Sermon for the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul (2019)
Our hearts are filled today with godly joy and pious glorying. What Christian soul can fail to be so moved at the commemoration of the two spiritual giants set before us? —the princes of the Church, the pillars of the Faith, the preachers of the truth, the crowns of the Hebrew race, the beloved friends and apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peter and Paul stand conspicuously at the head of the assembly of Apostles, amidst the Church triumphant, in ceaseless worship of the crucified Lord to whom they devoted their whole lives, sealing this gift with their own blood; and we on earth join in the heavenly chorus today, exulting in our God who is so wondrous in his saints. Since we already know of their glorious end, we ought to consider as well their inglorious beginnings, and how they attained such unspeakable glory.
We all know that Peter started his life as Simon, a simple Galilean fisherman—a devout Jew, no doubt, but formally uninstructed in the Law. In the estimation of the proud and learned Pharisees, who scrupulously pored over the Law’s every jot and tittle, Galilee was a backward country, inhabited by many pagans and tainted by their superstitions. On their reading of Scripture, no prophet or any good thing could possibly come out of Galilee. Yet it was not in vaunted Jerusalem, in the splendid precincts of the Jewish Temple, but in poor Galilee, on a little fishing boat with torn and grimy nets, that our Lord found a heart ardent and responsive enough to abandon everything he knew, and follow him. Peter deeply felt his own sinfulness, and knew himself unworthy of the call, yet his fervent heart was drawn irresistibly to the Lord.
Yet again, it was in that simple yet ardent heart, and not that of the haughty Pharisee, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ saw fit to reveal his Son’s true identity. When Christ asked the disciples in private who they thought he was, Peter was the first to confess that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Christ himself testifies that it was no human calculation that led Peter to his inspired confession, but a direct revelation from God the Father Almighty. Through this holy and saving confession, a poor, illiterate fisherman became the rock of the Church, the prince of heaven, and the doorkeeper of the Kingdom.
And what of Paul? His origins were much different from Peter’s, but his glory is no less great. He was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin; his Hebrew name was Saul. But quite providentially, he was also a freeborn Roman, and like many Jews of the diaspora, he also had a Greek name—Paul. He came from Tarsus of Cilicia, modern day Turkey, a citizen of no mean city (Acts 21:39), as he says. Indeed, Tarsus was a thriving port and center of culture, and he acquired there a familiarity with Greek poetry and learning. But he was brought up primarily in Jerusalem, being taught by the most renowned Pharisees and doctors of the Law. Well-versed in all the Hebrew Scriptures from his youth, he was uniquely zealous for all the traditions and customs of the Jews; and in his blind adherence to the letter of the Law, he furiously persecuted the early Church, hunting after the first Christians even beyond the borders of Jerusalem, and consenting to the death of his own kinsman, Stephen.
Only the all-seeing Lord could have perceived in this rabid fanatic and bloodthirsty persecutor, his chosen vessel for carrying his name before all the Gentiles. But Christ knew that when the truth was clearly revealed to him, he would count everything he held dear to be dung, and apply his same zeal for persecuting the Church, to preaching the Gospel. Like Peter, it was not flesh and blood that revealed to him the truth; rather, it was the risen Lord Jesus, who appeared to him in person as he journeyed to Damascus, eager to imprison that city’s Christians. Awed by his vision of Christ, Paul immediately acknowledged the one whom he persecuted to be his Lord. Through this miraculous appearance, the wolf became a shepherd, the persecutor a preacher, and the zealot of the Law an initiate of Grace.
Great indeed was the grace given to these men, but great also were their temptations. They had to pass through many trials and tribulations before they were perfected, and obtained their final martyric victory.
We see that the impulsive Peter did not immediately live up to the solidity of his God-given name. No sooner had he pronounced his faith in Christ, than he was offended by the Lord’s prediction of his Passion and Crucifixion. When he tried to dissuade the Lord from going to his suffering, he was sharply rebuked, and the one who had just named him ‘Rock’ called him ‘Satan’. When the time came for the Lord’s prediction to be fulfilled, Peter, in his over-confident zeal, assured Christ that he was so devoted to him, he would go to die with him, even if everyone else forsook him. But the Lord, who knew what was in man (Jn. 2:25), again made a prediction—that Peter would deny him no less than three times before the next day had dawned.
How understandably human were all of Peter’s struggles! Though he had just received the grace of Holy Communion that very night, his heart was heavy with sorrow, and his eyes were heavy with sleep. When he awoke in a daze as the Lord’s captors surrounded him, he first brashly cut off the ear of one, then followed timidly while the omnipotent Lord allowed himself to be led away by them. As he anxiously waited in the high priest’s courtyard to learn the sentence passed against Christ, he was accused of being one of Jesus’ followers. The fear of death, which touched even the immortal Lord in his agony on that dreadful night, then overcame Peter, and he loudly recanted his former confession, denying the Son of God before the sons of men.
Who can imagine what pain and remorse must have rent his heart when the cock’s crow brought him to his senses, and he noticed the Lord Jesus looking at him knowingly, warmly, sympathetically? In his moment of weakness, he could not bear that meek and loving glance, but went out in shame and wept bitterly. Yet he who forgave his own crucifiers had no difficulty forgiving his devoted servant’s fall. The same Lord who perceived his human frailty, likewise perceived his sincere love, and his future greatness. After he was risen from the dead, Christ healed the wound in Peter’s soul with the threefold affirmation of his love for the Lord, and reinstated him to his proper dignity at the head of the Apostles. That same love sustained him throughout the rest of his life, as he dutifully fulfilled Christ’s charge to strengthen his brethren, feed his lambs, and tend his sheep.
