Christ gathered His disciples and announced to them the message of new life, of victory over evil and of eternal joy, and sent them to all ends of the universe to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. The word “Apostle” means “ambassador, the one who is sent”. Great is the high salvific title of the Holy Apostles – spiritual messengers, unshakable pillars of the Church. With what words can we thank the disciples of Christ for the fact that by their labors we were brought out of the depths of perdition, received the good opportunity to be Christians, «to dwell in the house of the Lord … to visit His shrine» (Ps. 27:4, Septuagint) and through this have the opportunity to enter the Heavenly abodes? We honour the Holy Apostles for their great feat, accomplished for the sake of our salvation, for they brought us the message about the Saviour, accepting torment and death for the preaching of that message.
They carried the Good News through deserts and forests, sailed through the seas, were exposed to danger from robbers, storms, enemies, they were expelled, beaten, imprisoned and tortured in every way. The Apostles overcame everything, because in their hearts they had love and pity for those who had not yet heard of the joy of the eternal life with Christ. Christ came into the world to teach people perfect, sacrificial love. Christ commanded to love everyone with such a measure of love, about which it is said: «to lay down one’s life for one’s friends» (John 15:13). By the power of this love the Apostles overcame the enmity, hatred and malice they encountered on the way of turning people to God. The Apostles, strengthened by the teaching of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit, forgetting about themselves, hurried to those who had no joy, to the unfortunate and disadvantaged, who did not know the Living God.
Appearing to His disciples after the Resurrection, Christ greeted them, saying: “Peace be with you!” (John 20:26) – since peace between people is pleasing to Him. The Lord taught the Apostles to greet all those who receive them in their homes with the wish of peace. Sending his disciples into the world «as sheep in the midst of wolves», Christ taught them: «be wise as serpents and innocent as doves» (Matt. 10:16) – that is, combine spiritual knowledge and dove-like meekness, firmness in faith and mildness.
All the Apostles laboured, carrying the good Gospel message to the world, almost all crowned their labours with martyr’s death, they are all great before God, but the Holy Church most solemnly honours the memory of the highest apostles Peter and Paul. Their names shine among the multitude of evangelists! These two apostles had simplicity of disposition and living faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. They pleased the Lord equally, but they had different paths to Him. Apostle Peter was a simple, poor, uneducated fisherman, and Paul was rich, educated, knew languages, had a deep philosophical mind. Apostle Peter was married, and Paul was a virgin. Apostle Peter was the closest disciple of Christ, and Paul had never seen the Lord in His earthly life. But, for all the dissimilarity of the path of life, both of Apostles immediately followed Christ as soon as their hearts were touched by the Divine grace and truth.
The calling of the Apostle Peter occurred at a time when the Lord was teaching the people on the shore of Lake Genesaret. Because of the multitude of people who pressed Christ He entered one of the boats and asked its owner, fisherman Simon, «to put out a little from shore” to teach the people from the boat. After the sermon, the Lord said to Simon: “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon replied: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets. ” And when they pulled out the nets, it was filled with many fish. Simon, seeing this miracle, in horror fell at the feet of Jesus and said: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Christ told him: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” When they landed on the shore, at the call of the Lord, he left everything and followed the One whom he believed with all his heart (Luke 5: 1-11).
The highest election of Apostle Peter was accomplished, according to the word of the Gospel, as follows. One day Jesus asked His disciples: «Who do people say the Son of Man is?». They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked the apostles: “Who do you say I am?” At the same moment, the disciple of the Lord Simon answered for everyone: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:13-16). Then Jesus said to him significant words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah … and I tell you: you are Peter (which means“stone”), and on this stone I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”(Matt. 16:17-19). For the firmness of Simon’s faith the Son of Man called him a stone, which later formed the foundation of the Church of Christ, which spread faith in Christ throughout the entire universe. And no matter what the enemies undertook against the Church and the believers, they could not overcome the power of Christ, which created the Church. It is strong by the blood of Christ and the Apostles; speaking in the words of st. John Chrysostom: “Nothing is stronger than the Church: your hope is the Church and your salvation is the Church!”
The conversion to Christ of another glorious Apostle, Paul, happened in the following way. Paul, who originally bore the name Saul, came from a noble Jewish family and had the status of a Roman citizen. Having “a zeal, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2), Saul fought relentlessly against the disciples of Christ, seeing them as violators of Jewish laws. He obtained by request a letter allowing him to persecute and deliver Christians to death everywhere. To inflict reprisals against Christians, Saul went from Ierosalim to Damascus. And suddenly on his way a blinding light from the sky shone on him. In fear and trembling, he fell to the ground and heard a voice: «Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads» (Acts 9:4-5). And a change suddenly occurred in Saul’s soul – he asked trembling: “Lord, what will You have me do?” Jesus answered Him: “Rise up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9 6). The light of Christ blinded Saul, his soul was shocked by the Divine manifestation, and he did not drink or eat for three days, spending them in tearful repentance. Paul’s entire subsequent life became a selfless service to Christ, who guided him in his apostolic way. Christ instructed him in feats, did not leave him in chains, fetters, dungeons, strengthened him in suffering. Saul received a new name from the Lord as an edification to humility, for the name Paul is translated “small, little”. Apostle Paul himself speaks of his path: «I am the least of the apostles… But… I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me» (1 Cor. 15:9).
