Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul: Apostolic Reconciliation

In January we observe both the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter and the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.  Then, at the end of June, we also observe the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.  What is the difference?  Why are there two feasts in January and then the one in the Summer?  The January commemorations recall profound and life-changing events in the lives of these two mighty men of God.  The observance in the Summer commemorates their martyrdoms.

The famed Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea records that

“It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.  This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.” (Church History 2.XXV.5)

After listing several witnesses who verify these facts, Eusebius then quotes “Dionysius, the Bishop of Corinth,” (remember him from Acts of the Apostles 17:34) who wrote in his own Epistle to the Romans,

“You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in  our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” (2.XXV.8)

It is not really remarkable that these two saints worked so well together.  One would expect that two Apostles would be able to accomplish incredible feats for the Kingdom of God when they put their heads together.  It is not remarkable, that is, until you realize how catastrophic was their dispute a few years previously.

After the death of Saint Stephen, when many of the Christians in Jerusalem scattered abroad to avoid persecution, St. Peter was summoned to preach to Cornelius the Centurion, a gentile.  When Cornelius and his household accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the Holy Spirit fell upon them and St. Peter declared, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)  Similarly, when ordained by the elders at Antioch, Saints Paul and Barnabas, along with Saint Mark, began what has become known as the First Missionary Journey.  When rejected by the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia (in Asia Minor), the Apostles declared, “We turn to the Gentiles” and quoted the Prophet Isaiah we he declared, “I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:46-47)  The remainder of the First Missionary Journey is filled with accounts of gentiles becoming Christians.

Thus, Saints Peter and Paul were on the same page when it came to whether or not the Gentiles could become followers of Christ.  There is no record that either Apostle attempted to make their new-found converts adhere to the Law of Moses.  So when the two men found themselves together at the Council of Jerusalem (ca. 50AD), each man only affirmed the testimony of the other.  Upon hearing the testimony of Saints Peter and Paul, Saint James the Just, the brother of Jesus, as the first bishop and ruling elder of Jerusalem, came to the conclusion that gentile converts to Christianity need not follow all of the Law of Moses.  Instead, they would only need “to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:20)  The gathered assembly agreed with this decree and a letter conveying this message was sent to Antioch with Saints Paul and Barnabas as well as Barsabas and Silas, two men from Jerusalem.

According to Acts of the Apostles, there was never a conflict between Saints Peter and Paul and the subsequent conflict between Saints Paul and Barnabas arose over the issue of whether to take Saint Mark, who had failed them previously, along on their second missionary journey together.  That, however, is not the same story which St. Paul himself reveals in his Epistle to the Galatians.

St. Paul suggests that St. Peter had come toAntioch and had mingled with the Jewish and Gentile Christians quite thoroughly until a conflict arose.  St. Paul writes,

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.  And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11-13)

St. Paul gives an account of just how articulately he presented his argument against St. Peter in the remainder of the second chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, but never recalls the outcome of the conflict.  We do know this, however: Saints Paul and Barnabas split up after this encounter and never went on another missionary journey together and St. Paul left Antioch and returned only briefly once more (Acts 18:22).  On the other hand, Eusebius, as well as other sources, records that St. Peter ministered in Antioch for quite some time before moving on through Corinth to Rome, and regards him as the first Bishop of Antioch.

We do not really know the specific details of the conflict between Saints Peter and Paul at Antioch.  But it is important to remember the words of Eusebius which were quoted earlier.  “For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.”  We might even draw special emphasis that they taught together inItaly.  Those who attempt to make much ado of the perceived conflict between Saints Paul, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos should recall that St. Paul informs the Corinthians that he “figuratively transferred” the conflict upon themselves “that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”  (I Corinthians 4:6)  We should also take note that St. Peter ultimately spoke quite highly of St. Paul.  In his second epistle, St. Peter admits that the writings of St. Paul are among the Holy Scriptures when he writes,

“and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”  (II Peter 315-16)