As for Paul, what words can suffice to tell of all his struggles? He was only speaking from experience when he told his congregations that we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God(Acts 14:22). In the epistle for today’s feast, we hear the Apostle himself relate the full extent of his labors for the Gospel—stripes, lashings, beatings, prisons, shipwrecks, hunger, slander, torture; and what is more, his constant concern for all the churches he had founded. This last must certainly have been the most painful trial for Paul’s loving heart, which so fervently desired the salvation of all men. As he tells the Romans, I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9:2-3) … my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved (Rom. 10:1). He would have rather gone himself to eternal perdition than see his fellow Jews perish; and his desire for the Gentiles’ salvation was no less intense.
When his Corinthian flock was being torn apart by quarrels and scandals, he sent them his imposing first letter, sternly rebuking them for their errors, and urging them to put their affairs in order. He was anxious to come to them, eager to strengthen them in their temptations; but he delayed his coming to see how they would respond to his epistle. He wanted to give them time to repent, lest when he was come, he would have to exercise discipline in person. Malicious men used the occasion to slander him, saying that he was a false apostle, who put on an air of authority from afar in writing, yet displayed only weakness when present in person. Just like our beloved St. John Maximovitch, St. Paul was short of stature, rude of speech, and exceedingly meek in his demeanor.
How much grief he must have suffered over his ungrateful spiritual children, how many prayers he must have offered, how many tears he must have shed—not out of some wounded pride, but from an earnest solicitude for their salvation; as he tells them, I seek not yours, but you … And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved (2 Cor. 12:14, 16). He was so concerned for their salvation, that he stooped even to defending his credentials as an apostle to those who first received the preaching of the Gospel from his very lips. That is what prompted St. Paul to boast so daringly of his labors in the Gospel, and of his revelations from the Lord. I am become a fool in glorying, he tells them, ye have compelled me(2 Cor. 12:11).
A lesser man might be accused of immodesty, but the holy Apostle Paul had the boldness to speak this way. Why? Because as he says elsewhere, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. 2:20). Paul no longer had a life of his own; he was wholly given over to the Lord, consumed by love for him. He could boast of everything he did, because he knew full well that it was only the grace of God acting through him; he himself was only the weak earthen vessel that served as its vehicle. Therefore he boasted most of all of his infirmities, since the weaker he was, so much stronger was the action of grace and the glory of God. He could say with all honesty that in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing (2 Cor. 12:11); though he was caught up to the third heaven and saw paradise, he never ceased to reckon himself the chief of sinners. For him, Christ was all in all; and like Peter, it was his all-devouring love for the Lord that gave Paul the strength to endure everything.
There is one last incident worth recounting, which reveals the full spiritual beauty and deep inner harmony of both Apostles. St. Paul relates it in his epistle to the Galatians. Before he began his missionary activity, Paul was a preacher in the church of Antioch, one of the first churches to receive uncircumcised Gentile converts to the faith. Once when Peter was visiting the Christians there, he at first freely associated with the Gentiles. But when certain Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the uncircumcised, afraid of causing scandal to the Jews. Soon, the other Jews in the Antiochian church followed suit, including even Barnabas. When all were carried away with this duplicity, Paul tells us he withstood Peter to the face, because he was to be blamed; for he walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 2:11, 14).
It’s hard to say which is more astounding—Peter’s blindness, or Paul’s boldness. It appears that even the Rock set in the Church by Christ himself was occasionally subject to human error, and needed correction from another. Unfortunately, we never hear from St. Paul just how St. Peter responded in that moment. But it seems certain that he did not simply rush to his own defense when Paul rightly censured him. He did not retort haughtily and say, “Who do you think you are, you who not long before were seeking to spill Christian blood wherever you could find it? I am the head of the Apostles, I am the rock of the Church. The Lord entrusted me with the keys to the Kingdom; who are you? I followed the Lord for three whole years of his life, but you never even laid eyes on him while he walked the earth. What right do you have to tell me what is the truth of the Gospel?” No, Peter did not put forth such words to Paul; he did not assert the special place of their nation in the Church of God; he did not claim for himself an infallible authority, or an unequaled rank of honor.
Instead, we learn from Peter’s own epistles that the bond of charity between them was never broken. Peter calls Paul his “beloved brother”, and accords his writings the status of inspired scripture, recognizing that he too had received wisdom directly from above (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Perhaps it was with some difficulty, but it seems that Peter accepted Paul’s rebuke meekly. Since they were both rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, how could it be otherwise? Neither of them accounted himself better than another, knowing that there is no respect of persons with the Lord. They were thus able to give and receive correction in a spirit of brotherly love.
In every way, then, these two Apostles are a shining light for us all, brilliantly showing forth the pattern of true Christian life. As we celebrate their annual memorial, let us pay heed to the Apostle Paul’s own exhortation: Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation (Heb. 13:7). We know their end: so let us strive to imitate them. May our hearts also burn with love for Christ, and be ready to give everything for him; that we might in our turn achieve the same blessed end, and join them together with all the Saints in Christ’s eternal Kingdom. Amen.
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