Jun 28, 2020
Today's sermon/talk (extended version) delivered at the end of the divine liturgy by Dr Mario Baghos in anticipation of tomorrow's feast of Sts Peter and Paul.
Brothers and sisters,
Tomorrow the holy Church of Christ celebrates two of its main heroes, Saints Peter and Paul, who, as we chant in the dismissal hymn dedicated to their memory, are the “first enthroned of the apostles” and “teachers of the universe.” On their feast day all the faithful beseech these two pillars of the Church to “entreat the master of all,” our Lord Jesus Christ, “to grant peace to the world, and to our souls great mercy.”
The lives of these two heroes of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul who even now pray to Christ on our behalf and for our salvation, are an encouragement and example to us all. Both of them knew our Lord Jesus Christ – the former was, together with his brother Andrew, our Lord’s first-called disciple (Matthew 4:18-20) while he undertook his earthly ministry, and the latter saw Christ after he had ascended into heaven, the way the saints continue to experience him – and often see him – in his holy body, the Church.
Peter’s name was Simon before our Lord changed it to Πέτρος, which means ‘rock’ in Greek. He did this because Simon accurately responded to the Lord’s question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:16) with the affirmation that our Lord Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16). The Lord then says to Simon that he will build his Church upon the rock of faith expressed by Simon, thereupon changing his name to Peter – meaning rock – which indicates the extent of St Peter’s commitment to faith in Christ our Lord.
But even the ‘rock’ of faith, St Peter, found commitment to our Lord Jesus challenging. This is what makes him so relatable when we read the Gospels, for Peter often either responds hyperbolically to some circumstances, or shrinks back from them when they call for steadfast commitment to Christ – but in the end he always found a way back to God’s intention for him. Let us look at the most important example, which is the incident just before our Lord’s crucifixion at the Last or Mystical Supper, where, as described in Matthew 26, our Lord says to the disciples: “This very night you will all fall away on account of Me. For it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Peter said to Him, “Even if all fall away on account of You, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus declared, “this very night before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Mt 26:31-35). After this Peter did deny Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest, and upon hearing the rooster crow, he quickly repented. Indeed, the extent of his repentance is described in Luke 22:61-62: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Brothers and sisters, I am not describing Peter’s mistake in order to judge him: far be it for me to judge a saint of the Lord. We all make mistakes; as sinners we all fall short of the perfection that Christ exhorts us to strive for. And it is precisely St Peter – with his strong faith in Christ that was constantly being perfected by the Lord – who shows us what we should do when we fall: we must repent, the way Peter did in tears when he denied the Lord (for every sin is a denial of Christ) and get up again, striving to return to him. While he indeed denied the Lord, nevertheless St Peter was the first of the twelve disciples to run to the tomb after the women disciples came back announcing that it was empty (John 20:1-10). Indeed, the Lord, discerning Peter’s genuine repentance and ever-growing zeal, knew Peter’s deep commitment to him – and this is why, before he ascended into heaven, he asked Peter three times to feed and tend his sheep, that is, the body of believers, giving him courage by asking Peter if he truly loved him (John 21:15-19); for Peter was called to utterly self-sacrifice for Christ and for the Church when he was martyred in Rome, after having fearlessly preached the Gospel – that our Lord Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies and has granted eternal life to all who believe in his name – throughout Judea and the Roman Empire, to both Jews and Gentiles, as we read in the Book of Acts.
It was to the Gentiles – to the non-Jews – that those Hebrews who saw in Christ Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promises, spread the Gospel. The foremost among these advocates was St Paul of Tarsus, who, before his conversion to Christianity, was named Saul and was a persecutor of the earliest Christians, for we read in Acts 7:58 that he held the cloaks of those who killed the first martyr of the Church, St Stephen. Saul was going from city to city rounding up Christians and putting them in prison before, on the way to Damascus to continue this ungodly work, he was blinded by light emanating from the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus, who asked him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Becoming obedient to Christ – who makes clear that any persecution or insult to Christians is an affront to him also – Saul was healed of his blindness and became a great advocate of the Church. Now, instead of going from city to city throughout the Roman empire persecuting Christians, he would go from place to place teaching and demonstrating from the Old Testament scriptures that our Lord Jesus is in truth the Messiah, the saviour of God’s people throughout the world. Establishing churches throughout the Mediterranean together with the other apostles, St Paul campaigned for the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to be admitted into the Christian faith, something which Peter also strove for after a vision described in Acts chapter 10.
In the conversion of St Paul we behold the miracle of the transformation of the human person by God’s grace; we behold our Lord Jesus’ power to make not just a sinner – for no one is bereft of sin except God – but even a hater and enemy of the Church into one of its greatest heroes: for St Paul undertook four great missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor, Greece and Italy in order to establish churches and teach about our Lord Jesus; and suffered hardships and even beatings for the name of the Lord. But he persevered, for the Lord comforted him, appearing to him often and communicating with him via the Holy Spirit, showing that his sufferings – like the sufferings of Peter and the other apostles – were for the growth of the Church, which is Christ’s sacred body on earth leading to eternal life. No less than 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament are attributed to St Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the convertor of the multitudes to our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Both Sts Peter and Paul were immediate participants in Christ. In Acts 3:1-10 we read about Peter healing a lame beggar, and in Acts 9:36-41 we read about him raising a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. St Paul also raised a young man named Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:7-12), and drove out an evil spirit from a girl (Acts 16:16-19). The healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, and the exorcism of evil spirits – all these things we see our Lord Jesus doing throughout his ministry, which means that our Lord’s followers, Peter and Paul, can only do them on account of the grace of Christ which resides in them – as it does in all the saints – through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the saints are given power by Christ to do what he can do, and so Sts Peter and Paul were conformed to the likeness of Christ, becoming christs with a small ‘c,’ even until the hour of their respective martyrdoms, both of which took place under the Roman emperor Nero in the 60s AD. St Peter, the steadfast and courageous apostle was crucified upside down, and St Paul, the educated luminary, was beheaded. Thus, both of these saints imitated their self-sacrificial and loving Lord even unto death. But this should not be seen as a tragedy, brothers and sisters, for the Lord was with them throughout their lives and transferred them to his kingdom upon their respective martyrdoms; and it is within this kingdom that they pray, together with all the saints, for the salvation of the world through the Church, which is our Lord’s mystical body. May we have their prayers in this sacred temple, and may all who are named after them receive the blessing of the great heroes of the Church. And may we also have the blessing of our leader and Archbishop His Eminence Makarios of Australia, who was gloriously enthroned on the feast day of Sts Peter and Paul last year at the cathedral of the Annunciation in Redfern, and who as a successor of the apostles in the Antipodes, continues with God’s help to shepherd the Church, like Peter and Paul, through the challenges and difficulties of our modern times. He is Worthy. Amen.