Five Lessons on Faith From Peter’s Time in Jail

On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!

As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.

The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:

Rise! The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

Restrain The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.

Ready Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

Righteous Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

Not easy The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

Narrow The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.

Need an angel As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.

V. The Product of Faith There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).

Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!

 

That at Least Peter’s Shadow Might Fall on Them: A Challenge to the Church in the Acts of the Apostles

Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow, Masaccio (1426-27)

As this Easter Season is nearing a close, we do well to ponder the picture of the early Church described in the Acts of the Apostles. The kind of persecution and suffering they endured in those days should serve to remind us of the sacrifices we are often unwilling to make.

Yet these early descriptions are also an affirmation of what we in effect (at least structurally) are. In these descriptions we see the ministry of St. Peter, of the first apostles: bishops, priests, deacons, and the lay faithful. We see sacraments being celebrated and the basic structure of the liturgy set forth. In these passages our Catholic faith is strongly affirmed. We see the Church in seminal form, already with her basic form and structures in place, all of which are recognizable to us.

Perhaps, though, we should examine the more challenging part of these descriptions, beyond the structure to the sacrifice. In Acts 5, there is a challenging portrait for the Church. This brief passage goes deeper than structures. It points toward the fundamental mission of the Church, a mission in which she courageously proclaims the truth, summons new followers to Christ, brings hope and healing, and drives out demons.

This is where all the structure “meets the road” and bears fruit for the kingdom of God. Thus, in this brief passage are many challenges for us as a Church. With all our structure and all our organization, do we accomplish these basic works of God? That is the challenge of such a reading.

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets
and laid them on cots and mats
so that when Peter came by,
at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.
A large number of people from the towns
in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered,
bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits,
and they were all cured. (Acts 5:12-16)

Let’s examine this passage in four stages:

I. Courageous clergy – The text says, They were all together in Solomon’s portico. None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.

Note something remarkable: clergy—in this case the first bishops, the apostles—are out and about among the people of God! They are making a bold and public proclamation of Jesus Christ. They are not just speaking among friends or whispering quietly at closed Church gatherings. They are out in the Temple, the very stronghold of some of their most formidable opponents, risking arrest, detainment, and even their lives to announce Jesus Christ.

These are courageous clergy! They will not deny the truth; they will not compromise. Their own safety is secondary to them. They want only to announce Jesus Christ and Him crucified, to announce that He is Lord and Savior and that all must come to faith in Him in order to be saved.

Soon these apostles will be arrested for their bold proclamations (Acts 5:17ff). Yet despite this they will praise God that they were deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41). They will also experience rescue by God and see that no weapon waged against them will prevail.

The text says, “they were altogether in Solomon’s portico,” but the Greek word used is far more descriptive and specific than simply implying that they were all physically together in one place. The Greek word is ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) and means “to have the same passion, to be of one accord, to have the same desire.” It comes from homou, meaning “same,” and thumos, meaning “passion or desire.” In other words, these apostles were of one accord, one desire, one mind. They agreed on priorities and were focused on the one desire, on the one thing necessary.

Divided, we present an uncertain trumpet; and who will follow an uncertain trumpet? Oh, that we would see the kind of unity described here, wherein the apostles were in such agreement with one another. They preached coherently and with unity, Jesus Christ, crucified yet raised from the dead.

In these opening lines, we see clergy who are courageous, out among both the faithful and their enemies, boldly preaching, and unified in the essentials. This is a vision for the Church that is challenging and too often lacking today.

Pray for greater unity rooted in doctrinal truth and for clergy who are willing to preach the gospel in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2).

II. Engaged in Evangelizing – The text goes on to say, Yet, more than ever, great numbers of men and women, believers in the Lord, were added to them.

The essential work of the Church—job one, if you will—is the Great Commission: Go therefore unto all the nations, teach them all that I commanded you, and baptize them, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Here in Acts we see a Church focused on this essential mission: adding great numbers to those who know and love the Lord Jesus and are called according to His purpose.

Oh, that every pastor and every parish would understand that they have an obligation to bring every man, woman, and child within their parish boundaries to know the Lord Jesus and to worship Him in spirit and in truth. Too many parishes have an “enclave mentality” rather than an evangelical one.

The evangelization plan of most parishes amounts to little more than opening the doors and hoping people come. This is not enough. It is not sufficient to relegate evangelization to some small committee. Evangelization is the constant work of the clergy and all the people of God together. Every parish must be summoning every person within its boundaries to know Jesus, to love Him, to worship Him, to obey him, and to experience His healing power in Word, Sacrament, and in the Sacred Liturgy.

