Commentary on the Gospel of
Today we honor the martyrdom of two apostles who both were killed in Rome. St. Augustine refers to their feast day in one of his sermons, indicating its long pedigree in our tradition. He suggests that choosing a single date to celebrate their deaths, which likely occurred on different days, honored their oneness in following our Lord. Can we join with them in that solidarity?
The first reading from Acts tells us about Peter’s miraculous liberation from Herod’s prison. Herod was killing and jailing people associated with the Church because it would please his constituents. Herod even put extra guards on Peter because he wanted to make a spectacle of Peter’s captivity, demonstrating his power. But those security measures were no match for an angel.
Herod is adrift without a moral compass, guided only by self-interested efforts to shore up his power through seeking approval from others. This condition is unstable, sad, and miserable. Others who also lack a moral compass can prove fickle; pursuing their will leads to emptiness and dissatisfaction. People-pleasing successes are fleeting. Later in Acts, we learn that Herod basked in the praise of the crowd, who flattered him after a speech. (Do you think he couldn’t tell he was not that great?) Afterwards, he was stricken dead by an angel of the Lord and eaten by worms. (Acts 12:20-23). That is quite an object lesson!
Human nature is remarkably stable. Seeking approval while ignoring the right thing sadly persists across the ages. But the witness of truth persists, exposing this human weakness. We don’t need dramatic signs to know that digesting a little food for thought (with a dash of humility and a pinch of respect for others) will produce a better outcome than people-pleasing hubris, and maybe even keep us from an undesirable end.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul senses that martyrdom is near. His metaphor about finishing a race and receiving a crown resonates with those of us who have trained hard to compete, perhaps experiencing satisfaction from a strong performance. That crown is not an exclusive prize for one winner, but it is awarded to all who run well. I am amazed that Paul remains confident, even though he senses that the end may be near. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom.” This was still true even if he did not escape death. Can we likewise hold on in the face of lesser tribulations?
Today’s gospel gives us the memorable exchange between our Lord and Peter, in which he promises to build his enduring Church. The Church is also referenced in Acts as the object of Herod’s wrath. But Herod gets eaten by worms while the Church continues to grow despite hardship and threats. Another object lesson! Can you imagine how the apostles must have felt when they recalled these words from our Lord during events unfolding in their day? Do we have the same sense of wonder about the persistence of the Church in our day?
Lord, let us walk with you in faith, not in fear of disapproval from others. Reassure us that you are loving us along the way, glad for our companionship, weak though we may be. Allow us to grow into the faith that Paul and Peter showed us in their day, that we may live worthily in our day and lay hold of the crown that awaits all who run well. Thanks be to God.