On the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, praise, proclaim, and practice!

To mark the Feast of Saint Peter and Paul on June 29, 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. 

Divine Mercy and St. Paul
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 with the words: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort" (2 Cor 1:3). According to St. Paul, it was from out of the depths of God's merciful love that the Father brought us back from spiritual death to new life in Christ: 

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 (Eph 2: 4-7). 

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: 

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 (Rom 5:6-11).

In fact, St. Paul's thoughts here find an echo in the book of Hebrews, which describes Jesus as "a merciful and faithful High Priest before God" (2:17), precisely because Jesus has made the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins on the Cross.

Saint Paul then bases the moral imperatives that he teaches on this Gospel of Mercy - as God through Christ has been merciful to us, so we also ought to be merciful to one another: "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" (Eph 4:31-32).

Similarly, St. Paul writes in Colossians:

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 (Col 3:12).

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: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all" (Rom 11:32). 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!

Saint Peter and merciful love
Saint Peter also focuses his teaching on the merciful love of God. We need to remember that Peter was the apostle who denied three times that he knew Jesus on the night of his Master's arrest, despite boasting that he would never forsake Jesus, even if all the other apostles did. Thus, when St. Peter writes of the "mercy" of the Lord manifest on Easter morning, he is speaking from his own personal experience: 

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 (1 Pet 1:3-5).

Notice that where St. Peter emphasizes the Resurrection-aspect of the paschal mystery as the principal manifestation of God's merciful love for us, St. Paul often emphasized the Cross. Saint 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 that by definition have received the mercy of God: 

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 (1 Pet 2: 9-10).

In the light of this Gospel of Mercy, St. Peter then enumerates the virtues that he expects the disciples of Christ to practice:

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 (1 Pet 3:8). 

We find a similar teaching in the epistle of St. James, where, in passing, he reminds his hearers that "judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy" (2:13). 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: 

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 (Jas 3:17).

The Gospel message of Divine Mercy, in a nutshell, is summed up for us in the Gospel according to St. John: "God so loved the world [that is, with merciful love, a love seeking 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" (Jn 3:16). In other words, if we "believe" in Him (that is, not just with our minds, 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!" (1 Cor 15:57). 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.


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