Too many of our parishes are merely buildings in a neighborhood, fortresses of rock, expanses of parking lot. Meanwhile, thousands within their boundaries either know nothing of Jesus or what they know is erroneous. Are the clergy and people out engaging their neighbors and being the presence to them? Or are they simply ensconced in the rectory or in the parish hall, having parish council meetings and debates about which group should sponsor this year’s spaghetti dinner?

Fellowship is fine, but evangelization must be first and foremost. Too often in our parishes we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We are too inwardly focused to be outwardly focused. Many souls are lost because we are not engaging in the primary work of evangelization.

If America has become a darkened culture—and it has—it happened on our watch. You can blame this on various factors, but we are the primary reason. We can’t just blame bishops or pastors. All of us allowed this to happen.

The early Church was engaged in “job one”: calling people to Jesus. What about your parish? What will you do to get the parish more focused on evangelization? Don’t just complain about your pastor; what will you do?

III. Hope and healing – The text says, Thus, they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.

Here is described the essential work of the Church, which is to bring hope and healing to the multitudes. We must stand four-square against many things in our culture today: abortion, fornication, promiscuity, homosexual acts, same-sex unions, and embryonic stem cell research. We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be defined simply by what we are against. We must effectively proclaim what we are for.

What we are for, fundamentally, is the health and healing of the human person, both individually and collectively. Today, vast numbers are among the walking wounded. They are devastated by the effects of sin, strife, and painful situations. Some have physical ailments, others, spiritual ones. Some have been victims of abuse, often coming from broken and dysfunctional families that are so common today. Still others suffer financially.

Do those who are suffering see and experience the Church as a place to find healing, support, and encouragement? Many people today assert that if there any rules at all, if there is any mention of sin at all, then it is not a place of healing or of love. This is a false dichotomy, for law and love are not opposed, but rather facets of the same reality. Because God loves us, He commands us. His love and His law are one and the same.

As a Church, we have a lot of work to do. We must re-propose the gospel to a cynical, rebellious age. Even though this work is hard, we are not excused from doing it. We must be known as communities of healing, places where sinners can find a home and hear the truth in love.

For too long now, we have allowed our opponents to demonize us. As our culture continues to melt down, as our families are destroyed, as the effects of sin loom ever larger, we must continue to articulate a better way: the way of Jesus. Is it hard? Sure! But it was not easy for the first apostles, either, and yet they did it anyway.

In this passage from Acts we see the amazement of many at the healing that was found even in the mere shadow of Simon Peter. The sick and the suffering were amazed at Jesus’ power, in His early Church, to bring forth healing.

Do we boldly request healing from God? Do we even expect it? Do the sick, the suffering, the addicted, and the tormented know that they can come to a Catholic parish and have clergy and lay people pray over them? Are parishes places where they know that people will walk with them in their journey of repentance and give them encouragement?

Or are we just going through the motions? Are we busy with parish meetings, figuring out how to raise funds for the next trip, or organizing the annual parish carnival? How are we known and perceived in the community? Are we a clubhouse or a lighthouse? Are we just some big meeting hall or are we a hospital, with ministry and healing for people with real suffering and sorrow?

A word about Peter’s “shadow” – The Church is called to engage individuals, both directly and indirectly. Because we are human beings, we do not always have the resources or the ability to engage everyone at a deeply personal level. But even here, the shadow of the Church is meant to fall on the community and bring healing. Perhaps this shadow is the ringing of the church bells. Perhaps it is the sight of clergy and religious sisters moving about the community in their religious attire. Perhaps it is processions of the faithful in May or on Corpus Christi. Perhaps it is the beauty of religious art and church buildings. Perhaps it is the memorable stories of the Bible, beautifully retold in poetry.

However she does it, the Church is meant to engage the culture, both implicitly and explicitly. It is clear today that the relationship between faith and culture has broken down. Holy days have been replaced by holidays. As the world becomes increasingly secular, it is even more important for us to celebrate our faith publicly, to make our presence in the culture widely known.

In recent times, Catholics have been all too willing to abandon their faith, their culture, their distinctiveness. The shadow of Catholicism no longer brings a moment of coolness in the heat of our cultural firestorm. Too many Catholics hide their faith. No longer do they wear signs of the faith or adorn their homes with Christian symbols. We have sought to fit in, to blend in, and have as a result become almost invisible.

