These Apostles have long been seen as the two most important leaders of the early Church. Peter is listed in three gospels as the first called of the disciples, and always appears at the top of the list of the ‘Twelve’. St Paul received a visionary call after the resurrection of Christ, and took a special role as the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’. Both of them were martyred in Rome.
This is the text that gives the background for our parish name of St Peter in Chains, though I would say that the main point of the story is how St Peter got out of his chains. This selection shows how early the persecution of Christians began. Such a miraculous rescue would not be the usual result for many, nor in the end for Peter, but at this point clearly there was much more preaching and other work that God intended him to do.
Luke, the author of Acts, says while Peter was imprisoned, the Church in Jerusalem was praying for him – although he does not specify that the prayer had had the effect of Peter’s release. This may be a reminder to us of the command to pray for our fellow Christians. In our time, Pope Francis from his first appearance as Pope on the balcony of St Peter’s has asked people to pray for him, a consciousness of the weight of his office, and also the solidarity we are to have as followers of Christ.
Most fittingly, this psalm celebrates an occasion when the psalmist has been rescued from his enemies. It also emphasises the role of angels in protecting God’s people, which came visibly true for Peter in his chains.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
In this reading, we have the voice of Paul at the end of his life, when his death – traditionally by beheading – was coming close. This explains the words of being ‘poured as a libation’ which is a comparison of a martyr’s death to the rites of the Old Law, when wine would be poured on the altar as a form of sacrifice. Paul here, as in many of his letters, speaks of his dependence on God for all the work he had to do. He also mentions previous attempts when he was threatened with persecution or death – some of these are detailed in the book of Acts. His Letters tell us of some more, and of his being imprisoned at various times, up to his final jailing before death.
This story of the ‘commissioning’ of Peter appears only in the gospel of Matthew. Mark and Luke also tell of Jesus’ asking his disciples what they say of his role, and both also record Peter as the one who responds with the answer of ‘the Christ’. Matthew’s further words of Jesus stress that it is God who is the source of Peter’s faith – reminding us that the same is true for all disciples – our faith is in response to God’s first coming to us.
The second part of the story gives us the source of Peter’s name, with a pun which is lost in English. In a more literal translation of the Greek text, the words of Jesus would be, ‘You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church’. The pun works in Aramaic (the everyday language Jesus spoke) and in Greek and Latin. I would prefer, that in modern speech, we had kept the meaning rather than using a form of the name derived from Latin. Then we would be calling him ‘St Rock’. The image of ‘cornerstone’ on which a physical building would be based was an image applied both to Christ and here to Peter as the person who would be the primary leader in a community of people united under Christ.
‘Gates of hell’ – gates represent a stronghold, as in a fortress, so the image is of overcoming all the powers of evil. There is a story I have not been able to verify that at the pagan shrine of Caesarea Philippi where this account takes place, there was an opening of an underground spring that was known as the ‘gates of the underworld’. If this is so, Jesus as so often would here draw use his surroundings to make his point.
The powers of ‘binding and loosing’ which refer to governing within the community will be extended later to all the apostles in Matthew 18:18.