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The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ

June 29, 2014

The Feast of St Peter and St Paul – two great men

 Acts 12: 1-11    2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18     Matthew 16: 13-19

Do you believe in angels? I hope you do. Because Jesus did. And because, in a few minutes we will proclaim together that we believe that God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” As Catholics we unashamedly believe in some things that are invisible, including angels. Angels are messengers of God. They are not human beings – they don’t have bodies, they are pure spirit. And they come from heaven. Our hope is that we will eventually share in the joys of heaven. But the Church is very clear in its teaching: when we are in heaven, we will remain human beings, we will continue to have some sort of body. We will not become angels. They are a different form of created life.

Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles includes an angel saving St Peter from imprisonment. What’s that all about? Are we to treat it as a flight of imagination, a lovely story to entertain our children, but not really a serious story for proper grown-ups?

In our modern, so-called sophisticated society, aggressive atheists use stories like today’s first reading to attack us, suggesting we Christians are deranged, simple folk who’ll believe any nonsense. They remove all traces of faith from the Bible thereby rendering it nonsense.

This has always been the case. Let me quote St Paul: “An unspiritual person is one who does not accept anything of the Spirit of God: he sees it all as nonsense. It is beyond his understanding because it can only be understood by means of the Spirit.”[1] In our own days you will find many people worship the god of ‘science’, not realizing that science is simply a tool for exploring and understanding the material world. It has nothing to say about the spiritual world.

Now, I’m going to presume, given that you have taken the trouble to come here today and spend an hour in church, that you are spiritual people.

OK. Let’s take a closer look at St Peter’s adventures in the light of our faith in God.

The Church has always prayed the Psalms. We continue this today, in the Prayer of the Church, a four-week cycle of reciting the psalms. This tradition of prayer was a way of memorizing the psalms, so that when Christians were imprisoned, they could continue to pray. We are told that the night before his show trial is to begin, Peter is asleep. Asleep! He obviously had faith in God to be able to sleep.

St Peter would have known his psalms. I was struck by the psalms we prayed earlier this week, words Peter would have recognised:

In Psalm 43 it says: “No sword of their own won the land; no arm of their own brought them victory.[2] It was your right hand, your arm and the light of your face[3]: for you loved them….

Peter’s escape with the help of an angel echoes Psalm 43 – Peter’s cell was filled with light. There was absolutely no violence. Peter was saved because God loved St Peter and God answered the prayers of His Church.

Now, we know that earlier in his life St Peter could be impetuous. Do you remember how, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, St Peter drew his sword and cut off someone’s ear? Jesus immediately healed the wounded man. Ten years later, Saint Peter isn’t plotting violence. He’s asleep, at peace, no doubt pondering on the words of Jesus about his impulsive violence, “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?[4]

And indeed, Psalm 43 continues: “For it was not in my bow that I trusted nor yet was I saved by my sword: it was you who saved us from our foes, it was you who put our foes to shame. All day long our boast was in God and we praised your name without ceasing.”

We can interpret the story of Peter’s escape from prison as an example of the Church not succumbing to the political power of the state. Many politicians today persist in the quaint belief they are in charge of everything, playing to the gallery to try and get public support. Stalin famously asked “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Less well known is the reply from Pope Pius XII: “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven!”

St Peter’s jailbreak happened during a persecution of the Church by King Herod Agrippa the First. It’s about ten years after the resurrection, and the events took place during “the Days of Unleavened Bread”, which to us means it was Easter week. From the very beginning of the Church, this has been THE most important festival for Christians. Herod is chasing cheap popularity. The Christian community had been severely shaken by the trial and beheading of the Apostle James on a charge of apostasy. Now St Peter has been locked up and faces the same fate.

The reaction of the Christian community is interesting.

Do they run away? No.

Do they try and negotiate? No. Herod is determined to destroy the Church.

Did they try to release Peter by force? No. It would be futile. There was a 24 hour guard of soldiers, and Peter was chained to two soldiers (A sign of Herod’s nervousness, because we know that normally prisoners were only chained to one soldier).

No, the Church put its money where its mouth was, stepped out in faith…. it prayed unremittingly.

The Church prayed. Our modern society suffers from the curse of ‘individualism’, the ‘me, me’ society that places individual choice above God’s moral law and the common good. Our society is riddled with such thinking. One of the consequences is the determined efforts to exclude faith from the public domain. And as part of that society we always run the danger of beginning to absorb secular, contemporary thinking – we can ourselves beginning to believe that religion is a private, personal affair. It’s not. We are, yes, individual Christians. We can pray as individuals. But we are also part of the Universal, Catholic Church. That Church is the Body of Christ. It can pray as a unity. And that is indeed why we come to Church, to pray together as the mystical Body of Christ. Those prayers are very powerful. We can easily begin to forget that fact.

The Church is a spiritual power on earth. Prayer works. The Church’s ultimate mission cannot be overcome by unspiritual human will. This is why, in a few moments, we pray together in the bidding prayers. These are very significant prayers. We should focus on them and pray fervently together, as the Church has always done, placing the faith of the God’s people entirely in God’s care.

Herod’s Roman Empire is gone (and in fact, Herod died only a year after Peter escaped from jail). Stalin’s Communist Empire has fallen. The Church is and will remain a powerful institution. We know that from history, exactly as Jesus promised: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”[5]

[1] 1 Corinthians 2:14

[2] cf Peter’s escape from jail was non-violent

[3] cf Ps 43: If you return to the Lord then he will not hide his face from you. (Gospel 2)

[4] John 18: 10-11

[5] Matthew 16: 18-19

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One Comment
  1. keijo leppioja permalink

    Yes we are body of christ a lot the church around the world build in the Lord and his blood sake and so much wisdom we has with the church with the angels to protect and charge us in every the day to be the light and and the letters of Christ to the wordl in love of God,thanks and bless,keijo sweden

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