The healing, cooling shadow of the Church and of faith must be felt in our culture.

IV. Delivering from Demons – The text concludes by saying, A large number of people from the towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered, bringing the sick, and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.

In this portion of the text, the Church is described as a place of deliverance for many who were troubled by unclean spirits, by demons.

One of the great mistakes of the Church in the 1970s was our retreat from the spiritual work of deliverance. It is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of many in the clergy, who have surrendered one of their most essential works and relegated it to the secular order.

It often happens that people arrive at our rectories troubled, tormented by demons. Perhaps they hear voices or experience a dark presence. Perhaps they are tormented by depression and anxiety. While there are psychological dimensions, we cannot and should not simply conclude that psychotherapy is all that is needed. People may need such help, but they also need deliverance.

The Scriptures are clear that demons and satanic influence are realities we face. Demons are active and operative in our world. While it is wrong for us to reject the help that psychotherapy and medical intervention can provide, as God’s ministers we must be willing to play our role: praying for their deliverance from the demons who torment them.

The faithful must also be engaged in deliverance ministry. Scripture does not present the deliverance from demons as merely a work of the clergy. The Lord gave authority to drive out demons not just to the 12 but also to the 72 (cf also Mk 16:17-18, inter al). Major exorcism is reserved to the clergy, but deliverance prayers are something we should all pray for one another.

A central work of the Church is to deliver people from the power of Satan, to transfer them from the kingdom of darkness unto the Kingdom of Light, to shepherd God’s people out of bondage and into freedom. When people come to us tormented by demonic incursions, we can and ought to pray for them. Parishes should be places where people can find clergy and others trained in deliverance ministry to lay hands on them and pray for their deliverance.

Deliverance ministry also involves walking with people for a lengthy period, helping them to name the demons that afflict them, to renounce any agreement with those demons, to repent, and to receive deliverance and the power of Jesus’ name. Any good deliverance ministry will interact with psychotherapy and medical intervention but will also insist on the regular celebration of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.

Deliverance ministry can and must become a regular feature of parish life once again. Priests and parishes must reengage in this work of the Church, of delivering souls from bondage and bringing them to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our freedom.

This passage is such a powerful and challenging portrait of the early Church! As Catholics, we have the glory of reflecting quite clearly the structure and form of the early Church, but structure alone is not enough. We must also be infused with and come alive again with the gifts described.

Share this reflection with your pastor, but do not make it all depend on him. Pray for him, but also take your own rightful role in the parish and in the wider community for effective change and powerful ministry. God deserves it, and his wounded people need it.

Of Peter and the Papacy – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, Perugino, Sistine Chapel

The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter, the Office of the Papacy, for Peter’s successors are the Popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.

Let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.

I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

In asking these questions, Jesus is not merely being curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle through which to teach the apostles (and us) about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.

Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods:

1. The Poll – Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times, we love to take polls; many put a lot of weight on the results. Many people—Catholics among them—like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about certain moral teachings, doctrines, or disciplines. Their position is that if more than 50% of Catholics believe something then it must be true; and therefore the Church should change her teaching.

As today’s Gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact, in this case all of the assertions of the crowd were wrong. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking does not seem be a model that works.

2. The Panel – Jesus now turns to a panel of experts, a “blue ribbon committee,” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is met with silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they appear foolish. The politics on the panel leads not to truth, but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.

Peter finally speaks up, but as Jesus will point out, he does not do so because he is a member of the panel, but for another reason entirely.

Hence the blue ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.

Through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions, or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forth to describe the plan of God in adequately setting forth the truths of faith.

II. The Individual that is Inspired – The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because someone else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he guessed and just happened to get the right answer. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspired Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.

God’s methodology, when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith, is to anoint Peter.

It is not polls or panels that God uses; it is Peter.

While truths may emerge in the wider Church reflecting what is revealed, it is only Peter and his successors who can definitively set forth views whose truth is adequately guaranteed. Thus, the other apostles are not bypassed by God, but He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.

The Catechism says this of Peter and his successors, the popes:

When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them …. The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 880-884 selected).

All of these truths point back to the moment described in today’s Gospel, when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.

Note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because he might have the power, riches, or other worldly means to impress us or compel our assent. No, we assent to the pope’s teaching because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not flesh and blood in which we put our trust; it is God Himself. We believe that God has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by Him.

III. The Installation that is Initiated – The text says, And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. 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.

Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further, declaring that He will build His very Church upon Simon, whom He names Peter (rock). Jesus does not merely mean this is a personal gift or recognition that will die with Peter. In giving him the keys, He is establishing an office. He is not merely giving Peter a personal promotion. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).

This makes clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors in the future), so that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.

Many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to provide a complete response to every objection, but frankly most of them amount to a kind of wishful thinking by those who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly does. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing Peter and an office, which will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.

It is also true that we are living in times that have tested many Catholics who have traditionally been the biggest supporters of the papacy. For many, our current pope has been a source of controversy rather than unity. And yet the office endures; it remains our duty to pray for and respect him, and to seek to maintain unity. Concerns for some of his statements should be expressed with charity and manifest good will. Although St. Paul saw fit to express his dismay over some of St. Peter’s prudential decisions (see Gal 2:11), we should remember that St. Paul was a bishop and apostle. Thus Catholics who have concerns today would do well to work with bishops to express their concerns, whether their own bishop or one they know they can approach.

Truth be told, “If no one is pope, everyone is pope.” Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the pope with Scripture, giving it sole authority. Yet Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves, in effect becoming the very pope they denounce.

I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant, to claim that there is a pope or to in fact act like one myself?

In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. I think that this figure is exaggerated, but not by much. They all claim the Scriptures as their source of truth but differ on many essential matters: the necessity of baptism, “once saved, always saved,” sexual morality, and authority. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide.

Jesus has installed an individual in this role to manifest his office of rock and head: Peter and his successors.

When did the Resurrection become truly the Faith, and the official teaching of the Church?

In the early hours of the resurrection appearances on the first Easter Sunday news began to be circulated that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were, at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. Various reports from both women and men were dismissed by the apostles. But suddenly in the evening of that first Easter Sunday there is a change, and a declaration by the apostles that the Lord “has truly risen!”  What effected this change? We will see in a moment. But first note the early reports of the resurrection and how they were largely disregarded:

  1. The women who go to the tomb first discover it empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is most specific indicates that Magdalene went straightway to Peter and John and speaks anxiously, not of resurrection but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. But meanwhile the other women have had a vision of an angels who declare that Jesus had risen and that they should inform the apostles. They depart to do so. Here is first evidence though the risen Lord had yet to appear.
  2. John sees and believes – Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women had departed. They saw only the empty tomb but it was clearly not grave robbers for the expensive grave linens were lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text said, John saw (the grave clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had said? Or does the text mean he came to believe in that moment that Jesus had risen? It is not clear but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does this mean that the Church now officially believes that Christ has risen because one of the apostles (one of the first bishops) believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait for later in the day. Peter and John depart the tomb.
  3. Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and, after they leave, Jesus appears to her. Here is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this now mean that the Church officially believes that Jesus is risen? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. For scripture testifies that Jesus appeared elsewhere to the other women who had gone to the tomb but that when Mary Magdalene and the other women report that they had seen Jesus risen, the apostles would not believe it (Mk 16:11; Luke 24:11) Hence, though we have appearances we cannot yet say that there is any official declaration by the Church that Christ is truly risen.
  4. Jesus appears also to two disciples (not apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus that late afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance they run to tell the apostles who, once again, do not believe it (Mark 16:13). So now we have had at least three appearances but no official acceptance by the Church’s leaders (the apostles) that there is any truth to these sightings.

So when does the resurrection become the official declaration of the early Church? Up till now the stories had been rejected by the apostles as either fanciful or untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the 12 (John) was not enough to cause an official declaration from the early Church. So, what causes this to change? It would seem that, after the early evening report by the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk, or some other purpose, and according to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34) the risen Lord appeared to Peter privately and prior to the other apostles. Peter then reports this to the others, and the resurrection moves from being doubted, to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded thus:

The Lord has truly risen indeed, he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

The resurrection is now officially declared. Notice, the world “truly” (some texts say “indeed”). It is now an officially attested fact that Jesus has risen. Neither Magdalene, nor the women in general, nor the disciples from Emmaus, nor even John, could make this declaration for the Church. It took the college of apostles in union with Peter to do this. Hence the dogma of the resurrection becomes so on very Catholic terms: The first bishops (the apostles) in union or in Council with the first Pope (Peter) make this solemn declaration of the faith.

