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Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, Annually (Vigil Mass)

First reading, Acts 3:1-10 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Literary Background: Acts has a certain rhythmic structure: there's a remarkable event, followed by a proclamation about Jesus, sometimes followed by a setback, such as a persecution. Just previously, in Acts, chapter 2, we read of the descent of the Spirit and the crowds hearing Jesus proclaimed in diverse languages, followed by Peter's speech. What follows the episode described here is another speech by Peter, after which he and John are jailed.

The Historical Situation: Acts was written for Greek converts to Christianity, cosmopolitan, middle-class people who had never been Jews, who adopted the faith a couple of generations after the events described in Acts. The book's purpose was to give them some history, to help them understand how they fit into a religion that had recently emerged from roots quite foreign to them. So Acts is determined to show the logic of Christianity's shift from a sect within Judaism to a movement with world-wide ambitions. The book wants to inspire in new members a zeal to spread the faith further. Reading today's passage from early in the book, imagine yourself to be a new Christian, not yet well informed, starting at the beginning. Well, not really the beginning, because Luke assumes the reader of Acts will have already read his gospel.

So you'll notice the pattern of event-proclamation-resistance in the lives of the early Christians is familiar, because it happened to Jesus over and over in the gospel. The implication is that the readers can expect life in Christ to be the same for them.

Proclaiming it: Unfortunately, those listening to you proclaim this on a Saturday night aren't going to hear a full cycle, at least not from you. So describe the event as vividly as you can.

Concentrate on that moment after the beggar has asked Peter and John for alms, "He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them." Pause significantly here. Make your listeners ask "Are they going to give him something or not?" because that's what the beggar was asking himself.

Then, with emphasis, "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you:"

Sound amazed when you say the man leaped up, and bemused when you describe him "walking and jumping and praising God" into the temple.

Second Reading, Galatians 1:11-20 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Historical Background: Early Christianity struggled with the question of how much it should retain of it Jewish roots. Jewish converts didn't just become Gentiles when they accepted Christ. They kept many of the practices they had grown up with. Some of these insisted on imposing the same requirements on Gentile converts who had never been Jews. Paul weighed in heavily against this notion. Galatians is his earliest extant treatise on the question, and the letter to the Romans his masterpiece.

Paul framed the issue this way: If you think you're saved by keeping rules (Jewish rules or others) and doing good deeds, or knowing the right theological propositions, you're just trying to save yourself. This is so even if you're keeping rules from a source as excellent as God's law revealed through Moses and passed down by generations of Jews. You're not letting God save you. You're not acknowledging your sinfulness. You're insulting God by trying to pay for something that God wants to give you as a gift. You're trying to control the situation instead of letting God be in control. Salvation is a grace, and every grace is a gift. It's not something earned. We're not worthy of it and we're not supposed to be.

Paul knew the Galatians needed this lesson most convincingly, so in these early verses of his letter to them, he has two reasons for being quite autobiographical:

  1. He shows how hard he had worked at keeping the old Law, to no avail. I had "progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race, since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions," he says. It led him so far that he had "persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." This shows that Paul is practicing what he's preaching, or rather, quit practicing what he's now preaching against.
  2. Then he shows that what he's preaching is no human invention, not his or anyone else's, that its content comes from God. Likewise his authority to preach it came to him in his mother's womb by the grace of God, and not even from "those who were Apostles before me."
Proclaiming it: That's what this passage is all about. How shall you make this clear? Well, you can't unless you're working in concert with a preacher disposed to elaborate on this in the homily. Rather than bet on that long shot, I recommend you try to convey Paul's own awe at the course that his career has taken. He knows now that he's not been in control all along. Paul was a learned man who had received plenty of wisdom from human scholars, but the only thing that counts came "through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Paul worked as hard as one can ("beyond measure," like "a zealot") on a task that came to naught and had to be reversed.

Of lesser importance, I'd say, but another thing you might try to convey is Paul's emphatic insistence that his authority comes from Christ. It comes not from the sanction of Cephas (Peter), whom he consulted for a mere fifteen days some three years after his revelation from Christ, nor from "any other of the Apostles," all of whom save James he did not even see.


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Last modified: June 7, 2012