Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul
Sunday 29 June 2003
II Sunday of Matthew
(Also celebrating All Saints of Russia, Romania and Mount Athos)
(2 Cor. 11:21-12:9; Mt. 16:13-19)
Today we remember Peter and Paul, and all the saints of Russia, Romania and the Holy Mountain. Peter was not a ‘rock man’ throughout; his betrayal of Jesus (Matt 26: 69-75) and his conflict with Paul (Gal 2: 11-21) show that he wanted to take the line of least resistance. Peter wanted to conform. He was a fisherman. He knew the changeable waters of the lake of Galilee. He knew that you had sometimes to trim the sails and keep out of the wind. Yet from Pentecost, it is Peter who leads the Church; and it is very probable that he and Paul ended their lives in Rome – all conflicts past and all their promises finally proved. [Cf. St Clement of Rome, I Clem. 5; St Ignatius, Rom. 4.2.; St Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, i, 2; III, iii, 1.]
Today’s epistle shows Paul proclaiming his own sufferings for the faith. He does so in a passage defending himself from his critics. His tactic is to assume, with irony, that they are right to be contemptuous. He begins by asserting his Jewishness. This is important because Paul wants to show Peter – and he does this successfully – and the world that Jesus has indeed gone beyond Jewishness, and the Kingdom of Heaven is open to all who confess him to be their Lord. As Paul roundly declares, ‘if anyone wants some brazen speaking… then I can be as brazen as any of them, and about the same things. Hebrews are they? So am I…’ And he begins to list the signs of his martyria. ‘Five times I had the thirty-nine lashes from the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked and once adrift in the open sea for a day and a night.’ He goes on to show his complete openness to the physical danger of being an apostle. He deals with the interior burdens, too, related to his ‘anxiety for all the churches. When any man has had scruples, I have had scruples with him; when any man is made to fall, I am tortured.’ This is Paul’s idea of the Body of Christ. But Paul, as usual, wants to assert his equality with the original disciples. He now describes his visions and revelations.
He describes a moment of ecstasy, when he felt completely taken out of himself and into the presence of God; and this has taken place before his first missionary journey. Paul has a highly emotional nature; and, having claimed to boast of this experience, adds that he can really boast only of his weaknesses. These include the ‘thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud!’ Perhaps this is severe migraine; malaria; or the major form of epilepsy (grand mal seizures). It may be Stephens-Johnson syndrome, a multiform allergic reaction which includes temporary blindness. Any of these may be conjectured in line with the circumstances of his conversion on the Damascus road (Acts: 9). But the point is not that we should understand when and where and how these details of Paul’s life occurred, or indeed what precisely happened. The point is the answer Paul has received when he has asked for the thorn in the flesh to be withdrawn. ‘“My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.” So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me…’
The gospel reading takes us to the declaration by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus has asked the disciples emphatically ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter’s answer is the declaration. ‘You are the Christ… the Son of the living God’ and Jesus responds ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.’ These words mean that human beings have not told Peter this – because the secret of who Jesus is has not yet been announced – but rather Peter has learned the meaning of the teacher from his own prayerful following of God, and inspiration of the Spirit. To this Jesus gives the reply that Peter – the rock man – is the foundation of the new Israel, the new gathering of the faithful. ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’
The Orthodox Church often seems to be different from other Christians because of our emphasis not on law but on love. In truth, the legal element, the authority of bishops and holy men, is very great; but the point is to make the life of the Church to express the love of Christ. When the icon of the Resurrection shows Christ standing on the broken doors of hell, it shows this idea of freedom from sin and fear. It is the love, which goes to the cross, which alone can pull up the broken into health and bring life to the departed. So Peter begins to understand this. He struggles with his Jewishness, after Pentecost. He discovers (Acts 10: 9-43) that the limiting distinctions between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, have been broken down by Jesus. ‘It is to him that all the prophets bear this witness: that all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name. (v. 43)’ The conviction that man was free from the power of sin and death through Jesus’ death and his most powerful resurrection is the key to life in Christ. It is this that binds or looses; it is this that is the reward; it is this that is the point of the vision. It is this that we declare: Aghios O Theos, Aghios Ischyros, Aghios Athanatos, Eleison imas.
All the cruelty of Russian history, all the persecution by Turks of Romanian Christians, all the ascetic struggles of Athonites, and all those small imitations of the saints which we as individual believers make day by day: all move in the same process of love, faithful to our belief that ‘God raised [Jesus] to life and allowed him to be seen…’ (Acts 10: 40) The metamorphosis of Jesus, which Peter had witnessed (Matt. 17: 1-8); the metamorphosis of Paul through his Damascus road experience: this is the same for each saint, and for us, in the Church. As Paul says, ‘If I am to boast, then let me boast of my own feebleness.’ (2 Cor. 11: 30) ‘The God and Father of the Lord Jesus – bless him for ever – knows that I am not lying.’ It is God who makes clear that his power is at its best in our weakness. And strong or weak, in fair weather or foul, with encouragement or with opposition, persecuted or free, it is that strength of faith to which all the saints with Peter and Paul testify. Martyrdom is metamorphosis. And life, eternal life, comes through that door. For as Jesus said: ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold’ (John 10: 7).
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther, 29 June 2003.
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