When you hear Jesus teach his Gospel message in Matthew 11:27-30, it has all the seeds of a classic spiritual master imparting wisdom to those he loves—just like the Russian Staretsy of old, the great Orthodox Jesus-elders from the nineteenth century—but this is Jesus himself. We hear a loving invitation, one of the most celebrated and comforting in all of Scripture: “Come to me all you who are heavy-laden”—and in the midst of the sweet succor of hearing that is a promise from Jesus for those who comply: “And I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Yet, electrifying this message, through and through, is an obedience exercise which each of us as the faithful must fulfill: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me” (Mt. 11:28). So, Jesus is inviting you to come and promising you rest, even as you work to obey him. All this Gospel wisdom is offered to us as part of the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. So, how does that all fit together? I’ll show you.
We can see that both Peter and Paul poured out their lives in sacrificial apostleship. And for each of them, their service and leadership achieved a foundational role in the spread of Early Christianity. However, as we examine the lives of these two great saints, we do not see perfect people, but two troubled men who fell short of their own expectations, and the expectations of Jesus. But then, each of them repented and grew over time in their faith in Jesus Christ and their ability to fulfill God’s will. These two saints are set before us in the icon for the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul to demonstrate that, by God’s grace, hostility and built-up resentment between those around us can, within the miraculous work of reconciliation, transform and unify into brotherly love within the faithful action of following Christ, of coming to him and resting in him. Fear can be transformed to hope; deep-seated blame and sorrow can be turned to joyful acceptance; even prejudice can be transformed to appreciation all by the love of Jesus, son of the living God.
The Apostle Peter is not only a mighty leader in the Early Church, he was actually present to hear the teaching of Jesus and an eyewitness to many of his healing miracles—but, he also embodies a profound story of reconciliation. He denied Jesus three times when he needed him most. Yet still, the Resurrected Christ forgave him and redeemed him, commanding him—three times, even—through the power of loving God to: “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17). Thus, he was charged with caring for his growing flock of Jesus-followers. And Peter is remembered for finding his ministry-voice on the Day of Pentecost and preaching to the international audience gathered outside the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
The Apostle Paul was a faithful Jewish man and a Pharisee who harshly persecuted the early Jesus-followers, even hunting them down for the Roman authorities, and we know he witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen. The Resurrected Lord did not ask Paul if he loved him, as he did Peter. Instead, he knocked him right off his horse on the road to Damascus, and yelled at him from Heaven, blinding him (“Why are you persecuting me?” Acts 9:4). Yet, still, he forgave and redeemed him in the days after that, even as Paul was suffering in helpless disability. He was said to be short of stature and my guess is he was probably not easy on the eyes, but the power of God was with him—that is, after he repented.
God’s charge to Paul was to preach the dangerous claim that the Messiah is indeed Jesus Christ, son of the living God (Acts 9:20), and that belief in Jesus Christ is not just for Jewish people, for circumcised men, but the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all the men and women God created, even Gentiles and Roman pagans. And Paul preaches also in the Epistle, using the vivid analogy of the wild olive trees around him; and, what is so striking in it is his cautionary charge: “Remember that it is not you that support the roots, but the roots that support you” (Rom. 11:18). So, we are being warned not to become falsely proud, especially of our own which may not yet be tried in the fire, but to stand in awe of the mercy of God and his kindness shown to you in Jesus Christ.
In the years after the Resurrection of Jesus, Paul plays such an important role in the growth and understanding of Christian belief that our collection of New Testament texts is mostly written by him. And yet, Paul is definitely not described embracing Peter, as is depicted above in the icon for the feast-day. In fact, they were known in Scripture to confront each other with accusations. So, this is an uncomfortable and challenging icon-image to characterize Christian unity. Why, then, are these men hugging?
In celebrating the two mighty saints, Peter and Paul, we encounter two pillars of the Church who indeed may not have preferred to embrace each other in history. But the Orthodox Church in her wisdom makes use of this holy icon of the day to set before us an holy command: that we must, for the love of Jesus Christ, we must each strive to be reconciled with one another and to shake hands, to appreciate each other’s positions—and even embrace, as we see with the icon-model of Peter and Paul. Mark my words: this is no easy obedience to fulfill. And while it may be quite certain that national leaders are also being called by God to reconcile, especially those of neighboring countries which we name in our daily prayers, we are charged personally ourselves by the divine light in the icon and the Word of God illuminating us this feast-day to break down barriers with those we most resent close to home by the power of the love of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the Orthodox Church has united the veneration of the All-Praiseworthy Chiefs of the Apostles Peter and Paul in their combined feast-day and in their icon, which shows us the two men embracing each other, and sometimes holding between them a symbolic miniature of the Church they built. Peter and Paul were both passionate people who were raised up and empowered by God, but only after each personally repented their sins of betrayal and persecution. Look at these two saints: they are radiant with divine energy, but both came to this eternal apostolic glory through hard-won repentance and their steadfast love of Jesus Christ.
Despite the likely tension between these two powerful saints, we are shown within the treasury of this feast—both from the Gospel message and also the icon of the day showing Peter and Paul embracing—an outward and visible model for how we are meant as the faithful to live with each other before God. Even if we critically disagree, we can still live and work together, strive for fulfillment in the Church through the grace and the love of God, and we can work to negotiate reconciliation with one another in obedience to the divine charge, however costly. For indeed, it is this very love of God poured out to us in Creation and in the gift of Jesus Christ that enables us to overcome our differences and our interpersonal struggles. Let us all, then, hear once more the beloved invitation of Jesus to come and rest. For indeed, Jesus is calling us today, isn’t he, calling us to come to him. He is calling us as he called Andrew and John to “Come and see” (Jn 1:39); even as he called Zacchaeus to “Hurry and come down” (Lk. 19:5)—even as he called Lazarus to “Come forth!” (Jn. 11:43). Jesus is calling you to come to him; to lay down the burden of your resentments; to loosen the grip of your long-held hostility toward your neighbors and enemies—even the irritating ones in the family—and to embrace the love which radiates from God, nourishing and sustaining us every minute of this bright feast-day and unto ages of ages.
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