Page 5, 27th June 1980

27th June 1980
Page 5
Page 5, 27th June 1980 — How the Church grows with the blood of its martyrs

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Locations: Jerusalem, Rome


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How the Church grows with the blood of its martyrs

Scripture Notebook Michael Barnes S.J.

St Peter and St Paul

ACTS 12.1-11: The events described in today's first reading took place about A D44. Luke tells us that "King Herod started persecuting certain members of the Church. He beheaded James. the brother of John and when he saw that this pleased the Jews he decided to arrest Peter as well". The villain of the piece is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. and an active supporter of the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. He reigned for seven brief years before dying a particularly unpleasant death — as Luke himself tells us at the end of the chapter — "because he did not give God the glory."

The cruelty of his persecution and the dishonesty of his political intrigues are placed in contrast to the constancy and devotion of the Church who "prayed to God for Peter .unremittingly". And God heard their prayer, sending his angel to rid Peter of his chains and lead hint safely out of the prison.

Peter, for his part, thinks he is having a dream; it is not until they are out in the street that Luke tells us that "Peter came to himself." Peter then makes the judgment which forms the lesson of the whole episode: "Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and all that the Jewish people were expecting."

The angel is, of course, the traditional messenger figure, proclaiming God s coming deliverance. We are reminded of another angel, and deliverance front another Herod. Peter is set free and the persecutor perishes: God protects his people and punishes his enemies. The Church continues to grow through the blood of its martyrs. 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18: But if Peter is released from prison and continues to proclaim the Gospel, P. ul has come to the. end of a long and eventful life of preaching and service. And he knows it. He writes to one of his early converts, now head of the Church at Ephesus, that "I am already being poured out in sacrifice; the time of my departure has come."

Paul is at Rome where he is under house-arrest, waiting to face trial and the final act of service to his Lord and the Church. Death is in no sense a tragedy to be avoided. Paul is quite content to accept now that God requires nothing more of him. "I have fought the good fight. 1 have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

There is a real joy about Paul's final message to his friend. He is filled not with any earthly consolation but, with the confidence that he has already won the "crown of righteousness' which God has promised to those who persevere. Although he finds himself in exactly the same position as Peter at Jerusalem so many years before, the real resemblance is much deeper.

Paul has already been released from the only captivity that matters: "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully.

Matt 16. 13-19: Last week's Gospel gave us Luke's version of Peter's confession of faith. This week we turn to Matthew who, like Luke, has worked his own slight variaCson on Mark's original. He has also made an important addition: when Peter speaks up, saying "you are the Christ. the Son of the living God", Jesus replies: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church."

Why has. Matthew included these words of Jesus when the other two synoptics have ignored them? If we remember that one of the major interests of Matthew is Jesus' teaching about the living out of the life of the Kingdom an answer suggests itself.

Matthew's is El gospel of the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven is present on earth as the community of disciples — a community that is to be identified with Jesus himself:

But when did Jesus make plain his intention of establishing the Church? For Matthew there can only be one occasion: the very centre of the Gospel when the disciples led by Simon Peter, recognise the truth about the Messiahship of Jesus for the first time.

The fact that this is a decisive point is made clear by the change of name. Simon becomes Peter, "the rock" — not that it indicates anything about Peter's character, Far from it. Rather, as Jesus says. "It was not flesh and blood that have revealed this to you but my Father in heaven."

Peter's faith has made him firm, not any human quality, and as long as that faith endures in Jesus' disciples the gates of hell will never prevail over his Church.

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