When I wrote a similar article some years back, some argued in opposition that the Church “did not exist” at this point since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time” (For I think she did exist, but had simply not been commissioned to go forth to the nations as yet, that would wait for Pentecost. Further even if one will piously hold Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, and the Church’s existence surely also precedes her “birth”). But let us side-step the whole debate by holding saying that this exercise of the Church’s teaching authority in this event is proleptic. That is to say, what would fully be the case later, is here seen operative in an anachronistic, yet real manner (For example, Mother Mary is saved by Jesus and preserved from sin not apart from Christ’s saving act, but in a proleptic way, in anticipation of his saving grace). Thus, the apostles and their office which were fully operative after Pentecost, are here active as the result of a prevenient grace, an anticipation of the future reality of the Church to teach authoritatively out of her basic structure and the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully or widely at some later time.  But again, I stand by my point that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a proleptic but in fact a proper action of the magisterium at this very point.

But did the women and the laymen’s declaration mean nothing? In fact it does. And the Lord upbraids the apostles  later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance. But he does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration, for in the very next verse he commissions the apostles to go forth and preach and teach in his name. Surely the Lord was not pleased after he had promised many times to rise from the dead that they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have concluded it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise and connected the dots? Did he have to personally appear before they would believe?

Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men, far from it. But they were the leaders he had chosen, knowing their weakness. So too for today, the Church’s leaders are not perfect and may take far too long at times to make decisions or give clearer teachings or impose necessary discipline. But, in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.

This whole event also teaches us that the bishops and even the Pope are not always the first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. The more frequent pattern is that the Lord begins reforms and sends apparitions, not to the leaders, but among the faithful. Reform movements and messages are often received there first, and only later does the Church, through her anointed and appointed leaders, affirm or uphold certain things as worthy of belief, and set aside others as problematic.

Finally it should be noted that one of the apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth he still refused to believe (Jn 20:25). Here too the Lord is merciful to him but in the end is clear that Thomas has fallen short. And Thomas has fallen short in a more egregious manner, for he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church, not merely disbelieved the testimony of one or a few disciples. Jesus goes on to declare blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). That’s us!

It is the Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us….On the Council of Jerusalem and the Catholicity of the Early Church

 

In the first reading at Today’s Mass we have recounted for us the Council of Jerusalem which scholars generally date to around the Year 50 AD. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent from the culture of Judaism per se, and it would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had significant impact upon evangelization in the early Church.

Catholic Ecclesiology is Evident here: in that we have reflected here a very Catholic model of the Church in terms of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with. In effect what we see here is the same model the Catholic Church has continued to use right to our own time. What is evident here, and in all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, is a gathering of the Bishops presided over by the Pope which considers a matter and may even debate it. If necessary, the Pope resolves debates where consensus cannot be reached. Once a decision is reached, a letter is issued to whole Church and the decision is considered binding.

All these elements are seen here, though somewhat in seminal form. Let’s consider this First Council of the Church in Jerusalem of 50 AD, beginning first with the remote preparation –

1. Bring in the Gentiles! – The Lord, just before he ascended gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles are now to be summoned  and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.

2. But it looks like the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. It is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the Sermon of Peter and 3000 converted. By they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems the Church did little, at first, to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere, let alone to the nations.

3. Perhaps as a swift quick in the pants the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek into Samaria at least. Samaritans however are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a groups that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th Century BC. There is also the Baptism of an Ethiopian Official but he too was a Jew.

4. Fifteen Years?! The time line of Acts is a bit speculative. However if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (esp. in Galatians) it would seem that we are dealing with close to 12 or 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There were, of course, strong racial animosities between Jew and Gentile that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It explains, but does not excuse it.

5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord went to Peter who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and, by means of a vision, taught him that he was not to call unclean what God had called clean. The Lord then sent to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official who was seeking baptism. He, of course was a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter go with them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God had given him, he decides to go. In Cesarea he does something unthinkable. He, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. Peter has learned his lesson and been guided by God, as the first Pope, to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius, and the whole household, and signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter has them baptized. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10)

6. It is a  fact that many were not happy with what Peter had done, and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision, and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and insists that this is how it is going to be. While it is a true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it. What Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has definitively answered them, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically: “God has granted life giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:19)

7. Trouble Brewing – So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that  they were not like Jews, and began to insist that they must be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish Law; not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites etc. That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.

8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke is a master of understatement and says “Because there arose no little dissension and debate….” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet and,  of course,  Peter is there, as is James who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the apostles, and would later become bishop there. Once again Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).

In effect Peter arises to settle the matter since, (it would seem), that the apostles themselves were divided.  Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Now Peter fulfills this text, as he will again, and every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who it seems may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.

