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Wednesday 29 June 2022: Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Rescued by the risen Christ
Acts 12:1-11; Ps.34 (33):2-9; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19

By John Deehan
Parish Priest of Kentish Town

Context: a mixed (mainly middle-class) congregation, some with a strong desire to go deeper in their understanding of scripture
Aim: to reflect on God’s rescue of us in our lives by reflecting on the story of Peter’s rescue from prison, which mirrors both the story of Paul and Christ’s own Resurrection

While Saints Peter and Paul are remembered separately on other days in the Church’s year, their most solemn feast day celebrates them together. The Orthodox Church also celebrates the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, regarding it as so important that it is preceded by a time of fasting.

Peter and Paul were very different individuals with very different backgrounds. Peter the fisherman was called by Jesus and followed him during his lifetime and beyond; Paul, skilled in Jewish Law, might have known of Jesus by hearsay but did not come to know Jesus personally until after His resurrection. Peter was one of the Twelve; Paul was not. On matters of practice Peter and Paul had different outlooks and we know from Paul’s writing that their relationship had its tense moments.

But both were fearless preachers of the gospel; both were pastors; and, above all, both gave their lives for Christ, ultimately being martyred in Rome. So, though we honour them as distinct individuals, we can also honour them together. Indeed, in eastern iconography Peter and Paul are portrayed together, both sustaining a building symbolising the Church. What we say of one, we can also say of the other.

This unity is expressed in all three readings today. In the gospel Jesus promises Peter that the gates of Hades – the forces of death – will never ultimately prevail against the Church. In the second reading Paul acknowledges that ‘he was rescued from the lion’s mouth’, while in the reading from Acts we hear the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. Both apostles could testify, in the words of today’s psalm, that ‘the angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them’.

Speaking of angels, let us focus on our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, the rescue of Peter from prison. Long before Acts was written, Saint Paul had written of his experience as a preacher of the gospel – how he had been persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed, carrying in his body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be revealed. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter undergoes a similar experience, but the way the story is told suggests that his experience is a retelling of the death and resurrection of Christ. Peter’s imprisonment takes place at Passover time, when Jesus was crucified. The prison is a place of darkness, a symbol of death and the victory of the forces of death, until it is filled with the light – the light of the resurrection, the prelude to Peter’s release from prison. Just as, in the words of Peter himself, when he preached at Pentecost, ‘God did not abandon Jesus to the prison of death,’ so Peter himself was not abandoned by God in his prison but woken up from sleep to escape certain execution by Herod.

All this happened during the Feast of Passover, the Feast of the great liberation of the Israelites; a liberation not from Herod but from the hand of the King of Egypt who wished to exterminate them. So, Peter is told to dress himself and put on his sandals, just as the Israelites were told to dress themselves and put sandals on their feet before going on their way – passing over from the land of slavery to a land of freedom. Peter is led out of prison by an angel, just as in one of the tellings of the Exodus story in the Book of Numbers it was said that God sent an angel to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.

Peter and Paul were the first great preachers of the gospel, the story of how Christ, through his personal Passover of Death and Resurrection, rescued us from what Paul calls ‘Sin’, an alien power that causes us (as Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans – 7.15) to ‘fail to do the good we ought to, and do the very things we hate’. Though Peter and Paul did heroic things for the sake of the gospel, they still had to struggle against Sin and allow themselves to be rescued by the power of God. In today’s reading from Acts we see that it takes Peter time to realise that all that he saw in his prison cell was really happening and not just a vision. Just as it was only when Jesus left the disciples at Emmaus, so it was only when the angel left Peter that he realised that God was at work in his rescue. It may take us a while to realise how God is at work in our lives too.

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