Neither history nor Holy Scripture record the specific details of the disagreement between the two Apostles.  Neither history nor Holy Scripture record the specific details of the reconciliation of the two Apostles, but we do know that they were reconciled and they that they served the Lord God mightily together in both Corinth and in Rome.  We also know that, within a few months of each other, they each went to a martyr’s death under the Emperor Nero, St. Paul being beheaded while St. Peter was crucified upside down.  In its inability to inform us history teaches us another lesson.  The fight is not nearly as important as the reconciliation.  The issues that drive us apart are not nearly as important as the work that we can accomplish together for the Kingdom  of God.  May we, like Saints Peter and Paul, have the grace to lay aside our differences, forgive the wounds of the past, and work together to further the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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The Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the Ministry of the Pre-Born

June 24th is unique on the calendar of Christian saints.  Typically we venerate and observe the life of a saint on the day on which they, as Hamlet remarked, “shuffled off this mortal coil” and went to their eternal reward.  June 24th is one of only two Christian holidays which celebrate someone’s birth.  The first is, hopefully quite obviously, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which everyone simplifies as Christmas.  The second, which precedes Christmas by six months, is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  This dating reflects the message of the Archangel Gabriel when he gave the Blessed Virgin Mary this proof of his own message saying, “Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.” (St. Luke 1:36)  If St. Elizabeth were six months further along than the Blessed Virgin Mary, then it stands to reason that St. John the Baptist would be born six months ahead of Our Lord.  (Hey, kids!  It’s six months until Christmas!)

So why is this day unique among all Christian feasts?  We know that Our Lord declared, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist,” but He went on to say, “but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (St. Matthew 11:11)  So why is St. John the Baptist unique?  According to St. Luke’s Gospel was anointed by the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb.  Nowhere else in Holy Scripture do we see that miracle taking place. 

When the Blessed Virgin Mary travels to the hill country of Judea to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, St. Luke informs us that:
“…when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.  Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (St. Luke 1:41-45)

St. Elizabeth is anointed with the Holy Spirit and prophetically interprets her unborn child’s action as rightful discernment that the coming Messiah and His blessed mother had come within earshot.
 
The life and ministry of St. John the Baptist practically speak for themselves, but this one passage, before the saint ever breathed his first breath on his own, reminds us of something we rarely see so clearly in Scripture.  It reminds us that the Lord’s hand is on the unborn children or, in some circles, the pre-born in their mothers’ womb.  There are dozens of passages that have been taken up as evidence of the sanctity of life in utero.  In Psalm 139, David proclaims,

For You formed my inward parts;
         You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
         Marvelous are Your works,
         And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
         When I was made in secret,
         And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
         And in Your book they all were written,
         The days fashioned for me,
         When as yet there were none of them. (vv 13-16)

Three times the Prophet Isaiah refers to the Lord as “He who formed you in the womb” (44:2, 24; 49:5) and the Lord Himself declares to the Prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.” (1:5)

We also know from both Deuteronomy and the Acts of the Apostles that “God shows no partiality.”  (Deuteronomy 10:17 and Acts 10:34)  Thus, if He could anoint one child to prophesy he could anoint all of them.  In our reflections on this day, we ought to walk away with a sense of compulsion to pray for those we know who are pregnant.  We ought not just pray for the safety and health of the mother and child, but also that the Holy Spirit might be upon those children from before they were born.  In our parish, we pray that our children might never know a moment outside of God’s love and the love the His Church.  From the moment we hear the joyful news of a pregnancy, we ought never stop praying that child be filled with the Holy Spirit from inside the womb.  We ought to speak over the pre-born children around us and declare, using the words of St. Zechariah,

“You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (St. Luke 1:76-79)

Furthermore, we must thoroughly, passionately, and articulately reject the deceit-filled lie foisted upon society which asserts that which is growing within a woman’s body is nothing but a mass of cells.  We must completely dismiss the notion that a woman may dispose of the child growing within her body at any time and for any reason.  That which the Almighty has created is not a lump of cells; it is not that which may be disposed of for the sake of someone’s convenience or comfort.  That which grows within a woman’s body is an agent of the Lord God Most High who may be filled with the Holy Spirit even from before birth.  It may be one day that a great many people will have to answer to over fifty million of those agents of God who never drew their first breath.  What a dread reckoning that will be.  May God have mercy on us all.  May God give us that same grace which He gave St. John the Baptist to stand up to the Herods of our day.

Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Why Pentecost?

