Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy, Glorious and All-Praised Apostles Peter & Paul. These two men were chosen by Christ God to stand in the very forefront of the ranks of the holy apostles, and indeed of all the saints throughout the history of the whole world. As we gather to celebrate their holy memorial, it is necessary that we seek to understand—insofar as it is possible—why the Lord chose to glorify precisely these two men, exalting them to the greatest of spiritual heights and through them enlightening all the ends of the earth with the light of the Gospel.
Many of us believe–or at least live as though we believe–that the Christian life is essentially about attaining perfection. And this is true (our Savior commanded us to be perfect just as His Heavenly Father is perfect), but it is not at all true in the way that we usually imagine. Perfection is not measured by the keeping of rules. Perfection is not acquired by the avoidance of mistakes or even great falls into sin. Indeed, paradoxically it is often our greatest failures that, in the Divine Providence, bring us the closest to God.
The two greatest apostles, depicted before us in the holy icon in the middle of the church and mystically present here with us in the Divine Liturgy, teach us this truth by their lives. St. Peter denied the Lord during the very hours of the His greatest suffering. St. Paul’s hands had been stained by the blood of the infant Church. These men were not chosen by the Lord because they did not make mistakes. They were not chosen because they were above falling even into most grievous sin. Why, then, were they chosen? What virtue united these two men, so different in character and in background? What hidden quality attracted such great mercy from the Lord?
It was the fervent, burning love which each of them had in his heart towards God. St. Peter’s love was reckless, impulsive, and unrestrained, but utterly unable to be turned aside toward any lesser love. St. Paul’s heart was revealed in his total dedication, his unswerving faithful service toward the God that he had sought with singleness of mind all his life long. For both of these men, their meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ was the absolutely definitive moment and fact of their lives.
God calls to each one of us in the Holy Scriptures: “My son, give me thine heart.” This is the only commandment. This is the only sacrifice which can possibly be offered to the Lord, Who has given everything and sacrificed everything for our sakes. The only thing which any of us really has is our heart. And the only meaning, the only choice of our lives is what we will do with it.
These two holy men were holy only and precisely because their hearts were given wholly, unstintingly to God. There is no asceticism, no obedience, no rule of prayer or fasting or mercy or martyrdom which can possibly replace the love of God. Without a heart that has been given to God, these virtues are mere rags on a corpse.
Not so with these two men standing before us today. For them, nothing mattered other than God. And though one was a persecutor and the other a denier, nevertheless neither of them was merely shallow and indifferent, neither of them could possibly be satisfied by anything other than to be consumed by the fire of the living God.
And this must be our own goal and our own struggle. We do not need to fear our failures and our falls, because our God is a God of mercy and the Lover of Mankind. He can and does forgive every weakness and sin and vice which we find within ourselves. But He will not, in the end, force us to become a saint if we do not want to become one. He will not hold captive those who do not want to be with Him. And so we see that what ultimately will matter, when we stand before the Throne of God, will not be what we have done or have not done, but what our hearts have desired—whom our hearts have loved.
This is why Sts. Peter and Paul have been glorified with such splendor by the Church and Her Bridegroom. Not because of their deeds or their virtues or the eloquence of their words, but because of the love filling their hearts which overflowed into the virtues and miracles and God-inspired preaching that brought that love to all the ends of the earth.
And so as we glorify with our mouths the lives of these two holy men, let us fervently beseech them intercede for us, so that the same Spirit which kindled such surpassing and all-consuming love in their hearts would come also upon us through the reception of the Holy Mysteries. And let us strive, however feebly and haltingly, to cherish and to fan that flame during all the days of our life, guarding it against the winds of the deceitful world with its lusts and riches, so that we together with these holy apostles and all the saints might glorify the All-Holy Trinity, one in essence, who is glorified unto the endless ages of ages. Amen.