The Rev. Dr. Demetrios Tonias Represents the Metropolis of Boston at the Catholic Archdiocese in Braintree, MA for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul
Catholic Archdiocese on June 29 for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Sermon on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Rev. Fr. Demetrios E. Tonias, Ph.D.
Dean, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of New England
Ecumenical Officer, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston
Your Excellency Bishop Kennedy, priests, deacons, and faithful of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, I offer the best wishes and prayers of His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios and the entire Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston on this, the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul.
The exchange of Catholic and Orthodox representatives on the respective patronal feast days of each church witnesses to the unique role the disciples and apostles of the Lord played, both in the Gospel narratives and in the life of the early church. Indeed, in today’s Gospel reading, the question which the Lord posed to his closest followers illuminates this importance.
Jesus asked his disciples what others said about him. The report of his followers varied. The twelve gathered around their master related that most of the people who encountered him regarded him as one of the prophets. Some said the Prophet Elias, others Jeremiah, still others perceived him to be John the Baptist.
The suspicions of the masses were not without merit. The prophets had indeed called Israel to a higher state of holiness as did the preacher from Nazareth. Elias, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist had all warned the people in general, and their leaders in particular, of the dangers that awaited them if they failed to repent. There was, however, one place where their perception of Jesus as a prophet fell short. John the Baptist and the holy men who preceded him spoke of a deliverer who was to follow. The rabbi from Galilee never made such an assertion.
After Jesus had inquired as to what others said about him, he then posed the same question to his disciples asking them, “But who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who spoke. “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Peter’s confession of faith is the rock upon which the entire Gospel narrative stands.
The multitudes had heard Jesus preach, saw him heal, and witnessed him raise the dead—as did Peter. Their conceptions of the Galilean rabbi, however, were very different. Was Jesus a prophet or the Son of God? Was he preacher of the Word or the Word made flesh? Was he a forerunner or the one who was foretold?
Today, on this great feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, Christ confront all of us with the same question and he asks us all, “Who do you say that I am.” Related to this question is another, “Do we wish to be part of the crowd or do we desire to be a disciple?”
In the original Greek of the New Testament the word “ὄχλος” more often than not comes down to us as “crowd” in English. The word “ὄχλος,” however, can also connote a mob, a mass of bodies that is ill defined and, although a unit, is composed of a variety of personalities and individuals. The Greek word for disciple is “μαθητής"–literally a student. A “disciple” implies an individual engaged in “μαθήματα” or lessons. There is a great difference, indeed, between being a part of the crowd and being a disciple of the Lord.
The crowd is with us always. We hear its voice constantly. The crowd’s perception of Jesus Christ is sometimes accurate but, more often than not, misses the mark. We hear the crowd describe Christ as “a philosopher” and a “wise man,” a “shaman” or a “sage.” Now, as then, the crowd will acknowledge Jesus as a prophet or holy man, perhaps even divinely inspired. Other times, Jesus is regarded as a friend, a co-pilot, or even a shoulder to lean on. All of these are close but all of them miss the mark. Peter’s confession of faith demonstrates this.
The difference between a member of the crowd and a disciple is one of proximity. The crowd is remote; the disciple is close. The crowd hears the loudest voices; the disciple listens to the teacher. The crowd follows the person in front; the disciple follows the master. The crowd is fickle; the disciple is loyal.
Today’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul reminds us of the role to which we are called. We are called to be much more than a person in the crowd, we are called to be disciples of Christ. It is, however, our choice to make—and the choice has never been an easy one to make, even though it should be.
When the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt they witnessed the mighty acts of God. They saw the River Nile turn red and the angel of death pass over their homes, they beheld the pillar of fire and passed through the Red Sea. When they stood on the opposite bank of that same Sea, the crowd sang a song of praise to the God who had rescued them. And yet, while Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai that same crowd grew restless. That same crowd that sang the Song of the Sea fashioned an idol out of gold and worshipped it. When Christ entered Jerusalem, the crowds sang to Him, “Hossana!”, laid down their cloaks and placed palm branches before him. That same crowd that declared “Hossana!” a few days later cried out “Crucify him!”
And today, as in every age, when terror strikes our land, when natural disasters confront us, we pray to God for His aid. When we encounter the shipwreck of distress in our lives, we look to the heavens for a miracle. However, when the crowd has been delivered from its sorrows it quickly forgets. Religion is dismissed as a philosophy at best and a fiction at worst. The crowd mocks and wags its head today just as it did from the base of the Cross at Golgotha.
The many fickle voices of the crowd continue to call out to all of us. They are voices which tell us to qualify God’s blessings once we receive them and dismiss them as fate or even dumb luck. They are voices which tempt us to build up idols for ourselves, and even of ourselves, rather than worship the Triune God. They are voices which lead us to the precipice of destruction where Babylon awaits to exile us from the promised land of blessings into a world of slavery to selfish desires.
The Apostle Paul was also one of those from the crowd who shook his fist at the Lord. But when the Lord knocked him from his horse on the road to Damascus, he had the presence of mind to understand who it was who had unsaddled him, for he later went into the synagogue and declared, “He is the Son of God.” With that public declaration, Paul had ceased to be a member of the crowd and had become a disciple of the Lord.
This is the truth which we are called to acknowledge as Christians. It is the confession of both Peter and Paul that Jesus is, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It is a simple, declarative statement devoid of indefinite articles. He is not “a” Christ nor is he “a” son but rather he is “the” Christ and “the” Son of God. Upon this rock of truth stands not only the edifice of the Church but of all creation.
The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, not to fulfill some abstract social ethic, but rather to appropriate the totally of our human nature in order to redeem it. For that which is not appropriated cannot be redeemed. Christ is the New Adam–perfect God and Perfect man. He is ὁ Θεάνθρωπος–the Godman–who comes to lead us, not to any philosophical truth, but rather toward the perfection that was intended for us before the world was made.
When we, like Peter and Paul, come to see Jesus Christ as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then we can begin to separate ourselves from the crowd of doubters, naysayers, and prevaricators and identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. When we begin to understand that “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us” then we will be healed of our spiritual blindness and we will be able to declare Christ our God as the savior of our souls.
Once we remove ourselves from the crowd we can begin to see the cosmos as it truly is. Once we remove ourselves from the crowd, we can begin to see who Christ really is. Once we remove ourselves from the crowd and climb up the sycamore tree of faith, Christ Himself will enter into the household of our hearts and accept us as one of his beloved disciples.
It was only by being good disciples—good students—that Peter and Paul were able to become good teachers and communicate their confession of faith to their students who in turn gave birth to future generation of teachers. Indeed, it was their communication of this great confession of faith—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God—that Peter and Paul were able to fulfill the Great Commission given to them to “make disciples of all the nations.” This is why the apostolic tradition is so important to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches—because the apostolic tradition is the conduit through which the truth of the Gospel flows. It is the truth that our spiritual leaders Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Metropolitan Methodios seek to communicate to all of us today. It is a truth which we are called to confess when the Lord asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Saints Peter and Paul declare to us today all we need to know about the universe. Their fellow disciple John articulated this truth in a different way when he said that, “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” When we accept this truth, then we keep company with John, and Paul, and Peter, and every disciple of the Lord. When we accept this truth we understand not only the meaning of the Gospel but the meaning of life. When we accept this truth we cease to be just another voice in the crowd and become a disciple of Christ. Once we accept this truth, we stand upon the rock of faith against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. Amen.