Monday, June 29, 2009

The One Foundation of Apostles

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, now and for ever. Amen.

I took these pictures of the statues of SS. Peter and Paul at the Vatican in the fall of 1998. Unfortunately, the Vatican and nearly every other major church in Rome was in the process of preparing for the Jubilee Year of 2000 and the Millenium. The scaffolding business was booming, to say the least, with the result that I got a lot of good pictures with scaffolding in the background!

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) decided to replace older statues of SS. Peter and Paul with these current larger ones on Easter 1847. Each of the statues is 5.55m in height, on a pedestal 4.91m high. The previous pope, Gregory XVI (1831-1846) had commissioned Giuseppe De Fabris to sculpt this statue of St. Peter for St. Paul Outside-the-Walls from 1838-1840. The statue of St. Paul was sculpted in 1838 by Adamo Tadolini. He had studied in Bologna under the direction of De Maria; in 1813 he came to Rome, like De Fabris, and came to the attention of Canova, the greatest sculptor of the period, who took him into his studio.

It's not necessary to delve into all the traditions, legends and speculation about the last days of these two great men of God and their final witness of martyrdom. That has been done much more extensively and expertly by others. Suffice it for me to say that Peter and Paul are two saints whose humanness has resonated with my own. Both of them, in my view, were extremely good at heart and ultimately passionate about the One who'd call them, each in very different ways, to the ministry of proclaiming Him to the world.

I identify with Peter in his weakness of betraying Jesus out of fear and human respect, but also in his deep sorrow for that and in his uncompromising devotion to Jesus from then on. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." Another time, at Caesarea Philippi, he'd avowed: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." I can identify with his sometimes timorous, cautious approach to the ministry of the Gospel, the waffling back and forth between service to Jews only or to Gentiles.

Paul is even more of a favorite of mine, primarily because we have his Epistles and because of that Paul seems to me to be like a better known friend. I can identify with him as Saul, the rigid, by-the-book, self-righteous zealot who knew that his view was the correct one, the only one, and that people who disagreed needed to get over it and fall in line: even if that meant sometimes doing despicable things to them. His searching mind and heart also resonates with me: how even in the midst of his experience on the road to Damascus, literally knocked off his high horse, Paul could
searchingly ask: "Who are you, Lord?" Once he'd had three days in Damascus, alone, blinded, neither eating nor drinking, Ananias had come to him, laid hands on him, and then he'd experienced the direct power of God's Spirit within. It was as if someone had flipped a unidirectional "zeal switch" on in him. He got up, was baptized, spent several days listening to the leaders and disciples of the Christian community in Damascus, then headed straight to the synagogues, which he knew like the back of his hand, only this time bearing a new, radical, highly unpopular message for Jewish ears: "[Jesus] is the Son of God." From then on there was no stopping Paul. I can identify with his one-track agenda to do what he had to do, no matter whose toes might be stepped on, Christian or otherwise. Amazingly, this highly qualified, connected, and ardent Jew became a missionary, an apostle -- one "sent" -- to people way outside the pale of either Jewish or Christian culture: to Gentiles, people of the nations, of the world. Not that he ever forgot his own people and where he had come from, by God's grace. His writings reflect the deepest respect for his tradition by birth, and probably out of deference, though Jews of his time wouldn't have seen it this way, he always made it a point to begin his sharing of the Good News in the local synagogue, no matter how many times they ran him out of there.

In our current struggles of grappling with issues about people and classes of people who are often excluded, locked out, discrimnated against, and worse, the words and lives of SS. Peter and Paul give us much to think about.

Think, for example, of Peter, as ardent a Jew as Paul was, whom God enlightened through a dream experience at Joppa that Peter "must not call profane" anything created "clean" by God, especially any human creature. Luke tells us that Peter "was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen". Then Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort in Caesarea, where coincidentally (?!) Peter had proclaimed Jesus "Messiah", sends messengers, under God's bidding, to Peter to come to his home and share the Good News. Peter is still all confused about all this, as his awkward words to the people assembled at Cornelius' home shows: "You know, I'm sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don't do this -- visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked. But now I'd like to know why you sent for me..." [translation from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson] Cornelius shares the vision he had received while at prayer, then, having put two-and-two together, a light bulb goes off in Peter's brain: "Peter fairly exploded with his good news: 'It's God's own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you're from -- if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open..."

Paul spoke of inclusivity constantly throughout his Epistles. One could make that theme alone a useful study. "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him."
(Romans 10:12) "...God has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory -- including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles..." (Romans 9:23-24) "...the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel..." (Ephesians 3:6)

Those of us who have chosen to be partners in the cause of justice and freedom for all people can confidently "stand firm upon the one foundation" which these two great men had a hand in laying.

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