[The following is a homily I gave in 2002 for the feast of SS Peter and Paul.]
Why do we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul with such elaborate Offices, why do the Byzantine Churches make this day a holy day of obligation? This is quite extraordinary, since no other saint, short of the Mother of God, has such an obligation attached to any of their feasts. Is it because they are great martyrs? Well, no, because all the apostles, except probably John, were martyrs. Is it because they left us with many biblical writings? Well, St. Paul wrote quite a bit, but St. Peter wrote very little. Is it because they were high-profile leaders of the early Church? Well, that’s not it either, because there were other high-profile leaders of the early Church, like St. James for example, and he doesn’t get a holy day of obligation. So, it’s basically because these two men give us, through their lives, and especially through the readings that the Church provides today (Mt. 16:13-19; 2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), an insight into the essence of the Church. And that is why, in some places in the Office, we say: this is the feast of the Church. That’s probably why this feast is a day of obligation. The Church says: this is the feast of the Church, and so you should come to the Liturgy.
So let’s look a little bit at the readings and see some of the points that make these two apostles stand out as icons of the Church, elements of their lives that show us what the Church is about. I found four—and they’re not “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” That’s something else. Those are the four “marks” of the Church. But there are other elements, and they are: faith, leadership, asceticism, and mysticism. Those are four important elements of what the Church is and that we find in these readings. We’ll look first at the gospel, which is chosen for St. Peter.
The first, and foundational, mystery here is faith. Peter’s bold profession of faith in Christ was recognized by Jesus as being a divine revelation. It wasn’t something that Peter arrived at by logical deduction or reasoning, because Christ said: This has come to you by revelation from my Heavenly Father, this faith that you have, that I am the Son of the Living God. Then Jesus said: Now, I build my Church on you, the rock, you who have professed this faith, that’s what my Church is going to be built on. And so, the foundation of everything, of the whole Church, is faith—faith in Christ as the Son of God, faith in the Holy Trinity, faith in everything that God has revealed to us, especially through Christ, especially the whole history of salvation; that’s the bedrock, the foundation of the Church.
The next point is the leadership or authority that was entrusted to Peter and given to the Church. For Jesus said: I give to you the keys of the Kingdom, so whatever you bind is held bound in Heaven and whatever you loose is loosed in Heaven. This is not merely a sort of legal or external kind of power, to be able to impose things on people, but it’s a principle of leadership for the Church, an example to be set for the sake of the proper functioning, unity, and harmony within the Church, and also keeping the Church free from error and other junk that creeps in and has to be dealt with by the legitimate authority. It’s not a canon law thing, because, as we heard in the Office today, Peter was given the keys of grace! That puts another dimension to it, because this ministry of authority is also the sacramental ministry of the Church, and so the Church regulates the worship of Christ, and the administration and celebration of the sacraments. Thus it’s not just a legal power, but it’s also a ministry of grace, of the grace of the sacraments.
We have seen that the foundation is faith, and that the authority or leadership is the external structure that’s built on that foundation of faith. But then, when we come to St. Paul, we go into the interior of the Church, of that edifice built on faith, and that’s where we find the elements of asceticism and mysticism.
First of all, St. Paul goes through all of his sufferings that he endured for the sake of Christ. These are more or less external sufferings, like getting beaten and shipwrecked and dealing with robbers and traitors and stuff like that, but in other lists of his trials and tribulations he also mentions things like fasting and vigils and other things that are more properly seen as ascetical practices. But the whole picture of sacrifice and suffering for Christ comes under that broad concept of asceticism, of training as a soldier, as an athlete of Christ. This is an important aspect: the spiritual discipline and the ability to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. That is very important, and that is where the martyrs have sprung from, that charism in the Church, because they endured trials to the end, to the final witness, that nothing could stand in the way of their profession of faith and their loyalty to the revelation of God in Christ.
Finally, and most deeply perhaps, is the element of mysticism. The Church will not survive without her mystics, without those—and we should all be among them, at least to some extent—who enter personally, deeply, into the experience of God, and have that profound relationship to Him. The Church can otherwise degenerate into just an empty shell, an empty edifice, a building with no heart, no warmth, just a monolithic power structure—God forbid! This is the Bride of Christ, and the Bride must have that intimate relation with Him.
St. Paul talks about his own experience, at least to some extent; he talks about it in a sort of oblique way: “I know somebody who had this experience”—well, of course, he’s talking about himself—someone who was taken up into Paradise, who experienced things beyond all telling, beyond all ability to tell, and entered into the heart of that mystery which has to sustain the rest of the Church’s life and functioning, and her whole sacramental life and moral and charitable life. That element of mysticism is very important. And, really, underlying everything that we’ve just said about the elements of the Church that the apostles represent and manifest as icons, is—we go back now to the Gospel at Matins, and to Peter: “Simon, do you love Me?” That’s the bottom line. That’s really the heartbeat of the Church. If there’s no love, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter. The power of the keys doesn’t matter; the struggles and the labors don’t matter; even the faith—you know, St. Paul says, in First Corinthians, “Even if I have faith to move mountains, but don’t have love, I’m still nothing.” So even faith is nothing without love. This, then, is the bottom line to the whole mystery of the Church, and if it’s not there, the Church is not there, regardless of how many buildings you have all over the world.
I just read something that’s very interesting—it’s very sobering, but it’s enlightening as well—from Dostoyevsky, about love, and it’s in the context of Hell. In his book, The Brothers Karamazov, where the elder Zosima is giving his testament, he says, well, what is Hell? He said: I think that Hell is the suffering of being unable to love. He goes into some detail about this. He says: if you have lived your life, rejecting the love of others, refusing to love others—being selfish, and resentful, and angry, and bitter, and not concerned about serving and sacrificing yourself for others—then you’re going to die, and you’re going to be like the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. You’re going to see Abraham afar off, while you are in torment because of this spiritual, burning thirst for love that you cannot anymore satisfy. You’re going to realize when you die, that the whole meaning of life was to love, and that you rejected it, you lost it. But when you finally see the truth, when you’ve passed that border and you have already stood before God, then you know that life is about love and nothing else, ultimately. Then, you’re going to see that that is what you really want, and now you can’t have it, because you’ve cut yourself off from it. And he said the reason is, you’re going to find yourself in a position when you die, that you can no longer sacrifice yourself for love, you can no longer suffer for the sake of love, you can no longer give of yourself—actively, personally—for love, because that opportunity is gone! That opportunity was your earthly life; you had the opportunity. And that, he says, is what was the drop of water the suffering soul asked Abraham for: give me another chance, give me one more minute of earthly life in which I can love somebody, and quench this burning thirst for love, that I cannot any longer quench, and that I have to be stuck with for all eternity.
So, let us, as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, along with our faith, with our sacramental life, with our ascetical struggles, with our longing for mystical union with God, let us learn how to love, and let us put it into practice, because that’s going to be the bottom line; that’s going to be what matters. I cannot even imagine how horrible that would be, that suffering. Dostoyevsky even says: I don’t know if there’s a material fire in Hell, but if there is, the souls would be glad of it, because it would, for a while, take their mind off the spiritual fire, which is much worse. So, we have to take that seriously, and realize that love is what life is about, and if we’re going to be members of the Body of Christ, that’s how we’re going to live. When we die, then we will see that the love that we shared and received and suffered and sacrificed for in this life will be magnified and blessed and rewarded a million-fold, and we’ll be totally fulfilled, and realize the purpose of our existence—which is, as Christ says, to love God, with your whole heart, and soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.