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JUNE 29, 2008: Feast of Peter and Paul

Readings: 

Acts 12:1-4
II Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Matthew 16, 13-19

Though at times we can see the necessity for the axiom, "Ignorance is bliss!" there are occasions when ignorance might also stop us from appreciating things which could help us better understand ourselves and the situations we face in life. This is certainly the case with today's three readings.

On face value, each passage provides us with "good thoughts" about Peter and Paul, the champions of early Christianity. None of the three liturgical selections was actually composed by either of them. But that really doesn't matter. The first two help us reflect on the terrific example the pair gave by patiently suffering for their faith. And our gospel pericope demonstrates that such faith-filled leadership is the rock on which our own faith is grounded. What could be better than that?

The problem is that most who will hear these passages proclaimed this weekend are ignorant of what was going on in the concrete expression of that faith when those readings were originally composed.

Scholars always bring up one glaring difficulty with Luke's Acts of the Apostles. Presuming he wrote it in the mid-80s, and that Peter and Paul were martyred in the early 60s, why doesn't he mention anything about their heroic deaths? Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, long after it gives any further information about Peter.

Lucan experts offer one explanation which revolves around the evangelist's attempt throughout his gospel and Acts both to assure his Christian readers they have nothing to fear from the Roman Empire, and to guarantee the Empire it has nothing to fear from Christianity. Peter and Paul's execution by Roman authorities doesn't quite fit his optimistic thesis, so he ends his work before the Apostles' deaths.

Though this makes sense, some high-powered Scripture scholars believe there's more to the omission, and even to Peter's special gospel prerogatives. Oscar Cullmann, Raymond Brown, and John Meier, for instance, argue for a deeper, more embarrassing reason. They believe the death of these heroic figures was actually instigated by some of their fellow Christians!

Having been brought up with a catechism faith, many of us know nothing about the liberal/conservative tensions existing in earliest Christianity. Such a phenomenon didn't develop only after Vatican II. Anyone who holds that opinion certainly hasn't read or studied Paul's Letter to the Galatians - the second oldest Christian document we possess.

The Gentile question was an explosive issue for gospel and pre-gospel Christians. Do we demand non-Jews become Jews before we permit them to be Christians, or do we simply admit them as non-Jews with no obligation to observe the 613 Laws of Moses? The conservatives, under the leadership of James, refused to do the latter. They fought bitterly with liberals, like Paul, who contradicted their traditional theology.

According to many Matthean scholars, this battle is even the reason for today's gospel passage. The evangelist (writing for a Jewish/Christian community) puts Peter forth as an example of a leader who bridges the gap between the conservative James and the liberal Paul.

We're edified by Peter and Paul's determination to live their faith to the point of suffering and death. But we're also embarrassed to read Clement of Rome's recollection that the Apostles were killed out of a "rivalrous grudge." In other words, conservative Christians somehow engineered their arrest to get them "out of the way." No wonder Luke mentions nothing of either's death.

It's far easier to suffer for one's faith when the pain comes from outside that faith. Far more difficult and draining when the pain comes from within the faith itself. Ignorance of that reality certainly isn't bliss.