Photo: Apostles Peter and Paul, El Greco (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)
What Did the Apostolic Letters Seek to Achieve?
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 27, 2012)
June 29, we celebrate the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, the principle pillars of the Church founded by Christ. The following is an excerpt from Dr. Robert Stackpole's book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press):
If the gospels show us God's mercy expressed in decisive acts for our salvation (such as the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of His Son), the Apostolic letters in the New Testament are the praise and proclamation of that mercy, and an exhortation to practice it.
Saint Paul gives us the most comprehensive doctrine of Divine Mercy. For him, Divine Mercy, considered as God's merciful love toward human beings, is essentially synonymous with God Himself. For example, he begins his second epistle to the Corinthians as follows: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort" (II Cor 1:3). According to St. Paul, it was from out of the depths of God's merciful love that God brought us back from spiritual death to new "life in Christ" (Eph 2:4-7):
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive again with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps most memorable of all of St. Paul's words in this regard are his words regarding the merciful love of Jesus Christ manifested in His death on the Cross for us (Rom 5:6-11):
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.
In fact, St. Paul's thoughts here find an echo in the book of Hebrews, 2:17, which describes Jesus as "a merciful and faithful High Priest before God," precisely because Jesus has made the perfect propitiatory offering for our sins on the Cross.
St. Paul then bases the moral imperatives that he teaches on this gospel of mercy that he preaches: as God through Christ has been merciful to us, so we also ought to be merciful to one another (Eph 4:31-32): "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Similarly, St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:12: "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion [the Greek phrase here is "splagchna eleous," mercy from the very depths or guts], kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another, and, if one has a complaint against each other, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive."
Finally, for St. Paul, God's mercy is seen in the epistle to the Romans as the only possible explanation of why he allowed the whole human race — both Jew and Gentile alike — to fall into sin (Rom 11:32): "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all." In other words, God permitted evil, sin, and unfaithfulness in order to show a mercy that was even greater than sin and death. Thus, even sin and death results in God being glorified in the end, even more so than if He had not permitted human beings to fall!
In short, while the word "mercy" does not appear as frequently in St. Paul's epistles as the words "grace," "love," or "faith," nevertheless, it is clear from passages where the word "mercy" does appear, as well as from St. Paul's theology as a whole, that God's merciful love through Jesus Christ for a lost and broken human race was the very heart of the gospel that he preached, and for which he died.
Another apostolic writer who sometimes focuses explicitly on Divine Mercy is St. Peter, especially in his first epistle (I Peter 1:3-5):
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time....
Notice that St. Peter emphasizes here the resurrection-aspect of the paschal mystery as the principal manifestation of God's merciful love for us, whereas St. Paul often emphasized the Cross. St. Peter focuses on Easter as the foundation of Christian hope, for in the resurrection God has shown the unfading, imperishable, eternal destiny that He has prepared for us.
Also, for St. Peter the Church itself, the New Israel of God, is a people who by definition have received the mercy of God (I Peter 2:9-10):
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
In the light of this gospel of mercy, St. Peter then enumerates the virtues that he expects the disciples of Christ to practice (I Peter 3:8):
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.
We find a similar teaching in the epistle of St. James (2:13), where, in passing, he reminds his hearers that "judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy." In other words, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mt 5:7). Later, St. James sums up his exhortations with a call for living a mercy that comes from above (3:17):
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
What, then, can we say of the New Testament as a whole regarding Divine Mercy? Mercy is truly the very heart of the gospel message. Saint John wrote (3:16): "God so loved the world [that is, with merciful love, a love operative ad extra to meet the needs and overcome the miseries of His creatures] that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." In other words, the gospel message "in a nutshell" is the proclamation of God's merciful love for us all through Jesus Christ, and the New Covenant "in a nutshell" is that if we "believe" in Him (that is, not just with the mind, but with a total entrustment of our hearts and lives to Him) then we shall have the gift of eternal life. "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" ( I Cor 15:57).
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).