Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Holy Glorious and All-Praised Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul (June 29)

Sermon of Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Today the Holy Church piously remembers the sufferings of the Holy Glorious and All-Praised Apostles Peter and Paul.

St. Peter, the fervent follower of Jesus Christ, for the profound confession of His Divinity: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” was deemed worthy by the Savior to hear in answer, “Blessed art thou, Simon … I tell thee, that thou art Peter [Petrus], and on this stone [petra] I build My Church” (Mt.16:16-18). On “this stone” [petra], is on that which thou sayest: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” it is on this thy confession I build My Church. Wherefore the “thou art Peter”: it is from the “stone” [petra] that Peter [Petrus] is, and not from Peter [Petrus] that the “stone” [petra] is, just as the Christian is from Christ, and not Christ from the Christian. Do you want to know, from what sort of “rock” [petra] the Apostle Peter [Petrus] was named? Hear the Apostle Paul: “Brethren, I do not want ye to be ignorant,” says the Apostle of Christ, “how all our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor.10: 1-4). Here is the from whence the “Rock” is Peter.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the final days of His earthly life, in the days of His mission to the race of man, chose from among the disciples His twelve Apostles to preach the Word of God. Among them, the Apostle Peter for his fiery ardor was vouchsafed to occupy the first place (Mt.10:2) and to be as it were the representative person for all the Church. Therefore it is said to him, preferentially, after the confession: “I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in the heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth: shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16: 19). Therefore it was not one man, but rather the One Universal Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loosen.” And that it was actually the Church that received this right, and not exclusively a single person, turn your attention to another place of the Scriptures, where the same Lord says to all His Apostles, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit” and further after this, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them: and whose soever sins ye retain, are retained” (John 20: 22-23); or: “whatsoever ye bind upon the earth, shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosened in heaven” (Mt.18:18). Thus, it is the Church that binds, the Church that loosens; the Church, built upon the foundational cornerstone, Jesus Christ Himself (Eph 2:20), doth bind and loosen. Let both the binding and the loosening be feared: the loosening, in order not to fall under this again; the binding, in order not to remain forever in this condition. Therefore “Iniquities ensnare a man, and everyone is bound in the chains of his own sins,” says Wisdom (Prov 5:22); and except for Holy Church nowhere is it possible to receive the loosening.

After His Resurrection the Lord entrusted the Apostle Peter to shepherd His spiritual flock not because, that among the disciples only Peter alone was pre-deserved to shepherd the flock of Christ, but Christ addresses Himself chiefly to Peter because, that Peter was first among the Apostles and as such the representative of the Church; besides which, having turned in this instance to Peter alone, as to the top Apostle, Christ by this confirms the unity of the Church. “Simon of John” — says the Lord to Peter — “lovest thou Me?” — and the Apostle answered: “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee”; and a second time it was thus asked, and a second time he thus answered; being asked a third time, seeing that as it were not believed, he was saddened. But how is it possible for him not to believe That One, Who knew his heart? And wherefore then Peter answered: “Lord, Thou knowest all; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” “And sayeth Jesus to him” all three times “Feed My sheep” (John 20:15-17).

Besides this, the triple appealing of the Savior to Peter and the triple confession of Peter before the Lord had a particular beneficial purpose for the Apostle. That one, to whom was given “the keys of the kingdom” and the right “to bind and to loose,” bound himself thrice by fear and cowardice (Mt.26:69-75), and the Lord thrice loosens him by His appeal and in turn by his confession of strong love. And to shepherd literally the flock of Christ was acquired by all the Apostles and their successors. “Take heed, therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock,” the Apostle Paul urges church presbyters, “over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of the God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28); and the Apostle Peter to the elders: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof not by constraint, but willingly: not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when is appeared the Prince of pastors, ye will receive unfading crowns of glory” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

It is remarkable that Christ, having said to Peter: “Feed My sheep,” did not say: “Feed thy sheep,” but rather to feed, good servant, the sheep of the Lord. “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor.1:13). “Feed My sheep”. Wherefore “wolfish robbers, wolfish oppressors, deceitful teachers and mercenaries, not being concerned about the flock” (Mt.7:15; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1; John 10:12), having plundered a strange flock and making of the spoils as though it be of their own particular gain, they think that they feed their flock. Such are not good pastors, as pastors of the Lord. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), entrusted to Him by the chief Shepherd Himself (1 Pet 5:4). And the Apostle Peter, true to his calling, gave his soul for the very flock of Christ, having sealed his apostleship by a martyr’s death, is now glorified throughout all the world.

The Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, was changed from a robbing wolf into a meek lamb. Formerly he was an enemy of the Church, then is manifest as an Apostle. Formerly he stalked it, then preached it. Having received from the high priests the authority at large to throw all Christians in chains for execution, he was already on the way, he breathed out “threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), he thirsted for blood, but “He that dwells in the Heavens shall laugh him to scorn” (Ps 2:4). When he, “having persecuted and vexed” in such manner “the Church of God” (1Cor.15:9; Acts 8:5), he came near Damascus, and the Lord from Heaven called to him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” and I am here, and I am there, I am everywhere: here is My head; there is My body. There becomes nothing of a surprise in this; we ourselves are members of the Body of Christ. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me; it is hard for thee to kick against the goad” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul, however, “trembling and frightened”, cried out: “Who art Thou, Lord?” The Lord answered him, “I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest.”

And Saul suddenly undergoes a change: “What wantest Thou me to do?” — he cries out. And suddenly for him there is the Voice: “Arise, and go to the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:6). Here the Lord sends Ananias: “Arise and go into the street” to a man, “by the name of Saul,” and baptize him, “for this one is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9: 11, 15, 18). This vessel must be filled with My Grace. “Ananias, however, answered: Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he hath done to Thy saints in Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Thy Name” (Acts 9:13-14). But the Lord urgently commands Ananias: “Search for and fetch him, for this vessel is chosen by Me: for I shall show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:11, 15-16).

And actually the Lord did show the Apostle Paul what things he had to suffer for His Name. He instructed him the deeds; He did not stop at the chains, the fetters, the prisons and shipwrecks; He Himself felt for him in his sufferings, He Himself guided him towards this day. On a single day the memory of the sufferings of both these Apostles is celebrated, though they suffered on separate days, but by the spirit and the closeness of their suffering they constitute one. Peter went first, and Paul followed soon after him. Formerly called Saul, and then Paul, having transformed his pride into humility. His very name (Paulus), meaning “small, little, less,” demonstrates this. What is the Apostle Paul after this? Ask him, and he himself gives answer to this: “I am,” says he, “the least of the Apostles… but I have labored more abundantly than all of them: yet not I, but the grace of God, which was with me” (1 Cor.15:9-10).

And so, brethren, celebrating now the memory of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, remembering their venerable sufferings, we esteem their true faith and holy life, we esteem the innocence of their sufferings and pure confession. Loving in them the sublime quality and imitating them by great exploits, “in which to be likened to them” (2 Thess 3: 5-9), and we shall attain to that eternal bliss which is prepared for all the saints. The path of our life before was more grievous, thornier, harder, but “we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12: 1), having passed by along it, made now for us easier, and lighter, and more readily passable. First there passed along it “the author and finisher of our faith,” our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Heb 12: 2); His daring Apostles followed after Him; then the martyrs, children, women, virgins and a great multitude of witnesses. Who acted in them and helped them on this path? He Who said, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

Troparion — Tone 4

First-enthroned of the apostles, / teachers of the universe: / Entreat the Master of all / to grant peace to the world, / and to our souls great mercy!

Kontakion — Tone 2

O Lord, You have taken up to eternal rest / and to the enjoyment of Your blessings / the two divinely-inspired preachers, the leaders of the Apostles, / for You have accepted their labors and deaths as a sweet-smelling sacrifice, / for You alone know what lies in the hearts of men.

Kontakion — Tone 2

Today Christ the Rock glorifies with highest honor / The rock of Faith and leader of the Apostles, / Together with Paul and the company of the twelve, / Whose memory we celebrate with eagerness of faith, / Giving glory to the one who gave glory to them!

 

Saint John the Baptist

The Seal of the Prophets

The importance of John the Baptizer may be gauged by the amount of paint and ink the Church spends on him.  His portrait is painted and is found on every single icon-screen in all the churches, regardless of whether or not he is that church’s patron saint.  And many hymns have been written to celebrate his life.  Much ink is required for these hymns — he has many feasts.  Fifty-seven feasts each year in fact: the feasts of his conception on September 23, his birth on June 24, his beheading on August 29, the synaxis celebrating his role as the Lord’s baptizer on January 7, the feasts of his relics on February 24 and May 25, and every Tuesday of the 52 weeks of the year, which celebrate him in the weekly liturgical cycle.  That is a lot of feasts, requiring a lot of hymns.

