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Sermon by Archbishop Savva of Australia and New Zealand (+1976) on the Feast Day of SS Peter and Paul

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit:

What can we say today about these great pillars of Christianity,  Apostles Peter and Paul?

One Church writer recently pondered the meaning and significance of preaching, and wrote: “Over 19 centuries of the Church of Christ, not one Christian preacher has said anything new. But those who were in the Spirit, always spoke in a new way. The truth of Christ is constantly being renewed in the words of every preacher, though they all used the same words.” Moreover, let me add that the words once uttered by these Spirit-bearing preachers, when repeated on the ambo by other preachers, cannot but evoke the genuine experience of the truth in their listeners, especially if they truly “hunger and thirst for truth.” Among the Spirit-bearing preachers is our own theologian, St Dimitry of Rostov. All of his writings, all of his theological musings and sermons have so much content and inspiration that they equal the works of the great fathers and teachers of the Ecumenical Church.

St John Chrysostom calls the great Apostles Peter and Paul the pillars of the Church and the lanterns of the universe. St Dimitry of Rostov poses the question, to what pillars can we compare these chief Apostles? When ancient Israel fled their enslavement in Egypt and headed for the land promised to them by God, now called Palestine, the Lord miraculously showed them the way. Leading the Israelis was a cloud pillar by day, and a pillar of fire at night, which illuminated the way. What were the essence and nature of these pillars we don’t know. May expert interpreters of the Bible who seek natural causes for metaphysical phenomena make their explanations. The fiery lightning within the nighttime cloud combined the elements of fire and water in this Biblical pillar. No less miraculous, no less mysterious were the holy Apostles united in their podvig of service to the Church of Christ. Different in the flesh, they became united in spirit, as is said in one of the songs of the service dedicated to their memory. They were united in spirit to the extent two friends were once described by Aristotle: “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Two men with different names: Paul and Peter, but united in mind in their Apostolic service, two great Apostles, but they were equal in their leadership, as St Dimitry of Rostov said so splendidly. Wishing to emphasize this, the Holy Church combined their celebration in one day, honoring not only Peter but also Paul, and established one celebration on June 29 in the old style, or July 12 in the new style.

Yet how many differences were there between these two holy Apostles! Both were gifted men, but they began from different paths:  

1. Peter had no education and was a simple fisherman, casting his nets on the waters, while Paul sought knowledge, often sitting, book in hand, and the feet of the renowned Judean teacher Gamaliel, studying Mosaic law and the prophets.  

2.One instantly followed Christ, the other was devoted to the Pharisees, the enemies of Christ, and was infected with their pride, fanaticism and impatience.  

3. One of them, Peter, when the servants of the high priests and Roman soldiers came to Gethsemane to seize the Savior, in a burst of love for his Teacher, drew his knife and sliced off the ear of the servant Malchus. The other was a violent persecutor of Christ and His Church. In his Epistle to the Galatians, Apostle Paul writes “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it” (Galatians 1:13).

But the Lord called one and the other to a great service, summoned them to leadership, making them great vessels of Divine revelation and grace. The grandeur and spiritual beauty of Apostle Peter was expressed in his confession of Christ as the Son of God “Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” asked the Savior meekly, and Peter fervently and boldly replied: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Yesterday’s fisherman is now a profound theologian, comprehending the great mystery of the Incarnation.

“Blessed art thou, Simon Bar–jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Some might point out that Apostle Peter denied Christ in the most difficult moment of the earthly life of Christ. Yes, Apostle Peter denied Him, he sinned, he fell. But do we all not also fall, commit sin, are we not proud, do we not condemn others based on rumors and the idle speculation of our little minds, do our dismissive attitude towards our neighbor and other passions not drag us to the depths of sin?

Do we not betray Christ, even in the most serious moments, like during confession, when we approach the priest with a cold heart? Even at that moment, when the soul seeks peace, we speak of the failings, mistakes and sins of others, we speak words of unfriendliness and hatred. Even during these moments we have no forgiveness of others. Even if we repeat the words “I have sinned, I have sinned,” after the priest’s words of edification, our hearts slumber, our hearts are closed!

After such a confession, we make bold to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Do we not partake of the Holy Mysteries then to our condemnation? Apostle Peter sinned, but he repented. Leaving the high priest’s courtyard, he wept bitterly. But Judas did not weep, did not humble himself, though he repents of his betrayal. Pilate denied Christ, but he also did not weep or grieve. The priests and princes of Israel rejected Christ, the scribes, the Pharisees and the multitude of people who cried “Crucify him, crucify him” (Luke 23:21). They all rejected Christ, but did not weep, shed no tears—and we so rarely do ourselves.

For these tears and repentance, Christ restored Apostle Peter after His resurrection. Three times did Christ ask him “Simon son of Jonah, lovest thou me?” And three times Peter responds “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Let us look at Apostle Paul. He persecuted the Church of Christ, for then he had no spiritual sight. The Lord removed the blinders from his mind. When Apostle Paul traveled to Damascus to bring Christians back to the high priests in Jerusalem for martyrdom, a great light shone forth, blinding him, and he heard the voice, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?”

And from that moment, his glorious Apostolic service began. Apostle Paul truly ascends “from strength to strength,” making great missionary voyages to various places of the earth. He endures need, hunger, cold, beatings, he performs numerous miracles. He was on the island of Melita, and was bitten by a snake. He threw it into the fire, but suffered no ailment from the bite. He comes to Lystra with his fellow-traveler Barnabas. The local population was so inspired by his preaching and they received him and Barnabas as gods and even brought a young man in sacrifice to them.

The persecutor of Christ becomes His fiery disciple, a preacher of love. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes; “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). Truly, Apostle Paul becomes a pillar of fire, heatedly preaching love. But he is also a pillar of clouds. He spiritually reaches the third heaven. In divine ecstasy, in mysterious spiritual elation, he sees the glory of heaven and hears words he cannot retell in human words. Both apostles journey to other countries. By their preaching they truly capture the universe. They do this without armies and without arms. They have conquered the whole world. They obtained the world, but they did not divide people in order to rule the earth, but they suffered for the salvation of the world.

Both one and the other died as martyrs. Apostle Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded, an Apostle Peter was crucified.  May the labors of these Apostles of Christ, their sufferings, their deaths strengthen us who live abroad and our passion-bearing compatriots in the Homeland, to this terrible and grievous time for all nations, enduring great and horrible catastrophes. May their unity of mind serve as an example to all who believe in Christ. If such spiritually-different Apostles united around Christ, then what hinders us believers, who may be divided into many parties, groups and philosophies, from being at peace with one another and praise God with one heart? Holy Chief Apostles Peter and Paul, pray to God for us! Amen.