Matthew 16: 13-19
As is appropriate for two men who were constantly in danger during the course of their apostolic ministries, the Lord’s desire and ability to rescue those in trouble is made clear in each of the readings and in the responsorial Psalm on the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles describes how Peter miraculously escaped from imprisonment when an angel appeared to him and: “The chains fell from his wrists… they passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself”. Thinking over this remarkable series of events Peter concludes, “I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod” (Acts 12:7-10).
In the responsorial Psalm we apply the Lord’s power to rescue the weak and vulnerable to ourselves as we pray: “The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him” (Ps 34:8). Paul too feels the reassuring strength of God’s rescuing hand; he writes: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom” (2 Tim 4:6-7, 18).
Peter and Paul, and all of us, thus fall under the providence of God which saves and protects us. At the same time we all have experienced moments when we were not “rescued” when we would have liked, and even long periods when we feel entirely bereft of God’s salvific power. If we read the scriptures for today once more, and think about the lives of those mentioned, we might come to a more realistic, or even cynical, assessment of God’s ability to rescue his people.
Peter is indeed dramatically rescued from jail, but the words spoken of him in John’s gospel: “You will stretch out your hands, and someone else will bind you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:19) would be fulfilled a few years later, when Peter was crucified in Rome during the reign of Nero.
The Jewish people praise God for his saving power in the Psalm, though they have not always experienced such definitive victory over their foes, as the horror of the Shoah silently witnesses.
For his part Paul “fought the good fight” and won for the moment—but eventually was killed by his persecutors.
The key to this seeming tragic contradiction is that which is the ultimate instrument and goal of God’s saving activity: the kingdom of heaven. Paul foreshadows this in his words: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom”, and Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ mediation of God’s rescuing power is manifested in the same way: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:18).
Just as the authority of the keys which was conveyed to Peter and the proclamation of the gospel made by Paul were both empowered by and directed toward the kingdom of God, so too all of our human expectations of salvation and renewal in God must have their definitive and final aim in the kingdom rather than in the present world.
As the Church commemorates these two great heroes of the faith, who were central to the foundation of the early Church, and who were closely united to the person and mission of Christ, we have the opportunity to renew within ourselves our hope in the God who saves his people not along the lines of our desires, but according to his own gracious will and providence, bringing us home to our true home, the kingdom of heaven.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.