On June 28th, the Rev. Dr. Demetrios Tonias, Ecumenical Officer of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston delivered the homily at the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul at the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
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
28 June 2019
Your Excellency Bishop Arthur Kennedy, Deacon Charles, clergy 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 eve of the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, we honor the rock and the trumpet—Peter, the rock on which Christ built the Church and which the gates of Hades will not overcome; and Paul, the heavenly trumpet whose ministry made him the Apostle to the nations. Each saint had a variety of χαρίσματα—gifts—that made them unique. Both, however, possessed the same, singular quality—an attribute that sets them apart and that makes them both such brilliant examples for all of us to follow; Peter and Paul knew how to repent.
Saints Peter and Paul were each known for their inner strength and strong faith. Indeed, each was unperturbable in their steadfast devotion and beliefs. Peter, the faithful servant of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul, the dedicated defender of the Mosaic Law. Each possessed supreme self-confidence. Peter in his belief that Christ was God and Paul in his belief that He was not. Peter in his belief that he would never deny Christ and Paul in his belief that he would never accept Him. Both were wrong.
Peter denied Christ three times, and the crowing of the rooster proved how wrong he was. Paul was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, and the appearance of Christ before him demonstrated how mistaken he was. They were both wrong and they both knew it. What made them great, however, was not their ability to see the error of their ways. Rather, their greatness was in their ability to do something about it.
In the original Greek, the word for repentance is μετάνοια. As metamorphosis means to change form, μετάνοια means to change one’s mind. This change of mind was at the heart of John the Baptist’s preaching when he declared, “μετανοεῖτε· ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν”—“repent for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand” (Matt 3:2). The citizens of Judea would have known this as teshuvah (תשובה)—to turn around and return. When Herod Antipas silenced the voice of the Forerunner, Christ continued to preach John’s message throughout Galilee and beyond. His was a Gospel of repentance in which he called on all to change their minds and return to the paradise that was prepared by God at the creation of the Cosmos.
Peter and Paul stand before us today as preeminent icons of repentance and their example shines before us as an image, not only of their ability to change, but of God’s infinite capacity to forgive.
Some might say that Peter and Paul had to repent. Who could refuse to change course if they were blinded and on their back as the Lord spoke to them? When it comes to repentance, however, there is no fait accompli. There is no forgone conclusion.
Both Peter, who denied Christ, and Judas, who betrayed Him, felt remorse for their actions, but only Peter truly repented. Had Judas chosen to trust in God’s mercy and not taken matters into his own hands and taken his own life, he would have been able to see the Risen Lord and ask for forgiveness. Had Judas repented, we would be building cathedrals in his name today.
Similarly, Christ appeared to Paul and spoke to him, but He also revealed Himself in the flesh to countless scribes and Pharisees who, though they witnessed great miracles and heard His words, refused to believe. The crowds saw Lazarus raised from the dead and praised Christ as their Savior that first Palm Sunday, but five days later their faith had turned to dust. They envisioned a Savior mounted on a steed, not on the foal of a donkey. The Savior they expected would vanquish Israel’s enemies, not command them to love them. There was no repentance in their hearts, no desire to change their minds, no longing to turn back and return to the God who stood before them with a crown of thorns on His head.
Both Peter and Paul had those essential qualities necessary for repentance. They were able to set aside their own preconceived notions and accept Christ our God as He presented Himself to them—not as they envisioned Him. They were able to humble themselves and accept their errors and own their mistakes, rather than make excuses for them as so many of us do on a daily basis. They were able to trust in His great mercy and love for humanity, rather than assuming that their sin was too great to be forgiven.
And so it is for all of us. We are often unable to repent because we fashion a God from whom no repentance is required. In today’s popular theology, forgiveness comes on the cheap. Sin is excused because it suits our needs rather than God’s. We convince ourselves that there is no need for repentance because, “God is a loving God who forgives all things.” “As He forgave the adulteress, so He will forgive us.” We accept this truth and conveniently omit or ignore Christ’s admonition after forgiving her, “to go and sin no more.”
So often when we sin, we are unable to accept our transgressions as our own doing. There is always an excuse at the ready—typically conceived when we first contemplate the sin. We blame neighbors and friends, Satan, or even God Himself—anyone but ourselves—in an effort to escape responsibility for our actions.
When we sin, we have a difficult time comprehending the depth of God’s mercy and love. We become so grief stricken that we are unable to forgive ourselves and don’t know how God could either. We are immobilized by our sin, sink deeper into despair, and are unable to do anything about it.
This day, and every day, Peter and Paul show us how to dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up from the dusty Damascus road. They show us the manner in which we should accept our sin, so we can allow God to set us free from it. They show us how to turn around, change our minds, and begin the journey back to God so he can cleanse us from our transgressions and lead us back to paradise.
The “rock” that is Peter, shows us how God can transform fearful denial into courageous proclamation. The “trumpet” that is Paul, shows us how He can change fearsome invective into fearless evangelization. The rock and the trumpet show us “the way” to forgiveness and salvation.
Before they were called “Χριστιανοί”—Christians—the disciples of Jesus Christ were simply called, followers of “The Way.” Christ, the New Adam, came to show all of us the path on which we should walk. It is a path that leads us all back to Paradise. In order to reach our destination, however, we must first turn around and set our foot on the road which Christ established. Some of us have our back to the road, others find themselves walking off the path, all of us need to orient ourselves toward the Garden that Adam and Eve abandoned.
In the sacred icon of Saints Peter and Paul, the two apostles are depicted holding the Church—one on the left and one on the right. The Church is the portal through which we must all pass, if we wish to travel the road of repentance that Christ established for all humanity. Indeed, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Through Holy Baptism we are set on the path to paradise. Through sincere repentance and the sacrament of Holy Confession we are reoriented on that path. Through the reception of Holy Communion we are drawn ever closer to the Lord, who stands at the end of the road, beckoning us all to Him.
When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ began his ministry, he gave His disciples one simple instruction”—“Ἀκολούθει μοι”—“Follow me.” It’s the same instruction He gave Peter and Paul—it’s the same instruction he gives all of us. All humans, made in the image and likeness of God, who have the “seed of the Word of God”—“ὁ Λόγος σπερματικός”—planted in their hearts, yearn to follow Him on this road that leads humanity back to Paradise. Sometimes we stumble, as Peter and Paul stumbled. But these great saints, teach us how to pick ourselves up and get back on our feet. These great saints direct us to Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. These great saints lead us all on the road that leads us back to salvation, back to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.