What does the liturgy have to say about these two men who are the pillars upon which the church grew in the first century of its existence and whose profound influence upon the interpretation of the gospel is felt today? The opening prayers praise God that through their teaching the Church “first received the faith,” and asks that we be kept true to their teaching. The alternative prayer paraphrases the letter of Peter, praising God through whose great mercy we have received “new birth and hope through the power of Christ's resurrection,” and asks that their prayers for us we might reach the inheritance of heaven with them. (Quotations are from the previous Sacramentary.)
But the readings point to their faith in Jesus and God’s support of them in their hour of need. The first reading, from Acts, describes the rescue of Peter from prison by an angel of the Lord, and the responsorial psalm, from Psalm 34, celebrates that “the angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.” In the second reading from 2 Timothy, the first part of which is so familiar to all of us who attend so many funerals through the years, Paul, writing from prison himself, confesses that his life is slipping away, poured out like God’s life and the life of Jesus, but that in every trial and in his time of need “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” The gospel is one we will hear again later this summer, the confession of Peter from Matthew 16, in which Peter announces, to Jesus inquiry as to his perceived identity, that "you are the Christ (messiah) of God," quite possibly giving the right answer but meaning the wrong thing. Jesus changes his name from the Jewish “Simon” to the Greek Kephas, in Latin, Petrus, a cognate of petra, which means rock, leading to the famous wordplay written in huge letters around the cupola of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”)
That Peter and Paul came to have the same feast day is a triumph, I suspect, of some historical revisionism begun by the evangelists that homogenized and beatified a relationship in the early church that was probably anything but amicable. In Reza Aslan's recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which sought to popularize some theories about the historical Jesus in the context of first century Judaism in a Roman world, what was arguably the best and most convincing part of the entire work was the last chapter, which analyzed passages in James, Acts, and the Pauline letters to reveal the serious rifts that divided the apostolic church and at the same time made Christianity possible after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE. While Aslan is concerned about the animosity, possibly the antipathy, between James (the brother of the Lord) and Paul (who never met Jesus), Peter is clearly in James's camp. I don't want to get distracted by all this today, but the short version of Aslan's theory is that James knew Jesus, and led the Jerusalem church as a movement within Judaism that kept the Jewish law sacred in a way that edified the church's Jewish milieu. Paul, on the other hand, preaching in the diaspora and poaching Greek-speaking Jewish sympathizers had a more liberal bent, and preached that the law could do nothing to save a person, only faith in Jesus Christ. Hints in their letters show their barely concealed distaste for each other's teaching.
At the distance of two millennia, we have reconciled, to some extent, the faith vs. works argument, and rationalized a belief that sees, as James writes, that faith without works is nothing, and that good works are an outward sign of a faith that believes in the genuine Jesus. Still, even within Christianity that letter of James is not considered canonical by all believers. The question can be settled without it, I suppose, but it's interesting to me that, in spite of the heat of these arguments that separated these lions of the faith at the dawn of Christianity, they all believed in Jesus, his message, and his risen life to such an extent that these servants went to their violent deaths at the hands of the same governments and gods that had crucified the master. The Jewish Jerusalem church that had flourished under James and Peter disappeared after the razing of Jerusalem in 70, and what was left were the churches of the diaspora in the Mediterranean basin, Rome, and beyond that had been cultivated by Paul and his disciples.
So, rather than focusing on these men, who in the words of the entrance antiphon “(conquered) all human frailty, shed their blood and helped the Church to grow,” the liturgy focuses on the God who empowered them and who will empower us to continue to work to build up the church and make it truly catholic. Tacitly taking up last week's evangelical refrain to “be not afraid,” the liturgy encourages us to trust that the angel of the Lord will rescue us as well, and to trust that God will do what the word of God promises. The life and memory of these two men, so unlikely to share a feast day in a sense, who knew each other as allies and adversaries at the same time, is testament to a God who, in Christ, reconciles all things to himself.
Here’s our music for this weekend:
Call to Worship: Be Ye Glad. Michael Kelly Blanchard's great song of ransomed joy is a favorite of ours, and the choir is singing an arrangement as a call to worship. I chose it because it recalls the miraculous release of Paul and Silas from jail, a story from the readings of the vigil, not of the feast day, but still to the point. The spiritual "Eyes on the Prize (Hold On)" takes off from the same event. Blanchard's text is so beautifully crafted. If you are not familiar with it, this is the second stanza, the reason I chose it for today:
Now in your dungeon, a rumor is stirring.Gathering: The Christ of God, by John Foley, SJ. OCP octavo. I wrote about this song in my blog last year (see link). I like that the triumphalistic refrain is framed by a recitative question, “Who do you say I am?” The verses, complementing the faith expressed in the refrain, describe the role of the Christ and the disciple: “The servant of God must suffer much, be rejected, and yes must be killed....Take your own cross, and come, follow me.”
You have heard it again and again.
Ah, but this time, the cell keys are turning
And outside there are faces of friends.
And though your body lies weary from wasting
And your eyes show the sorry they've had,
All the love that your heart is now tasting
Has opened the gate. Be ye glad! (© Gotz Music/Benson )
Psalm: Psalm 34: The Angel of the Lord, setting by Rory Cooney, OCP octavo. This is an alternative refrain to my setting of “Taste and See” from Cries of the Spirit 1, written for this feast twenty-something years ago.
Preparation Rite: God Is Love by Rory Cooney or A Dwelling Place, by John Foley, S.J.
Communion Song: Heart of a Shepherd, by Rory Cooney, (link is to a blog post on this song in the "SongStories" series) adapting verses from the Gelineau Psalm 23.
Recessional: Anthem by Tom Conry or Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones (traditional).