During their earthly lives, all the saints are an incentive to virtue for those who hear and see them with understanding, for they are human icons of excellence, animated pillars of goodness, and living books, which teach us the way to better things [Homily on Saints Peter and Paul by Saint Gregory Palamas].
On Friday, June 29, we celebrated and commemorated the two great Apostles Peter and Paul. Their martyrdom in Rome is a very well-attested historical event, happening probably between the years 64 and 68 A.D. under the Roman emperor Nero. This is considered within the Church to be such a great feast that it is preceded by a prescribed time of fasting, a practice only reserved otherwise for the great feasts of the Lord (Nativity and Pascha) and the Mother of God (Dormition). This both stresses the historical greatness of these two apostles, the accomplishments of their respective ministries, their martyric ends, and the very ministry and role of an apostle in proclaiming the Gospel to the world in fulfillment of the Lord’s command to preach the Good News to “all nations” [Matthew 28:16-20]. Indeed, Saint Clement of Rome in his First Epistle, referred to Saints Peter and Paul as “the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church].” On careful reflection, it is not simply pious rhetoric that informs some of the hymns chanted in their honor during this Feast:
What spiritual songs shall we sing for Peter and Paul? They have silenced the sharp tongues of the godless. They are awesome swords of the Spirit. They are the adornment of Rome; They have nourished the whole world with the Word of God. They are the living tablets of the New Testament written by the hand of God; Christ Who has great mercy, has exalted them in Zion [Great Vespers].
In the New Testament, fourteen of the Epistles are traditionally attributed to Saint Paul and two are attributed to Saint Peter. The the entire Acts of the Apostles is basically devoted to recording some of the major events in the history of these two apostles “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8]. It may not be wholly accurate to refer to Saints Peter and Paul as the apostles, respectively, “to the circumcised” (the Jews) and the “uncircumcised” (the Gentiles) – for Saint Peter preached to the Gentiles and Saint Paul to the Jews) – but this is a way of capturing the fullness of their combined ministries so that Jews and Gentiles alike would be united in the one Body of Christ in fulfillment of God’s design.
At Great Vespers of this Feast, three New Testament readings are prescribed, all from Saint Peter’s first Epistle. We hear from the magnificent opening of 1 Peter, and this passage profoundly presents the essence of the Gospel as proclaimed in the apostolic age of the Church’s foundation, by the “prince of the apostles.” For those who have not heard or read this passage recently, a good portion of it deserves to be recorded here so as “to make your day:”
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. In this you rejoice, though for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen Him you love Him; though you do not now see Him you believe in Him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls [1 Peter 1:3-9].
In this passage, Saint Peter reminds us that from the beginning the Gospel bestowed upon on Christians a “living hope” that was based on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All New Testament writers establish Christian hope on the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (In his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul did not want his early converts to be “without hope” like their pagan neighbors, thus attesting to how important hope is for the believing Christian). The Apostle Peter was not offering yet another philosophy, but proclaiming the activity of God – “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” – within the realm of human history; that is that God has acted decisively on our behalf by overcoming death itself through the resurrection of Jesus. He then describes our “inheritance” in heaven in strikingly powerful images, emphasizing the eternal and unassailable reality of heaven – “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” This is in sharp contrast to life as we now know it in this world, for all created things are perishable, subject to defilement and destined to fade away. The Apostle Paul confirms this also by saying that “the form of this world is fading away” [1 Corinthians 7:31]. “Guarded by faith,” we await a salvation that will be “revealed in the last time,” meaning the Parousia and end of time.
Yet, the apostle knows that this gift cannot be lightly received and treated. It will only come after “various trials” that are inevitable in a fallen world. In this instance, Saint Peter was most likely referring to persecution, as this had already broken out against the earliest Christians. However, suffering comes in other forms. These trials will test the “genuineness”of our faith, purifying it if we emerge from these tribulations purged like gold “tested by fire.” All of this is true even though we have not seen nor “see” Jesus even now. This is true of all of Christ’s disciples through the ages, called by Jesus Himself “blessed” by believing though not actually having seen Him [John 20:29].
The strength of this experience is beautifully expressed by Saint Peter when he confidently states that we “rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.” This is almost embarrassing when we admit dragging ourselves to church or praying as if constrained under a heavy obligation or a “religious duty” that takes us away from more “interesting” activities! A joyless Christianity is completely foreign to the New Testament, as is a “second place” (or “third” or fourth,” etc.) Christianity in the priorities of our lives. The intended “outcome” of all this is “the salvation of your souls.” Is this why every liturgical service that begins with the Great Litany has us praying to the Lord, in the first full petition, for the “peace from above and for the salvation of our souls?” There is nothing “selfish” in seeking or accepting the “salvation of our souls.” This is the gift of God that is intended for all. In the assurance of this gift, we can work more steadfastly on behalf of others, and share what God has done on our behalf.
The Apostles Peter and Paul are truly “rivers of wisdom and upholders of the Cross!” They exemplified the later teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch of the mystery of Christ that conveys “life in death,” for they died as martyrs but are eternally alive in Christ. We can now read their epistles and their lives as “living books which teach us the way to better things” as Saint Gregory Palamas said of them. We seek their prayers as we strive to be worthy of the title of “Christian.”