So there it is, the First Council. And that Council, like all the Church-wide Councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops, in the presence of Peter who works to unite them. A decision is then made, and a decree, binding on the whole Church,  is sent out. Very Catholic actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it for they have no Pope to settle things when they dispute. They have split endlessly into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope every one is pope.

A final thought. Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from Councils of the Bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way it is not just some bishops and the Pope as men, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks with them.

The Church – Catholic from the Start!

The Fifth and Sixth Marks of the Church

The Nicene Creed fittingly noted four marks of the True Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These marks identify four essential qualities and characteristics the Church has and they distinguish the True Church from any false claimants. Now we, of course cannot add authoritatively to this venerable list. Nevertheless permit me a couple of “prayerful additions” to the four marks of the Church. These cannot join the official list but I humbly submit these “marks” for your consideration to serve in a similar way to distinguish the True Church from false claimants and to give insight into the Church’s truest identity.

The 5th Mark of the Church: Hated. Jesus consistently taught us to expect the hatred of the world if we were true disciples.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. (John 15:18-20).

Or Again: All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub,how much more the members of his household! (Matt 10:22-24)

Or yet again, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:26)

One of the more painful aspects of Church life, yet also one of the aspects of which I am most “proud” is that we are hated especially by the world. It is true that some of the Evangelicals are ridiculed but few can deny that a very special and intense hatred for the Catholic Church and is widely on display. It’s never OK in our society (nor should it be) to scorn Jews or Muslims and to mock or attack their faith traditions. Most of the other Christian denominations (except the Evangelicals) also escape much hatred. But the Catholic Church, ah the Catholic Church, now it seems open season on her. We are scorned, badly portrayed in movies, our history is misrepresented, our sins (and we do have them) are exaggerated, our teachings called bigoted, backward, unrealistic, and out of date. And no matter how ugly, bigoted and inaccurate the world’s hatred is, very few if any express any outrage at how were are treated and misrepresented. Try any of this on the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, et al. and the outrage and claims of bigotry are echoed by the media (and well they should be). Meanwhile Dan Brownet al. get to go on and on about “evil” priests and bishops, a crucifix can be submerged in urine or the Blessed Mother smeared with dung and this is praised as “art” and funded by government grants.

I am not complaining (though these things are wrong). I am actually quite hopeful that this means we are doing something right. We are a sign of contradiction to the world and we are hated for it. We speak the truth to a world gone mad and we hold on to that “old time religion.” That we are hated puts us in good company with Jesus and the prophets and martyrs who stood with him. If we are really doing what we should be doing, the Church ought to experience significant hatred from the world. So hatred by the world is an essential mark of the Church if you ask me. We do not look to be hated. Neither do we look for conflict. But in preaching Christ crucified, in preaching the whole counsel of God and not some watered down version of it we surely do find hatred and conflict comes to us. Some people and denominations try to fit in with the world. They accept its ways and comprise the clear teaching of Christ. But the True Church speaks the whole truth of God in love and does not cave to the world’s demands. The true Church, by Christ’s promise, is hated by the world and those allied and wedded to it. But no need to fear…the sixth “mark” is here!

The Sixth Mark of the Church – Perduring – To perdure means to permanently endure. Here too Christ firmly established this principle and promise to the true Church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it(Matt 16:18).

There are no governments or nations that have lasted 2000 years. Very little else in this world can claim such antiquity and even if it does can it claim to have remained essentially unchanged in its dogma or teaching? The Catholic Church is one, even after 2000 years. An unbroken line of Popes back to Peter and an unbroken line of succession for all the Bishops back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands. Not bad. Now consider that this is a miracle! If the Church were depending on human beings to exist and stay unified how long do think she would have lasted? Probably about twenty minutes, max. Our history is not without some pretty questionable moments, in terms of the human elements of the Church. That the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church certainly suggests they would try again and again. But here we are, a miracle. Still standing after all these years. Christ is true to his promise to remain with us all days unto the consummation of the world. We, the human elements of the Church may not live teachings of Christ perfectly, but the Church has never failed to teach what Christ taught even (as now) when the world hated us for it. At times we are tepid and struggle to find our voice, but Christ still speaks and ministers even in our weakness. Yes the Catholic Church is a miracle, the Work of Jesus Christ. And thus the sixth Mark of the Church is that she perdures. By God’s grace we exhibit this sixth mark. Nations have come and gone, empires risen and fallen, eras opened and closed, but through it all we perdure.

So there it is, I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic, (and if you don’t mind me saying), hated and perduring Church.

