June 30, 2019

Sermon – The Feast of the Holy Apostles

Pastoral Sermon
Feast of St. Peter and Paul
V. Rev. Timothy Baclig, Pastor
June 29, 2019

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul who are held in high honor as the co-founders of our Church of Antioch. They were two men who were very different in personality and temperament. However, both were zealous.

I remember well what it was like for me during my journey in discovering Holy Orthodoxy which led to my Confirmation in the Church. I had within me a burning passion about all that I was learning. Following my return from Jerusalem, I knew that I could no longer understand or live the Christian life as I once did. I was filled with a deep sense of meaning from my learning experience while in the Holy Land.

Zeal is best described as: a great energy and enthusiasm in pursuit of one’s goals. In my personal experience, I found that my life took on a different and unexpected turn. While I had long planned to become a minister of the Gospel, I had no idea that I would discover myself at home in the Orthodox Church.

A close study of the witness and testimony (found in scripture) about the lives of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul reveals something very fascinating about how their lives were changed by Christ. It is probably more accurate to describe their transformation by noticing how they were broken.

You and I do not like to think about becoming broken. It implies acknowledging or facing our weaknesses. We don’t like showing ourselves as “weak,” not to mention admitting that we are weak in any way. Men may have a more difficult time with this, however, women in our society today, who have become very strong in their self-confidence, are known to also struggle with this.

Persons can be very self-destructive at times. And while one may also be very ambitious, there are times when people can be very hurtful to others, and sometimes without realizing it, to one’s own self. Zeal (Gr. zelos) can be described in two ways: 1) it can be arrogant (or very self-centered) or 2) filled with love and devotion — and in this way: selfless and very sacrificial. While the second may sound and imply a “submissiveness” (and erroneously for some, “more feminine”), at the end of today’s Epistle (II Corinthians 11:21 to 12:9) we hear St. Paul, who was certainly a strong and bold individual speak personally of this as a mystery: He first tells us of being personally harassed by Satan. He describes this personal struggle by saying that he pursued seeking to understand why God allowed this to happen to him. To which the Lord responded: “My grace is sufficient for you.…for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

There are many people who speak eloquently of “God’s grace.” If you listen closely to their story you will find that they are men and women who were broken perhaps through a crisis. St. Paul’s lesson concludes with him saying in his own words, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” There are not very many like Paul who have mastered this.

St. Peter, who was first called Simon as a disciple, you may recall, was a person who was quick to speak and slow to listen. Peter was from Bethsaida of Galilee, the son of Jonas, and the brother of Andrew. Peter and his brother Andrew were fishermen by trade, unlearned and poor. We could say that Peter was among those of his family who, having come from a humble upbringing, had to struggle to be successful in life. After becoming a disciple of the Lord, Peter acknowledged and referred to Jesus as: “The Master.” However, Peter had his own idea about who he considered Christ to be; perhaps based upon a notion of who he wanted and personally desired the Lord to be based upon what he was taught. In the days of the first century, many of the Jews were anticipating the coming of a Messiah, an “anointed one” who was to establish the Kingdom of Israel.

We hear in today’s Gospel a dialogue that Jesus had with the disciples in Caesarea Philippi when He asked them “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” To which they replied: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah and one of the prophets.” Then the Lord said, “What about you… who do YOU say that I am?” And while the question was posed to all of the disciples, it was Peter who quickly responded (and notice: with the right answer) saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It was then that Jesus said: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah” for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven…. and I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock (confession) I will build my church.

You know, sometimes having the right answer does not necessarily mean personally knowing or understanding it. As a young man I grew up as a Christian, committed to knowing Christ as my Lord and Saviour, and acquired a great deal of knowledge. That in and of itself, even with my decision to follow Christ was not enough. I had a lot of questions.

Remember it was Peter who Jesus asked three times: “Do you love me?” It was also the same Peter who denied the Lord three times. You can only imagine what he felt in his heart when he remembered that the Lord who knew him best, predicted his denials. Peter was broken by his pride. His life was changed when after the Day of Pentecost, he received a spiritual power that purged him from the limitations of his short-sightedness. Unlike Judas, who forever remained self-centered and ended up tormenting himself to the point of ending his own life, Peter was a man who repented. The change that Peter experienced was his discovery and acknowledgment of the truth.

Paul, on the other hand, in the days of Christ, was a persecutor of Christians. Prior to his conversion he was called “Saul” (Acts 22:2-4). Like Peter he was a Jew, but of the tribe of Benjamin of the land of Tarsus, a Roman citizen, fluent in Greek, a learned expert in the Law, a Pharisee, born of a Pharisee, and a disciple of the Rabii Gamaliel (a notable teacher of the Law in Jerusalem). Paul had it made! He had clout. He also possessed political power. He was a most fervent zealot for the traditions of the Jews and also a great persecutor of the Church of Christ.

In his encounter with Christ that took place in a dramatic conversation on his way to Damascus, recorded in the Book of Acts, we hear that Paul became physically blind for a period of time. Like Peter, Paul was broken from his pride. He too was crushed. And like Peter, Paul needed to repent. What is most remarkable in Paul’s transformation, recorded through the report of Ananias (who was chosen to place his hands upon Paul, to heal and baptize him). The Lord revealed to Ananias (who was very fearful of Paul): This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name [to the] Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel… I will show him how much he must suffer for my name. So for Saul, now called “Paul,” we know of a Apostle who not only was broken, but who was destined to face great suffering as a convert.

In his writing to Timothy he states: “You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” He goes on to say, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12).

The Christian life is a path that is transformative. Being a disciple of Christ is a call: 1) to repentance (self-denial), 2) the challenge to “take up” one’s cross, and 3) to “follow Christ.” It is not a one-time decision or experience. It is a growth process. It is a lifetime commitment. It is something we do on a daily basis.

The fact that Saints Peter and Paul, who were strong men, of great zeal, of different personalities; men who were also known to even argue among themselves, and are now presented to us at the forefront of the Holy Apostles is a remarkable thing. This would not have been possible had these men not been broken. It also would not have been possible if these men did not lay aside their personal agendas for the sake of the Gospel.

Do you consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ? Do you know what it means to take up your cross? Are there things that you need to confess in order to honestly do so? May God grant us courage to be broken, but more importantly to be healed from our shortsightedness and selfish ambitions that we may honor and glorify God in following Him.