together. Through different paths—and very slowly—they have come to recognize in Jesus the Messiah of God.
Peter met for the first time the man who was to become his master along the Sea of Galilee. Earlier he identified him as the carpenter from Nazareth. Then he realized that he was a great prophet. Later, in Caesarea Philippi, he finally discovered his true identity. He declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13).
He professed a formula of perfect faith. However, to believe in Christ does not mean to adhere to a pack of truth but to share the life choices that he proposes. The dreams that Peter cultivated was not the Lord’s. “You are thinking not as God—he said—but as people do” (Mk 8:33). He began to understand only in the light of Easter. He timidly confessed his fragile faith: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17).
Paul has traveled a different path. At first, he considered Jesus as an opponent to fight with, a wrecker of the messianic hopes of Israel, a blasphemer who preached a God different from that of the spiritual leaders of his people. He had known him, “according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16), according to the religious, political and social criteria of this world. Based on these parameters, he could not but judge him a criminal, a subversive of the established order, a heretic.
On the road to Damascus, he received the light from above and understood: Jesus, the crucified one, is God’s Messiah. From that moment, everything that he considered a profit, he now reckons all as garbage (Phil 3:7-8). If our experience of faith is less painful than that of the two apostles, whose feast we celebrate today, perhaps it is not equally authentic.
To interiorize the message, we repeat:
“The roads are different, but all lead to the Lord.”
Herod Agrippa was Caligula’s companion of debauchery. He had obtained from his friend, who became emperor, the kingdom of his grandfather, Herod the Great. He was a usurper and a clever demagogue. He was able to captivate the hearts of the Jewish people, flaunting scrupulous observance of the law and traditions. To please the more extremist fringes, he also began to persecute Christians. They were hated by the people because they marked a departure from the ancient religious practice and had no qualms sitting down to eat with the Gentiles. He had James, son of Zebedee, killed. He arrested Peter with the intention to execute him before the people a week after Easter when Jerusalem was yet teeming with pilgrims.
Locked in prison, Peter was sleeping. His sleep can be interpreted as a sign of interior serenity but also of surrender to the overwhelming power of evil. The community, united with him, gathered and raised “incessant and intense” supplication to God. It was night, and when all human hopes seemed dashed, the chains were broken, the iron door swung open, an angel came down from heaven and freed the apostle.
Reportage or fable? Too good—one might say—to be true. It would not be hard to believe in a God who rescues his faithful in this way and that, seeing them in trouble, sends his angels to rescue them.
The book of Acts was written in the time of Domitian, the mad despot who demanded people to worship him as a god, and subjected to harassment Christians who did not bend to his delusional provisions. To instill courage and hope in these persecuted disciples, Luke reminds them how the apostles were subjected to the test since the beginning and how they have remained faithful at the cost of lives.
There is a second message that he intends to communicate. God never abandons those who put their lives at stake for the Gospel. He does not say it in words but illustrates it with an incident that happened in Jerusalem forty years before. Peter was imprisoned and when all were almost resigned to the worst, unexpectedly he was rescued.
The circumstances in which this liberation had occurred are difficult to establish and Luke was not interested in them. What he was anxious about was to show that the Lord intervened in favor of his apostle. To give a touch of freshness to the story, to keep the attention of the reader and dispose them to capture the message, he introduced in the event marvelous details taken from the Old Testament.
The central image is the mysterious angel of the Lord, blazing with light, presenting himself to Peter. When the Bible speaks of angels, we should not immediately think of ethereal creatures with wings, flowing hair and sweet features. The term “angel of the Lord” is used in Scripture to describe the action of God in the world and his effective intervention in the story (Gen 16:7-13; 21:17-19; 22:11,16ff; Ex 3:1-5; Jdg 2:1-5, 2 K 1:3,15, Acts 8:26.29).
Sometimes the “angel of the Lord” refers directly to God, but more often to his human intermediary. For example, when the Lord says to his people: “See, I am sending an angel before you to keep you safe on the way and bring you to the place I have made ready. My angel will go before you” (Ex 23:20-24) he does not refer to a spirit, but to a real person, to Moses. He is the “angel” instructed to bring to fulfillment the deliverance of Israel.
We must be very cautious in interpreting these “apparitions.” The visions, the voices from heaven, the intervention of supernatural characters are often but a human language. They are used to highlight a real and concrete but ineffable fact: the providence, the Lord’s assistance, the inner light that he grants to his faithful. The biblical authors often pass over in silence the secondary causes, mediators, and the circumstances and they indicate immediately the lead author, God who guided the event.