Here’s a very interesting hip hop song by the rapper Akalyte on these two additional “marks” of the Church.

What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority

In the readings for daily Mass the past few days we have been reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. The story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help correct notions that some have of Paul’s rapid assent to the office of apostle (Bishop) and affirm that he was not a lone-ranger apostle. He was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on Mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows forth an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction in hierarchal structures.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation and ascent to the office of Apostle (Bishop). Many have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion, and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references assume that Paul went right to work after his conversion as a missionary. But this was not the case.

At the time near his conversion Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen he had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  Immediately following his encounter with Christ he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19). Hereafter, according to Galatians, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went, and for how long is not known. It is probably not wrong to presume that he went there to reflect and possibly be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of at least a year seems tenable and perhaps as many as three years. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus and joined the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While there he took to debating in the synagogues and was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped for messiah that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him. He fled the city and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). Paul states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter since he had begun to teach and even now was gaining disciples. Later he would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles…so that I might not be running, or have run in vain (Gal 2:2).  While there on this first visit he stayed for 15 days and  also met James.

After this consultation he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown. Barnabas then arrived and asked him to come to Antioch and help him evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there about a year. He made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor and upon his return to Antioch we finally see his ordination as a Bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). Thus, the leaders of the Church there laid  hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on Mission. Here we have an ordination and the source of Paul’s status as Apostle (bishop).

Notice however, this sending happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we account his time in the desert we are talking about 7-10 years wherein Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and also conferred with Peter. He was not a self appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. This going-forth he undertook only after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – We can see therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught to Peter and later to others apostles and leaders (Acts 11 & 15). He states that to have preached something other than what the Church proposed would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2). Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority. Here was man who went forth on his missions only after  he was ordained and sent. Further, Paul and Barnabas, as they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23). Upon completion of their first missionary journey they reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was no. He both respected authority and established authority in the churches he established. He also makes it clear to the Galatians and others that he has authority and that he expects them to respect it.

3. But here is where we also see a fascinating and somewhat refreshing portrait of what true respect for authority includes. It is clear, from what we have seen, that Paul respected the authority of Peter and had both conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that he preached. However, there is also a description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. It understands that having authority does not mean one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.  Too many of us flatter those who have authority. In so doing we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need to make good decisions. And then we they do make questionable decisions we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their face. Rather we speak ill of them behind their back and continue to remain largely silent and flattering to their face. The cycle continues, and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. We as Catholics teach of the infallibility of the pope but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach (believe me, I know).

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one we must speak to has authority. People are often reticent to speak frankly to their Pastors. Bishops too are often isolated in this way. Even their priests often refrain from frank discussion of issues. In this Archdiocese I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues at the priest council, and other consultative bodies.

Clearly correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Now Paul here is a little bolder than I would be but he also lived in a different culture than I. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings Jesus and the Apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vivid discussion of issues that included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a more gentle approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated: Clarity with Charity.

In the end, we show a far greater respect for authority by speaking clearly and directly to those in authority. False flattery is unhelpful, inappropriate silence does not serve, and speaking scornfully behind the backs of others is just plain sinful.

So Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter here. He acknowledges Peter’s authority as we have seen but also respects Peter enough as a man to speak with him directly and clearly, to his face, and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark that Paul made it out of Roman prison and went to Spain. But there are two traditions in this regard:

A Distinction without a Difference, Or a Distinction to Die For? Wrestling with the Subtleties of John 21:16 – Peter Do you Love Me

One of the great indoor sports of New Testament Biblical Scholarship is how to interpret the subtleties in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel. It is the classic interaction wherein Jesus asks, “Peter do you love me?” And Peter responds “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.” This exchange occurs three times. But to us who read the passage in English some of the subtle distinctions in vocabulary are lost. There is an interplay between two Greek words for love, Agapas and Philo. Jesus asks of Peter’s love with one word, but Peter responds with another. There is also a subtle shift in the use of another verb meaning “to know.” Peter moves from odias  to ginoskeis. Both can be translated “you know” but again the question is why the shift and how should this be interpreted?

No one disputes these  facts about the Greek text. Allow me to reproduce the well known dialogue with the distinctions stitched in:

Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I love (philo) You.”