An Icon of the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost

Every year, we celebrate the birthday of the Church on Pentecost.  It was on that day, almost two thousand years ago, when the Holy Spirit anointed the Apostles and the Church was transformed from a less than two dozen frightened disciples holed-up in someone’s attic into a divinely inspired movement of over three thousand believers.  But why did such a momentous event happen on that day?  Why did God choose that day to reveal His glory in such a way?  Why Pentecost?

The answer lies in the Jewish roots of the festival.  Those roots are a little hard to trace since the Jews never called the event Pentecost themselves.  That was what the Greeks named the event later.  The Jews call the feast Shavuot, of the Festival of Weeks.  Those “weeks” refer to the seven weeks proscribed by Moses in Deuteronomy 16 and begin the day after the Passover.  As such, Shavuot is fifty days after the Passover and the Greek phrase for “fifty days” comes to us as Pentecost (think of pente and in the Pentagon).  The festival had a double focus and really celebrated two different occasions.

First, Pentecost was a celebration of the end of the grain harvest is Israel.  As such, one of the many names of the festival is the Festival of First-Fruits.  In the Book of Numbers, the children of Israel are instructed to bring their “first-fruits” to Jerusalem on the Festival of Weeks. (28:26) Farmers in Israel would regularly survey their fields and, as soon as they saw fruit beginning to ripen, they would fasten a reed to the fruit.  When the Pentecost came around, they would gather those first-fruits and present them to the Lord in the Temple. 

In the twelfth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus.  Our Lord answered them by saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.  Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (vv. 23-24)  A few days later, Our Lord would be crucified and die on the Cross.  Fifty days later, the birth of the Church would be the first fruits of Jesus’ ministry!  Jesus was the grain that “falls to the ground and dies” and in doing so, seven weeks later, He did produce much grain.  In Jerusalem, the priests and rabbis and all Jerusalem saw the first fruit offering which Our Lord presented in the Temple.  That offering was Church empowered by the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  That first fruit offering was over three thousand men!

A second aspect of Pentecost was a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  According to Jewish Biblical scholars, Exodus 19 takes place fifty days after the Exodus and, thus, fifty days after the first Passover.  In many Jewish communities, Pentecost is observed by studying the Torah, five Books of Moses, throughout the night. 

The prophet Jeremiah foretold the events of the first Christian Pentecost in this way:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (31:31-33)

As of the first Christian festival of Pentecost, the Law was no longer written on tablets of stone; it was written on the hearts of believers throughout Jerusalem.  No long was the covenant exclusively for the faithful Apostles and mere handful of disciples who had not fled after the crucifixion; the New Covenant was open to all who would receive it. 

Finally, the Festival of Weeks was one of the three Pilgrim Festivals in Israel.  According to Exodus 34:18-23 as well as Deuteronomy 16, faithful Jews needed to travel to Jerusalem three times each year: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkoth, or, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  Thus, when St. Peter and the Apostles burst forth from the Upper Room, they found the streets of Jerusalem flooded with devout Jews from throughout the Ancient Near East who had come to honor the Lord according to the traditions laid down in the Law of Moses.  In short, they found an enormous audience that was eager to hear what God was doing!

So, why Pentecost?  The festival of Pentecost was a harvest festival where the faithful brought their first-fruits into the Temple to offer them to the Lord and the Church was the first fruit of the seed which Our Lord planted when He died on Calvary’s Cross.  The festival of Pentecost was a festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost fulfilled the prophesy which foretold that the Law of the New Covenant would be written on the hearts of believers in stead of on tablets of stone.  Finally, Pentecost was a Pilgrim Feast and Jerusalem was filled with devout believers who were ready to hearken unto the word of the Lord.  May we continue to see ourselves as the Lord’s offering, recall His Law written on our hearts, and be always ready to hear the Word of the Lord when it is presented to us.

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Saint Barnabas: The Man Behind the Missionary

Saint Barnabas may be one of my new heroes of the faith.  Throughout this Easter-tide, I have been teaching a Bible study on The Acts of the Apostles and, of course, St. Barnabas figures prominently in that text.  I believe that is where my fondness for this apostle has begun.  Most Christians will recall that Barnabas was a companion St. Paul and a fellow missionary along-side that apostle.  Most do not recall that St. Paul owed much of his ministry to his lesser known companion nor can they imagine what the world might have been like without St. Barnabas.

