This Sunday happens to coincide with the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29. This feast speaks of the union of Christ with his Church.
The entire Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the pattern of Jesus being repeated in his apostles, especially in Peter (the first half of Acts) and Paul (the second half). Our reading from chapter 12 gives a nice example. “King Herod laid hands upon some members of the Church to harm them.” The most famous example is in chapter 9, where Jesus appears to the future Paul and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” But throughout, those who would attack Christ, attack his Church, and those who attack his followers are said to attack Christ.
In this story of the persecution of Peter, Acts emphasizes, “It was the feast of Unleavened Bread” – Passover, when Christ himself was sacrificed. And Passover, fulfilled in the Eucharist, by which believers are united to the crucified Christ.
Though Peter will later be crucified like Christ, this time he is delivered. “Peter, secured by double chains, was sleeping between two soldiers” – just as soldiers guarded the dead Christ, and stood around his cross.
But here we relive the resurrection: “a light shone in the cell.” The angel said, “Get up quickly,” and “the chains fell from his wrists. . . . So he followed him out. . . . Then passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself.”
The angel leads Peter from the grave.
Similarly, in our reading from Second Timothy, Paul says, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom.” “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” They follow their liberator, through death to life.
Paul is joined to the death of Christ, “poured out like a libation.” But he knows that Christ is in heaven, and “The crown of righteousness awaits me.”
Notice the delicacy of both stories, where on the one hand Peter and Paul are identified with Christ, and on the other hand, it is clearly Christ himself who liberates them, not they who liberate themselves.
Now, this is true of all the saints. Like Peter and Paul we are all united to Christ in his death and resurrection.
Yet Peter and Paul are special. The Church sees a special image of herself in Peter, so that in our reading from Acts, when Peter was imprisoned, “prayer by the Church was fervently being made.”
And though Paul says, “the award to me on that day” is “not only to me, but to all who longed for his appearance,” he also reminds us that the Lord gave him particular strength, “so that through me the proclamation might be completed.”
As Augustine says, they are Christians with us – but they are also apostles for us.
Our reading from Matthew 16, the profession of Peter, takes us deeper into Peter and Paul’s special ministry to the Church, which is in all its members the true Body of Christ.
When Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus commits to him a threefold gift. Perhaps we can see it the threefold ministry of prophet, priest, and king, which correlates to the ascending virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
First Jesus says, “upon this rock I will build my Church.” Through Peter we have a place to stand, and “the gates of the netherworld will not prevail” against us. But this is not yet action.
The rock is like the prophetic office, the teaching office, that shows us what to believe. In our faith, guaranteed by the profession of the Apostles and their successors, we stand secure.
Next Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.” Not only do we have a place to stand, but we have the possibility of entering into heaven. This is the ministry of the sacraments, which give us the possibility of coming into God’s presence. This is our hope.
But finally, Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is the ministry of leadership, the kingly ministry, by which the Apostles and their successors set the rules which bind together the Church as communion of love. The rules, the binding and the loosing, are at the service of ecclesial communion.
By giving us a Magisterium, the Sacraments, and the common life of the Church – by giving us the Apostles and their successors – Jesus gives us a deeper union with him.
Try to think of specific decisions of your bishops and priests where you can more profoundly discover the union of the Body of Christ.