St. Peter and St. Paul: A Hagiography

by Andrew Bartus

June 29, 2008
Feast of Ss. Peter & Paul

It was the year 64 A.D. and you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. The crowd below the Palatine Hill was awaiting the declaration of Emperor Nero concerning an influential Jew named Simon Peter. Why had this man the direct attention of the emperor himself? Who was this Judean who caused the King of Kings to turn his head? Hardly was there any such instance in history when the Lord of the Romans ever personally dealt with political troublemakers! But this was no mere political troublemaker, nor was he any mere Judean. This was their leader. He was the chief person who all the religious zealots turned to. If you had him, you had their movement; but if you had him you also had chaos. These so-called “Christians” were causing trouble among the Jews around the entire Empire and finally—after one Paul of Tarsus had caused trouble even among the Greeks—their main leader brought the trouble to Rome itself! Rome! Who does this man think he is? Does he not know that Rome already has its own gods and that Nero himself is god on earth? How dare he! But the people below the emperor’s palace were divided: some clearly wanted this zealot killed, some just wanted him sent away from Rome and peace to return, and of course many of his own followers wanted him released. The Roman guard was ready for whatever decision that Nero made, training their swords inward towards the restless crowd. But as the scribe came out upon the balcony of the palace to read the decree down to the people below, they all became silent. The shouts and cries quickly became a murmur, till finally, only the chirping of the occasional sparrow and the flapping of the imperial banner could be heard. Silence. Waiting for the decision to be announced. What was it?

Roughly thirty years prior, Peter sat awaiting the verdict of his own leader, Jesus of Nazareth. But the crowds of those days were not so divided on what they wanted to happen to Jesus. The “blasphemer” is to be killed they made clear. And for this reason Peter was scared. A man he had followed for those many years before was inciting this kind of reaction from his own countrymen? Maybe, just maybe this Jesus was not who he said he was?

“Hey, were you friends with Jesus of Nazareth?”
“I am not.” lied Peter.
“Aren’t you one of the disciples of Jesus?” he was asked again.
“I am not, I say!” Peter lied again.
“But I’ve seen you with him! I know you were in the garden with Jesus!”
“Not me, you idiot! I do not know that man!”

The rooster’s crow immediately following his third denial made him sick to his stomach. The man who Peter knew to be Lord and God but who was rejected by the very people he came to save…that man, that God, Peter had denied in a fit of uncertainty and fear. In embarrassment Peter ran away to find solitude, to come to terms with what he’d actually done. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus had previously taught Peter and the other disciples, “and NO MAN comes to the Father but through me.” What an exclusive claim! How intolerant! But Peter knew Jesus was serious. If he is the true Incarnation of the Son of God, then he provides the only way to eternal life. And Peter just denied even knowing him! The gravity of that denial was too much to bear. But Peter also knew that Jesus came not only in truth, but also in grace.

Just as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Christ Jesus came to save sinners. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. And it was this truth, this grace of repentance that came rushing back to Peter. While Jesus hung on the cross in the distance, Peter remembered what he told him about his encounter with Nichodemus, the Pharisee who came to him secretly. “If you wish to be with God,” Jesus told Nichodemus, “then you must be born again.” Of course Jesus explained that it was not only a metaphor for being baptized, but about how every time you sin, if you would acknowledge to God that you have sinned and ask for forgiveness, then he will always grant it.” This Peter remembered when the earthquake came as he saw his Lord whom he denied in the distance on the hill. At that point, Peter knew Jesus was dead. What was he to do now that his leader was dead? But three days later, he was told that Christ has risen! And then he remembered Christ’s promise that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. This is what he meant! Hope then welled up in Peter. He knew then what he must do. And when Jesus appreared to him and the other disciples after his ressurection, he pulled Peter aside and said:

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; You know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus asked him:
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord, just as I said before, you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”

Being confused by the repeat of the question, he was surprised when Christ asked him yet again:
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?”
(Crying Now) “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”

As soon as the third response was given, it hit Peter: “This was Christ’s way of forgiving my three denials!” Indeed, just as Christ was killed physically on the cross, Peter was killed spiritually by his three denials. But Just as Christ was raised to life on the third day, even so was Peter raised to new life in Christ by his three-fold confession of Jesus as Lord and his love for him. By this restoration, Christ recognized Peter as the leader of the other apostles and commissioned him to take care of them. This extended to the spreading of the Gospel and the expansion of the Catholic Church around the world. This is why the successors of Peter—even to this day as the bishops of Rome (the Popes)—are still safe-guarding the core of the true religion taught by Christ himself, which is that Christ has come to seek and save the lost. And the lost are you and I. It is every person on this earth. We must all make sure that every day we repent of our sins and trust Jesus Christ alone to save us. And it is this restoration and healing that Peter experienced that so motivated him to risk his very life to tell others. He, like St. Paul among the Gentiles, spread the truth of the Gospel and started churches all over the Roman Empire. This is why the Jews were so upset and it caused problems everywhere he went. People’s lives were transforming and it was not in accordance with the Roman pagan religion. And this is what ultimately brought Peter to Rome, to found the church there that still exists today. This congregation had such an immediate impact on the local citizens of Rome that—together with the global impact Christianity itself was having around the Empire—caught the attention of the Emperor Nero. Nero did not like any challenge to his own assumed diety nor to his right as supreme king. And Peter brought the message of a huge threat.

“Death by crucifixion!” The announcement was made. That was it. The people erupted in ear-splitting cheers, raising their hands. Jumping. Pushing. Screaming. Peter was ushered out onto the balcony by a Roman guard next to the announcer. People began to throw things upward in hopes that they would reach Peter. Shirts. Fruit. Knives. Shoes. Whatever they could throw. The guards below were preparing for a riot, spears and swords turned toward the increasingly unruly crowd. Then, just as they were going to usher Peter towards the Vatican Hill near the circus for his gruesome execution, Peter raised his hand to make a request. The crowds again quickly began to quiet down to hear Peter. His lips were moving but the murmurs still overpowered his voice, until it finally became completely silent and Peter could be heard.

“If it is to the cross I must go, then remember it is also by the cross you are saved. The tree of death is actually the tree of life. But if I must also die on a cross, please place me upside down, for I am not worthy to die in the same manner as my Lord.”

Silence. No more jeers or laughs. No more cheers or screams. Silence. Before Peter died, while on the cross, he quietly said, “As I am upside down, I embody mankind who in Adam fell head-first into sin. You who see me ought to turn away from your sin and embrace the One who is the new Adam who redeems us from our old natures. The word of God is the upright beam on which I am crucified, and the nails that hold the crossbeam upright are the conversions and repentance of men.” With that, the people watched reverently as Peter struggled with his last breaths, and then died. Several people around Peter stood in awe of his words even in his death, and together they said, “Amen.”

 

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