The key to the whole reading of the whole passage is the phrase that Peter pronounces when he realizes what happened to himself: “Now—he adds—I know that the Lord has sent his angel and has rescued me from Herod’s clutches” (v. 11). He understood that salvation was not due to his own initiative, but it was the work of the Lord.
In Rome, during the persecution of Nero, Peter and Paul were not able to escape death. No one defended them, nay more—as Clement of Rome wrote in his letter to the Christians of Corinth—“The good apostles Peter and Paul, the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church” fell victims “of jealous zeal and envy,” probably of their own brothers in the faith (1 Clem 5,2-7).
However, there the “angel of the Lord” did an even more extraordinary miracle: he freed the two apostles not from the chains, but from the fear of offering their lives for Christ.
This is the miracle that the Lord wants to accomplish even today in every authentic disciple: to free them from the chains that keep them prisoner and keep them from running along the path outlined by Jesus.
The letter from which this passage is taken is not written by Paul. It is done by one of his loyal disciples to inspire Christians of his persecuted communities to have courage. He makes them contemplate the figure of the apostle to the gentiles, the prototype of the disciple, the ideal of the brave martyr.
In the last section of the letter, he puts on the lips of Paul a moving farewell speech. The Apostle is in prison in Rome and is waiting for the impending capital execution. His blood “is being poured as a libation and the moment of his departure has come” (v. 6). He does not talk about death, but of a departure for a long-awaited goal.
With a nautical image, he says that he is unfolding the sails to break away from this bank and reach the safe haven, the heavenly homeland where Christ is. In writing to the Philippians, he had already expressed the same desire: “For to me, living is Christ, and dying is even better. I greatly desire to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21-23).
As he had done in Miletus, greeting the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:27-38), here too, using images he takes stock of his whole life. He behaved like a loyal soldier for he is certain that the Lord will compliment him for his abundant commitment and manifested courage. He competed as a serious athlete and sacrificed himself without reserve. He subjected himself to all kinds of deprivation to win the race. During the race, he never swerved. He followed the rules and now crosses the finish line (v. 7).
He is old and tired of the work done and the struggles he faced. He relies on the Lord, the righteous judge who will not give him the ephemeral laurel wreath, but a glorious “crown of righteousness,” that God will offer not only to him but "to all those who have longed for his glorious coming” (v. 8); to those who, while waiting for an encounter with the Lord, have led a life consistent with the Gospel.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 16-18), the author of the letter does some finishing touches to the idealized figure of the master. Drawing inspiration from the Psalms—which often present the figure of the persecuted and defenseless innocent—he shows in Paul the biblical image of the righteous forsaken by friends and neighbors but able to forgive those who have wronged him and to entrust his own fate to the Lord.
These verses summarize admirably the life of the apostle. His exemplary adherence to the gospel is offered today to inspire us to live a life more coherent with the faith we profess.
A few days before his death, Herod had assigned to Philip, one of the favorite sons, the northern part of his kingdom, the land of Bashan—the current Golan. In the Bible, Golan is known for its fertile soil, lush pastures, the fertility of flocks and herds. In the most charming point of this region, fresh and plentiful waters gush from the Jordan River and from the plain, watered by innumerable streams. The scent of lush greenery rises. Philip had built his capital, in honor of the powers that be, the Emperor Tiberius, and called it Caesarea.
The locality was formerly called Panias, because it was believed that, in this corner of paradise, Pan and the Nymphs had established their residence. And in this delightful frame, the evangelist places the two questions that Jesus gives to his disciples: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Who do you say that I am?”
The geographical context in which the incident is set gives the two questions a particular charge. The disciples are fascinated by the scenery, the comfortable life of the inhabitants of the region and by the magnificence of the two palaces of the Tetrarch. In front of this spectacle, Jesus wants them to become aware of the choice imposed on those who want to follow him.
What do people expect from him, more importantly, what do the disciples expect? Pan and the Nymphs know how to fill their own devotees with the goods of the earth. What can Jesus offer? Philip bestows wealth, positions of prestige and power to his friends. He makes them partakers of the joys of luxurious court life. Can Jesus assure something better?
What do people say about him?
The answer to this first question is simple: people draw him near to eminent personalities, to John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, the ancient prophets (vv. 13-14). The admiration of people of all times for Jesus in undeniable. However, the respect and veneration for him are not sufficient to be regarded as his disciples.
It is not enough for him to be taken as a personification of excellent values, generally pursued by all people of good will. He does not want to be considered one of the many who has distinguished themselves for honesty, loyalty, love of the poor, abundant work in favor of justice, peace and non-violence. He wants to know what the disciples think of him: “But you, who do you say I am?”
On behalf of the others, Peter replied: “You are the Christ,” the Messiah, the Savior foretold by the prophets and expected by our people (v. 16). The profession of faith that he pronounced is perfect. Is he aware of what it implies?
