Both of the giants of the faith that we celebrate today—Peter and Paul—experienced the rescue that these words of the old hymn sing about. Peter, after all, was the disciple who denied that he even knew Jesus when the servant girl questioned him in the high priest’s courtyard; but the prayers of Jesus (Luke 22:31) turn him around and strengthen him to lead the rest of the disciples after Easter and Pentecost. And Paul was that zealous persecutor of the Christian movement (“breathing murderous threats,” Acts 9:1) who needed to be confronted by the risen Jesus in person before he saw the light, and was changed from premier persecutor to prime promoter of the Christian mission.
Both of these men also experienced the Lord’s rescue in dramatic physical ways. Today’s reading from Acts shows Peter enjoying a miraculous release from prison; and the rescues that Paul refers to in the letter to Timothy he itemizes in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, where he lists multiple imprisonments, beatings, a stoning, three shipwrecks, and “a night and a day on the deep.”
The lives of Peter and Paul demonstrate that the life of a disciple is a life that knows God as rescuer, finding oneself on the receiving end of divine love. This shows up even in today’s famous “thou art Peter” Gospel reading.
When Jesus asks the Twelve, “But who do you say that I am?” the impetuous Simon bar Jonah stumbles remarkably into the right answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Jesus congratulates him that he got that right not because of any insight of his own but because Jesus’ heavenly Father revealed it to him. Whereupon Jesus dubs Simon with the nickname Kepha (or “Rock,” Petros in Greek), and goes on to say, “And on this kepha (petra in Greek) I will build my church.” So Simon will be the material foundation of the new community (pictured metaphorically as a temple); but the builder is clearly Jesus. How much Simon will still need “outside help” to carry out his role as Rock becomes clear a moment later, when he objects to Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death in Jerusalem, and Jesus calls him “Satan” and “stumbling stone” (the meaning of skandalon, translated “obstacle” in verse 23 of the New American Bible). Without God’s help the foundation stone can become a stone of stumbling, a cautionary note for all of us who are given authoritative roles in the church—i.e. everyone from the pope, through bishops, priests, and deacons, to teachers, spouses, parents and friends.
As always, when we celebrate heroes of the faith like Peter and Paul, we celebrate what the grace of God can do with mere human flesh.
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