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June 29 – Peter and Paul

El Greco — 1587-1592. In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (once appeared on a USSR stamp).

Today’s Bible reading

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins,destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:35-40

More thoughts for meditation about Peter and Paul

The feast of these two great spiritual ancestors is celebrated on the same day, June 29th. Tradition holds that Peter and Paul were martyred in June of the year 67 A.D. (in some traditions, on the very same day), while living and ministering in Rome during the reign of the infamously brutal Emperor Nero.

This day became an important feast on the Christian calendar to solemnize the memory of their martyrdom. It was highlighted in the 4th century when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, Romulus and Remus were the hero-twin founders of pre-Christian Rome. The rise of Christianity in the 4th century inserted Peter and Paul in their place.

The two great leaders of the first church do not appear to have had a consistently harmonious relationship (like most of us!). On the one hand, there was a confrontation between them at the Syrian city of Antioch over whether a community of both Christian Jews and Christian non-Jews (Gentiles) should all observe Jewish kosher food rules or not. Here is Paul’s report on the dispute:

Until certain people came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. — Gal. 2:12-13 NRSV

This is strong language. Paul accuses Peter of being two-faced: abiding by Jewish dietary laws when pressed by his fellow Jews but freely ignoring them when in Gentile company.

On the other hand, Peter made mildly negative comments on Paul. They are not as harsh in terms of name-calling, but they criticize Paul’s letters in a sweeping manner:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. — 2 Pet. 3:15-16 NRSV

Lamp from the Medici collection belonging to lamp originally given to Valerius Severus, a member of a powerful Roman family, in honor of his conversion to Christianity
Early 5th century ivory belt buckle discovered beneath the cathedral of Castellammare di Stabia, a city near Naples, Italy.

How did fourth-century Christians reconcile Peter and Paul to become the hero-twins of Christian Rome?

The two fourth or fifth-century artifacts above show how Peter versus Paul became Peter and Paul. The objects correlate with the efforts of Pope Damasus I, who sought to raise the profile of the Church (and the papacy) in fourth-century Rome.

The first item is a bronze hanging lamp in the shape of a ship under sail. It shows Paul standing in the prow piloting the ship, with Peter seated in the stern at the tiller. Together, they are guiding the church through the sea of life. Who is more important, the one piloting or the one steering?

The second is an ivory belt buckle. It shows Paul to the viewer’s left and Peter to the right rushing toward one another and into a full embrace. Peace, reconciliation, and apostolic harmony are fully established.

The New Testament does not record the deaths of Peter or Paul, or any of the Apostles except for James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2). But their martyrdom is clearly anticipated. From an early date it has been said that they were killed at Rome at the command of the Emperor Nero, and buried there. As a Roman citizen, Paul would probably have been beheaded with a sword. It is said of Peter that he was crucified head downward, upon his request. Their churches, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome were built on the respective locations of their martyrdom and burial.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) writes in Sermon 295:

Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; And even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.

Want more?

Reflections on the day from the Franciscans.

The 80’s movie.

PBS documentary.

Suggestions for action

Martyrdom is a spiritual gift which few desire. But the church was founded and continues to stand strong because of people who give their lives of for the cause, regardless of the opposition.

Appreciate the brave people who have safeguarded and delivered the faith to you.

Ponder the opposition that threatens you and how Jesus will strengthen you to stand in the face of evil.

 

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