The continuation of the story (not reported in today’s Gospel passage) clearly shows that Peter, in fact, did not understand anything of Christ. He still thinks of the messiah who—more than the god Pan—will be able to give material good. He believes that he will confer glory and power to his followers—as does the divine Augustus, in whose honor Herod the Great had built one splendid temple on the source of the Jordan.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 17-20), the evangelist relates the response of Jesus to Simon: “You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church....”
The interpretation of the Teacher’s statement is not simple. Why and in what sense is Simon called “rock” on which the church is built? A simple affirmation of the primacy of the pope? No, much more.
We begin by making two observations that help us better understand this important text. First of all, we note that the “rock” as a basis of the church is talked about other times in the New Testament. This “rock”, solid, immovable, is always and only Christ. “No one—Paul says—can lay any foundation other than the one which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).
To the Christian communities in Asia Minor, he reminds them of their glorious condition: “You are no longer strangers or guests, but fellow citizens of the holy people: you are of the household of God. You are the house whose foundations are the apostles and prophets and whose cornerstone is Jesus Christ. In him, the whole structure is joined together and rises to be a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:19-21).
Peter is even more explicit. In his first letter, he invites the newly baptized to never break away from Christ because he is the “living stone, rejected by people but chosen and precious in the sight of God.” Then he develops the image and, turning to the Christians, he says: “set yourselves close to him so that you, too, become living stones built into a spiritual temple” united as you are with the “cornerstone chosen and precious, placed by God on Easter day as a foundation of the whole building” (1 P 2:4-6).
The second observation is the name given to Simon—Cephas-Peter—in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) does not mean rock, but simply construction stones. The stone Jesus talks about is the faith professed by Peter.
It is this faith that constitutes the foundation of the church, that keeps it united to Christ-rock, that makes it indestructible and allows it never to be overwhelmed by the forces of evil. All those who, like Peter and with Peter, profess this faith, are inserted as living stones in the spiritual building designed by God.
The expression “the gates of hell” should not be materialized. These gates represent the power of evil. They indicate all that is opposed to life and the good of people. Nothing ever—ensures Jesus—can prevent the church to complete his work of salvation, provided she remains closely united to him, the Son of the living God.
Peter also receives the keys and the power of binding and loosing. These two images are often used by the rabbis. Handing over the keys is equivalent to entrusting the task of managing the life that takes place within a building. It means giving the power to introduce into the house or deny access.
The rabbis were convinced of possessing the “keys of the Torah” because they knew the Scriptures. They believed that everyone had to depend on their doctrinal decisions and judgments. They claim for themselves the right to discriminate between the just and unjust, between saints and sinners.
Jesus takes up this image in his harsh indictment against the scribes: “A curse is on you, teachers of the law, for you have taken the key of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you prevented others from entering” (Lk 11:52). Instead of opening the door of salvation, they barred them, not revealing to the people the true face of God and his will. Jesus took away from them the key, which they appropriated abusively. Now it is only his. Returning to Isaiah’s prophecy on Eliakim (Is 22:22), the seer of Revelation declares that it is Christ, and no one else, “who opens [it] and nobody shuts, and if he shuts nobody opens” (Rev 3:7).
The spiritual edifice Jesus refers to is “the kingdom of heaven,” the new condition. Those who become his disciple enter it. The key that allows one to enter is the faith professed by Peter.
By handing over the keys to Peter, Jesus does not charge him to be the doorkeeper of paradise or, still less, “to lord it” on the persons entrusted to him. Instead, he tells him to “become an example to the flock” (1 P 5:3). He entrusts him to open wide to all the entrance to the knowledge of Christ and of his gospel.
The one who passes through the door opened by Peter with his profession of faith (it is the “holy door”) encounter salvation; those who refuse remain excluded.
The image of binding and loosing refers to decisions on moral choices. To bind meant to prohibit, to loose, was to declare licitly. It also indicated the power to make judgments of approval or condemnation of people’s behavior and thus to admit or to exclude them from the community. From today's Gospel passage, as in many other texts of the New Testament (Mt 10:2; Lk 22:32, Jn 21:15-17), it is clear that Peter is entrusted with a particular task in the church. It is he who always appears first, is called to feed the lambs and the sheep and sustains his brothers and sisters in the faith.
Misunderstandings and disagreements are not born from this truth, but from the way service was done. Throughout the ages, many times it degenerated. From being a sign of love and unity it became an expression of power. The exercise of this ministry is to be matched all the time with the gospel so that the bishop of Rome really is for all—according to the wonderful definition of Irenaeus of Lyons (II century)—“he who presides over charity”.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos