Frances writes on the Readings for St Peter & St Paul : – Today we are celebrating the two foremost apostles of the Church. How are we to make sense of the readings set for this day? If we simply take them at their face-value we will get something from them, but if, as I suspect, we are meant to probe further; then something altogether deeper and more pertinent to ourselves emerges.
Peter, according to Acts, (12:1-11), has a miraculous escape engineered by an angel. Now in the ancient world meetings between the divine and humans were considered so dangerous that the safest thing was to meet the god or gods in dreams, and ancient shrines like those of Apollo or Aesculapius had huge underground ‘dream-chambers’ where devotees went to commune with the god. Just what is going on with Peter, and how are we to understand this miraculous rescue?
Let’s look for a moment at other divine ‘rescue’ stories in the Bible. First of course are those of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, with the Exodus and then later the crossing of the Red Sea and later a similar story of the parting of the waters of the Jordan as they entered the Promised Land. Much later we have the story of Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal and his escape from retribution, and even later, the humorous tale of Jonah and the whale. What these stories share is the sense in which those involved are then sent on to do something else, in the case of Jonah, to convert the Ninevites. How then are we to read the story of Peter? Clearly he didn’t leg-it and live securely in some secluded retreat! In some shape or form, this story prepares him and us for his transformation, from a rather disorganised and fickle man into the person who will become the leader of the Church and its great martyr in Rome. What Peter experiences in his dream seems to be a moment of great clarity; there is no hesitation or arguing on his part but calm relaxation into the divine plan – the purpose of which is to take him on his mission and ultimately to his death as the great Christian leader in Rome.
In our gospel, (Matthew 16:13-19), we hear of Jesus’ commissioning of Peter. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” All too often our lives are hedged about by uncertainty and hesitation; we just don’t know what the right thing to do is, the needs of ourselves, our families and others, and all sorts of imponderables, intrude upon our decision making. But just occasionally we all have those moments of absolute certainty, of clarity when we know that a particular decision we have taken is the right one, and we make it with clear and quite untroubled minds, relaxed and utterly at peace, at home with our decision. I just wonder if this ‘miraculous escape’ in Acts, and the gospel commission of Peter, aren’t about such moments in his life.
When Paul wrote to his loyal follower Timothy, (2 Tim 4:6-8, 17-18), he had already realised that he could not survive much longer, and he approaches this with calm and composure, confident that under God’s grace he has achieved what the Lord had asked of him. “My life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone.” The interesting thing here is the language he uses to describe his situation and the condition in which he finds himself; for it is the language of Olympic athletes who trained for the Greek games, schooling their bodies and sacrificing to the gods, things all his readers and hearers would have found very familiar and meaningful.
In the great footrace there was only ever one winner of the stadion, the 210 yard sprint; the oldest of the Games, dating from the 8th century BC. Winning was everything, there were no second and third prizes, and men trained for this the greatest moment of their lives with care and devotion. Would be winners trained for months with rigid focus and commitment, punishing their bodies by diet and exercise, honing them to perfection. Winners in the games could be certain of eternal memorial by their cities, and we still have memorial inscriptions from all over the Greek world, celebrating heroes of the foot and chariot and wrestling bouts. Winners returned home, certain of colossal acclaim, the superstars of their age and would have been financially set up for life. Losers of course slunk home, dishonoured nobodies. For Paul, his ‘trainer’ was the Lord who, “Stood by me and gave me power,” shaping and moulding him for his work. Paul’s fare-well message to Timothy therefore is not some sad departure tale, but rather his triumph song, as he knows that his name will be ‘written in lights’, will endure for ever, just as it did for Olympians, and because of this he too, like Peter, and hopefully, like us, can relax into the Lord, perfectly comfortable in the actions we have done in God’s name, even when for us those things might be small and apparently inconsequential.