Homily for the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are just four feasts in the Orthodox calendar prepared for by a period of fasting: Pascha, preceded by Lent; Christmas, preceded by a forty-day fast, called the St Philip Fast, pre-Christmas Fast (or in the West the Advent Fast); the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, preceded by the Dormition fast, consisting of the first fortnight of August; and then the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, preceded by the Apostles’ fast, lasting from the day after All Saints’ Sunday (therefore a variable period). The fast certainly signals out the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul as special, though we are left to figure out why. Pentecost–All Saints–the Feast of the Apostles: perhaps that is the point? Pentecost is the feast of the birth of the Church, with the descent of the Holy Spirit; All Saints is again a feast celebrating the Church, for the Church is… all the Saints—St Paul, in his letters to the churches, very often refers to the members of the church to whom he is writing as ‘saints’, ἁγίοι. And now the Feast of the Apostles—the ‘holy, glorious, all-praised Apostles and “first-leaders” [the best I can think of for Πρωτοκορυφαίοι], Peter and Paul’—for they, in some way, represent the Church. In what way? Not as founders, for that is Christ our Lord, but as, historically, the two principal missionaries, who established local Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world in the decades after Pentecost. ‘Historically’? But more than that, for the Church itself is more than historical: in the second century, a Roman Christian called Hermas had a vision of the Church who appeared to him first as an old woman, and then in successive visions as younger and younger, until finally as a bride, ‘coming forth as if from the bridal chamber’; she first appeared as an old woman, because she was ‘created first of all things, for whose sake the world was established’ (Vision  2. 4. 1). The Church is not just a human institution, in whose establishment Peter and Paul played a fundamental role, it is older than creation, the reason for creation, and Peter and Paul’s role in the Church is drawn into that mystery beyond time. So it is, in the icon of Pentecost, with the apostles gathered together with the Spirit in flames of fire descending on each one of them, the two chief apostles are Peter and Paul; even though, at Pentecost, Paul was historically not even a Christian, let alone an apostle—his conversion took place some considerable time later. Perhaps we should say then that Peter and Paul are the ‘Apostles and First-Leaders’, because in bringing the Church into historical form, they are drawing into time, as it were, a mystery that belongs to eternity.

Certainly, the story we learn from the Scriptures of the growth of the Church is a story presented as being—for the most part—the story of Peter and Paul. The Acts of the Apostles, for example, is first mostly about Peter’s preaching the Gospel and leadership of the Church, initially in Jerusalem, and then, about half-way through the story switches to focus on Paul. Both Peter and Paul were instrumental in seeing the mission of the Church as a mission not just to the Jews, telling them about their Messiah, but a mission to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, telling them that Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, is not just the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel, but ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, as Luke, one of those close to Paul, puts on the lips of Symeon, after his meeting with the infant Christ in the Temple. The second part of Acts tells the story of the Apostle Paul’s journey as an Apostle from Jerusalem to Rome, where we leave him under house arrest, awaiting trial and eventual martyrdom. Rome is also associated with St Peter, and that, too, contributes to the association of Peter and Paul in today’s feast. But, although Peter and Paul are represented as in agreement over the mission to the Gentiles (which, let us never forget, includes us, for the most part), both the account in Acts and Paul’s own account in Galatians suggests that Peter and Paul disagreed over how to implement this extension of membership of the Church beyond Judaism—for Paul, very nearly the heart of the Gospel, for Peter, a policy to be introduced more gradually. Paul himself says that in Antioch he confronted Peter to his face over what he calls his ‘hypocrisy’, but which Peter probably thought of as a kind of gradualism, not upsetting too abruptly the Jewish sensitivities of those Jews who had accepted Christ (cf. Gal. 2: 11–16). There are echoes of such a Petrine-Pauline division in the second century, and a glimpse of it elsewhere in the New Testament, for instance in the second letter of Peter, where Peter is represented as grumbling about the fact that in the letters of ‘our beloved brother Paul’ there are some things ‘hard to understand’ which ‘the unlearned and unstable distort… to their own perdition’ (2 Peter 3: 15–16).

There are two icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul. One, perhaps the commonest, depicts the apostles holding a church building (and sometimes surrounded by the rest of the Apostles)—that speaks clearly of the apostles, and especially the leaders of the apostles, as the (earthly) foundation of the Church, the apostolic foundation of the Church of which the Lord speaks in the Gospel we have just heard, ‘You are Peter and upon this rock (Gk: petra) I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’. The Lord goes on to say, ‘And I shall give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ (Matt. 16: 18–19): the apostolic foundation of the Church is Peter’s faith, and that faith makes possible forgiveness—and binding, the denial of forgiveness. The apostolic foundation of the Church is bound up with the right to forgive, to grant God’s forgiveness.

But the second icon of the Apostles Peter and Paul. This is the icon of the two Apostles embracing each other. It both refers to the division or even quarrel that took place between them, and—and this is more important—to their reconciliation. Just as the point of the gift of the keys is that they can unlock the gates to the kingdom (we don’t need the keys to leave them locked), so the point of the reconciliation of the Apostles is the reconciliation, not the earlier disagreement. For just as it is all too easy to leave the gates of the kingdom locked, for it requires repentance to open them, and repentance is hard, so, too, disagreement can remain and fester, poisoning and ultimately destroying, a relationship. The passage we have just heard from the Apostle, from Paul, is that almost embarrassing passage in the second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul begins by boasting—in his ‘foolishness’—of his Jewish ancestry, of all that he has achieved, all that he has suffered, as Christ’s apostle—more than any other of the Apostles, and then goes on to speak of ‘someone’ (clearly himself) who has had visions and revelations. And then, suddenly, as it were, he realizes that all this is beside the point. What matters is not what he has achieved, how much he has suffered as Christ’s servant, not even his being raised to the third heaven and hearing ‘ineffable words’. What matters are other words of Christ’s to him, not in the least ineffable: ‘my grace is enough for you, for power is perfected in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12: 9). The first Paul, proud of his learning and insight, of his willingness to suffer for the Gospel, is the Paul who confronted Peter; the second Paul, knowing his weakness in which God’s grace is manifest, is the Paul who can embrace his brother Peter in forgiveness, both forgiving and accepting forgiveness. And that is the apostolic foundation of the Church. Amen.