This should only be expected for someone the Lord described as the greatest born of women (Matthew 11:11).  Yet, as the Lord went on to say, even the least of those in the kingdom was greater than John, for John stood outside the coming kingdom, suffering death at the hands of Herod before he could enter it himself.  John was, in fact, the embodiment of the Old Testament’s message, and as such he stood at the end of the long line of sacred history.  “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (v. 13), who was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, for after him there could be no more Old Testament prophecy.  He was the prophetic hinge, connecting the Old Covenant with the New.  In his ministry and message we find the entirety of the Old Testament distilled and offered to the Church.  Of that message, I would mention three things.

Firstly, John tells us to repent and that repentance is the only way to avoid the coming judgment of God.  That judgment will be thorough — not a little pruning of a few stray sinful branches, but the felling of the whole tree.  And repentance is urgently required, that that judgment is even now impending and threatening.  The axe of divine judgment is being laid at the root to the tree; the first blow of the axe is imminent, and there is no time to lose.

One might perhaps imagine that being part of a religious body would be enough to save.  It is not so.  Many Jews imagined that as the children of Abraham and members of the Chosen People they were immune and safe from divine wrath.  That wrath was for the Gentiles, not for Jews.  They were the children of Abraham, and were therefore safe.  John thundered against such presumption.  Being a child of Abraham was no great thing: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).  (This probably involves a play on words which vanishes in translation: from these stones [Hebrew eben] God is able to raise up servants/ sons [Hebrew ebed].)  If the Jews of old were not saved by racial membership, neither are we Gentiles by ecclesiastical membership.  What matters is repentance, which alone gives meaning to our inclusion in the Body of Christ.  Repentance is not something we do before we can serve God; it is what serving God consists of.

Secondly, we may ask what do we repent of?  What does God want from us?  The Pharisees were sure that repentance consisted of scrupulous attention to the minutiae of the Law, and fastidious care in keeping the Sabbath and ritual purification.  A truly devout person would wash one’s hands before eating just in case they had contracted ceremonial defilement in the marketplace (see Mark 7:3f).  Is that what repentance consists of?  Does God primarily want us to be more religious?  John taught otherwise.  Repentance consisted of care for the poor and of contentment with one’s lot.  “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11).  Notoriously sinful tax-collectors?  Let them “collect no more than was appointed” for them, cheating no one.  Soldiers?  “Rob no one by violence, and be content with your wages” (v. 12-14).

Here we see the explication of the constant theme of the Old Testament prophets.  All the prophets denounced social injustice and said that to know God was not to be religious, but to be kind to the poor (Jeremiah 22:16).  One of them, Micah, summed it all up:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good — what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).  The first and great commandment to love God manifests itself in its corollary, the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  If you love God Whom you have not seen, you will surely also love your neighbour whom you have seen (1 John 4:20).

Thirdly, John teaches us that Christ is everything.  Technically Jesus became John’s disciple when He was baptized by him.  Yet when John had his vision of a harmless dove descending upon Jesus after He was praying on the riverside after His baptism, John knew that Jesus was the sinless Messiah, the One Who would baptize in the Holy Spirit, the One Whose way he was preparing.  When John’s disciples found out that Jesus branched out on His own and was baptizing and making His own disciples, they were incensed and jealous on John’s behalf.  John was serene, recognizing in this the hand of God.  Of course all men were going to Jesus and He was winning the hearts of Israel.  Should not the bridegroom win the bride?  John was simply the friend of the bridegroom, the Best Man, and like the Best Man he rejoiced to see the bridegroom win his bride.  “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 4:25-30).

John speaks these words to us as well.  When our egos swell and we become angry at others, this is the sign that we must decrease, and let our egos shrink back to a normal size.  Jesus Christ must increase in our lives so that all our attention is on Him.

John was not just the Baptizer, he was the Forerunner, and his life had no other purpose than to reveal Christ and prepare His way.  From his place on our icon-screens, John tells us that we also have no other purpose but to serve the Lord.

By Father Lawrence Farley

 

 

 

About the Author

Fr. Lawrence Farley, formerly an Anglican priest and graduate of Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979, converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and then studied at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.  After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the OCA, St. Herman of Alaska Church.  The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C. The community has planted a number of daughter churches, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence is the author of many books including the Bible Study Companion SeriesLet Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, and A Daily Calendar of Saints. He has also written a series of Akathists published by Alexander Press, and his articles have appeared in numerous publications.

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio called Coffee Cup Commentaries, and writes monthly for Sounding, the blog of Orthodox Christian Network. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at Regent College in Vancouver. Father lives in Surrey with his wife Donna; he and Matushka Donna have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. He regularly updates his blog, “No Other Foundation”.