The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul – 29 June 2020
Lectionary Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Ps 34:1-9; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Matt 16:13-19
Theme: Confidence in God
Confidence in God in the midst of adversity: this is the theme throughout our readings for today. The reading from Acts is set in Jerusalem, where Agrippa I, called here Herod, a grandson of Herod the Great, is persecuting the apostles. James’ martyrdom heightens the dramatic tension in the story of Peter’s imprisonment. The note that it was Passover immediately suggests a parallel with the arrest of Jesus, as does the detail that Herod was intending to bring Peter “out to the people”. While Peter is in prison, “the church” is engaged in “fervent” prayer, the same word used of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Peter’s miraculous escape is one of the most sensational episodes in Acts. Peter is spirited away, despite being shackled to two soldiers. The sudden appearance of the angel is reminiscent of the birth narrative (Luke 2:9), a direct intervention by a heavenly figure which is unusual in Acts. Peter thinks that the almost comically precise instructions given by the angel are part of a dream. Peter’s dramatic escape – the iron gate opens “of its own accord” – recalls a number of passages in ancient literature recording marvellous portents or miraculous escapes. Such reporting here is designed to stress the divine protection enjoyed by the Christian community. Soon after this, having explained his escape to those praying for his release, Peter’s story comes to an abrupt end. Later tradition places his death in Rome, but in Acts he simply fades out of the picture.
Psalm 34 is a psalm of thanksgiving, which recalls the moment of rescue from a dire situation. A personal liberation is spoken of, with mention of “the afflicted”, “fears”, “poor”, which together refer to a desperate person, for whom God has intervened miraculously. God “answers”, “delivers”, “hears” and “saves”. As in the Acts story of Peter’s rescue, “the angel of the LORD is encamped/ around those who revere him, to rescue them.” This is a prayer for those who find themselves with no resource against the powers of the day, and then are remarkably released for new life.
The Letter to Timothy, one of the Pastoral Letters, probably not written by Paul himself, speaks of Paul’s own steadfast character and heroism under persecution as an example of true faith. He is the model for Christians in times of persecution. Paul is in prison and his death is imminent. In poignant language, reminiscent of Philippians 2:17, Paul says that he is to be put to death. He reviews his Christian ministry as a fight he has fought and as a race he has run, two familiar metaphors. His life is a model to Timothy and to all believers – the reward that awaits him and others is sure: it is the garland given to victors in athletic competitions, understood by Paul to be the reward for a life of virtue, and so used also in the early church of the reward for martyrs.
The major themes of the passage from Matthew’s Gospel are rooted in the belief of a Messiah coming from the House of David. Here Jesus is confessed as both Christ and Son of God; he builds a church or temple, and he gives to Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven”. These are all Davidic motifs. The giving of the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter has its closest parallel in Isaiah 22:22, where God will place on Eliakim’s shoulder “the key” to “the house of David”, a term with messianic associations. With it he will open and none will shut, and he will shut and none will open. This text, which is applied to Jesus in Revelation 3:7, and here lies behind Jesus’ promise to Peter, is about the activity of a man second only to the king. When Peter confesses that Jesus is more than a prophet, that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus pronounces over him (not the disciples as a group) a blessing. The new name, “Peter”, which he is given, meaning rock, marks him as a man with a unique role. His significance is like that of Abraham, who was also given a new name, whose faith is the means by which God brings a people into being. In Isaiah 51, Abraham is called a rock from which the people of God are quarried. This lends significance to Peter’s new name. But Peter has to learn the hard lesson that Jesus will suffer – the very next passage will speak of Jesus going to Jerusalem, where he will suffer – and that anyone following him will have to “renounce himself and take up his cross and follow [him]”. Peter is given a new authority and the role of leadership, but that will come at a price, as Peter will learn.