But there are the facts. But here is where the debate begins. The central questions are these:

  1. Is there any real distinction to be made between agapas and philo? Or is it a distinction without a difference?
  2. Although modern Christians make a sharp distinction between agape love and filial (philo) love, was such a distinction operative in ancient Greek or where these words merely synonyms that were simply interchangeable?
  3. If so, why does John and the Holy Spirit record these different words for love? Is there really no purpose at all?
  4. And why does John shift from using the verb odias (you know) to ginoskeis? the same questions would prevail.

The answers to these questions admit of many possible answers. Now if you put three Greek scholars (or three scripture scholars) in a room together you’re going to have at least 17 opinions. But for the sake of brevity let me set forth two basic opinions or interpretations:

1. The use of different words for love is highly significant. Jesus is asking Peter for agape love. Agape love being  the highest and most spiritual love wherein Peter is called to Love Jesus above all things and all people, including himself. But Peter, finally being honest says to Jesus in effect, Lord you know that I love you (only) with brotherly love (philo se).  Jesus is not disappointed for entrusts the role of chief Shepherd to Peter anyway. But again he asks for agape love and Peter answers the same. A third time Jesus asks, but this time he comes to Peter’s level and says, in effect, “OK Peter then do you love me with brotherly love (phileis me)?”

And this all makes Peter sad who now becomes more emphatic and says  Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I (only) love with brotherly love (philo). Note here that Peter’s exasperation includes a shift in the verb “know.” He shifts from the verb oidas (meaning more literally “you have seen”) to the verb ginoskeis (meaning a deeper sort or perception that includes understanding).

So perhaps the final sentence translated with these distinctions in mind would read: “Lord! You have seen everything; and you understand that I (only) love you with brotherly love.”  The Lord then goes on to tell Peter that one day he will die a martyr’s death. Almost as if to say, “Peter I DO understand that you only love me now with brotherly love. But there will come a day when you will finally be willing to die for me and you will give over your life. Then you will truly be able to say that you love me with Agape love.”

This first opinion obviously takes the distinctions in the Greek text as very significant and interprets them to the max. It results in a beautifully pastoral scene wherein Jesus and Peter have a very poignant and honest conversation.

2. The second opinion or interpretation is there is no significance in the use of different Greek verbs for love or know. The main reason for this opinion is rooted in the view that among Greek speakers of the First Century there is no evidence that they used these verbs to mean significantly different things. It is claimed that Agape was not understood in the early Centuries of the Church as God-like, unconditional love. That meaning came only later and then only among Christians, not among pagans.

There seems to be a scriptural basis for the fact that the early Christians had not reserved apape and philo for the exclusive meanings they had later. For example “agapao” is sometimes used in the New Testament  for less God-like loves. Two examples are the Pharisees loving the front seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43) and Paul’s indication that Demas had deserted him, because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10). Further, God’s love is sometimes described using “phileo“, as when he is said to love humanity (John 16:27) or even once when the Father is said to love Jesus (John 5:20).

More evidence is also deduced from the silence of the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church who do not make mention of this distinction in the verbs for love when they comment on this passage. One would think that had the subtle distinctions been significant they would surely have dwelt upon it.

 Hence, rooting itself in historical data this second opinion and interpretation sees little significance if any in the fact that Jesus and Peter are using different words for love.

So there it is. The great indoor sport of Scripture Scholarship: understanding and interpreting the subtleties of John 21:15ff. For myself I will say that while number 2 seems a compelling argument against opinion 1, I will also say that I cannot wholly reject that,  if opinion 1 isn’t true,  it OUGHT to be. I find it strange that these different verbs are being used and that we are to conclude absolutely nothing from it. The subtle details of John’s Gospel are almost never without purpose. SOMETHING is going on here that we ought not ignore. Peter and Jesus are subtly interacting here. There is a movement in their conversation that involves a give and take that is instructive for us.

It also remains a fact that not all Greek Scholars accept that Agape and Philo were simply synonyms in the First Century.

The silence of the Greek speaking Fathers is surely significant. But it also remains true that Scriptural interpretation did not end with the death of the last Father. Further, I have found that I, who speak a little German am sometimes better able to appreciate the clever subtleties of German vocabulary than the those for whom  it is the mother tongue. At a certain point we can become rather unreflective about the subtle distinctions of the words we use and it takes an outsider to call them to our attention. I never really appreciated the more subtle meanings of English words until I studied Latin.

Hence, for me it is still helpful to see the distinctions in this text even if some historical purists find no room for them. I simply cannot avoid that a key message is available to us in the subtle shifts in vocabulary here. As always, I value your comments and additions to this post. Do we have here a distinction without a difference, a distinction to die for or something in between? Let me know what you think!