When St. Barnabas first appears, we are told his real name is Joseph (Joses) and that he was a Levite from the island of Cyprus. St. Barnabas is given as an example of the apostolic communal living in that he sold the land which he owned, “brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”  (Acts 4:36-37)  As such, we find that the Apostles name him “the Son of Encouragement” or Barnabas.  From that point, he is no longer known as Joseph, but rather as Barnabas instead.  For much of the next five chapters, we hear nothing more from this exemplar of early Christian life.  The next time we see him is with Saul, newly converted, has tried to find the Apostles in Jerusalem but is unable to do so because no one trusts the former persecutor of the faith.

Keeping in mind that Saul, prior to his conversion had not been able to persecute enough Christians in Jerusalem, so he sought permission from the High Priest and went to Damascus in order to root out the Christians in that city.  Piecing together the story from Acts 9 and Galatians 1 and 2, we may deduce that St. Luke omitted St. Paul’s three-year sojourn in Arabia (Galatians 1:16-17) and that the “many days” spent in Damascus (Acts 9:23) included a three year hiatus in the wilderness of Arabia.  So, to the Apostle who had remained in Jerusalem, there might have been some rumor, carried by a pilgrim of merchant, of one who had persecuted the believers being himself converted, but then there was nothing more heard for three years. 

When St. Paul finally decided to present himself to the Apostles in Jerusalem, “they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26)  It was only Barnabas who, presumably led by the Holy Spirit, would overcome the very reasonable fear and trepidation, and bring this alleged convert before the Apostles.  St. Luke tells us that St. Paul stayed in Jerusalem for a time but, after drawing death threats, was sent to Caesarea and on to his home town of Tarsus.  (Acts 9:29-30) St. Paul recalls in his Epistle to the Galatians, that he remained in Jerusalem only fifteen days and encountered only St. Peter and St. James, the Brother of the Lord. (1:18-19)

There is another lull in the activities of both Saints Barnabas and Saul for two more chapters.  We when next hear of the pair, St. Paul is residing in Tarsus, apparently living a somewhat reclusive existence, and St. Barnabas has been sent by the Apostles in Jerusalem to look into the fledgling Church forming in Antioch.  Once more, and, again, presumably led by the Holy Spirit, St. Barnabas leaves Antioch and travels into Cilicia to retrieve St. Paul.  The two return to Antioch and minister together in that city for more than a full year before being commissioned by the leaders in Antioch to begin the “First Missionary Journey.” 

Consider that, were it not for St. Barnabas, St. Paul might never have made contact with the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Likewise consider that, were it not for St. Barnabas,St. Paul might have continued toiling away in obscurity in Tarsus.  He might never have been called to Antioch and thus never be sent out on the voyages God had ordained for him.  Without these journeys,St. Paul might never have travelled to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, or Thessalonica.  He would not have encountered Saints Timothy, Titus or Philemon.  The entire Canon of New Testament Scripture would be reduced by almost one-third!  What would have happened in these cities and to these people without the ministry of St. Paul?  What ministry couldSt.Paulhave had without the ministry of St. Barnabas?

History and tradition tells us that St. Barnabas had a vital and thriving ministry in the Mediterranean after his unfortunate split from St. Paul.  We know that he mentored and encouraged his cousin St. Mark in much the same manner as he did with St. Paul.  He nurtured St. Mark back from having abandoned the missionary team in Pamphylia to a point where St. Mark became an important aid to both Saints Peter and Paul, founded the Christian Church in Alexandria, Egypt, and wrote one of the four canonical Gospels. St.Barnabas was the encouraging spirit who brought the best in ministry out of both Saints Paul and Mark, yet it was not his calling to be as celebrated as either man.

The Feast of Saint Barnabas is a major feast in the Church not because he was one of the twelve Apostles or one of the four Evangelists, but rather because he was a catalyst that brought two of those men’s ministries out to their fullest.  Maybe we are not called to be celebrated as a great hero of the faith in years to come.  Maybe it is our calling to bring out the very best in the young men and women around us.  Maybe they will be celebrated in the centuries to come and, having long since received our rewards, we can be satisfied with having been a Barnabas to those mighty men and women of God.

Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well-being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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