St. John Chrysostom in his “Eulogy to Holy Apostle Paul”, singing the praises of Paul’s lips, says that through them “Christ spoke great and ineffable mysteries,” and then writes: “What did the good lips of Paul do not? They drove out demons, absolved sins, blocked the mouths of tormentors, tied the tongue of philosophers, brought the universe to God, convinced the barbarians to be lovers of wisdom, transformed everything on earth and, at their own will changed the appearance of heaven itself; for Paul, according to the authority given to him, bound and loosed there whoever he wanted.”
The labours of Apostle Paul in the creation of the Church of Christ are immeasurable and incalculable. About his labours in the church field he wrote: “there is daily gathering at my place, anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:28-29). The reason for such feats was his ardent love for God and people. From the Acts of the Holy Apostles we know that saint Paul walked around all the regions of Asia Minor and everywhere founded churches, preaching about Christ and His sacrifice on the cross.
Apostle Paul sacrificed himself for the salvation of people and their enlightenment with the light of the true faith. He proclaimed the truth of Christ Jews, pagans, kings, military leaders, free and slaves, imprisoned in the dungeons. Suffering constant dangers and deprivations, persecuted and pursued, in hunger, nakedness and imprisonment, he, driven by the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God, created the faith in the hearts of his listeners, strengthened the Church of Christ. He wrote about himself: «In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me» (2 Cor. 12:7-9). One could exalt Apostle Paul, who «was caught up to the third heaven … and heard inexpressible things» (2 Cor. 12:2, 4), that is was in the paradise during his earthly life, but in humility he writes about this miracle as if not about himself, but about a certain person he knew.
Christians revered Peter and Paul already during their lives above all other Apostles, and that, of course, was a big test, since there was a danger to fall into temptation of pride and conceit. And therefore, the Lord says to His disciples: «Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat» (Luke 22:31), that is, testing their faith and humility, shake them as the grain in a sieve in bolting. And then the Lord says that he will not leave and will help in trials: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail ” (Luke 22:32). Apostle Peter, having suffered many sorrows and temptations, writes: «Rejoice in this, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ» (1 Pet. 1:6-7), that is, the trials are necessary for cleansing and tempering the soul and good will.
The Lord tested Apostles Peter and Paul, allowed them to fall to strengthen them in humility. They received the greatest gifts of God’s grace – the ability to speak different languages, to work miracles, heal the sick and even resurrect the dead, but all these gifts the Lord gave according to the measure of their humility, since this great gift of grace could be retained only by the greatest humility and self-humiliation. «God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble» (Jam. 4:6) so the Lord, helping his disciples, sometimes allowed them to fall, so that they could raise and strengthen in the most necessary virtue – meekness and humility, for it is said: «Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth» (Matt. 5:5). Christ himself urges to learn meekness and humility from Himself (Matt. 11:29). And, of course, it is not by chance that the first whom the God’s providence led to the Bethlehem cave were simple shepherds, and only later the learned wise magi worshipped the baby Christ. In the simplicity of mind it is easier to see God, for the height of the mind often makes a man arrogant, the one who boasts his mind, forgetting about the Creator, the supplier of this mind and other gifts.
Apostle Paul happened to be a witness and a participant of the killing of saint first martyr Stephen: when he was still young Saul, he guarded the garments of those who were killing the saint, for which he then repented to the end of his life. The Lord forgave Holy Apostle Paul, the former enemy and the persecutor of Christ, his heavy sin, because, as the One Who knows the heart of a man, he knew that Paul would amend for his sin by the life of many sufferings and his fiery preaching. Christ knew who in the greatness of humility will be his “small” disciple, He knew that Paul would say at the end of life: «It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me» (Gal. 2:20), and that he would finish his life with a martyr’s feat in Rome, where he would be beheaded and blood and milk would effuse from the wound. In that way the chosen vessel of Christ – apostle Paul – finished his earthly path, suffering in his own body the wounds of His Lord.
Apostle Paul urged: «Imitate me, as I imitate Christ» (1 Cor. 4:16), and Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom writes: «Let us be courageous. Paul also was a man, and he had the same nature with us, and everything else had a common with us. But since he manifested the great love to Christ, he ascended highher than heaven and is among the angels.»
Apostle Peter was also humbled by the Lord. Christ loved him for his devotion and fiery hot faith, which moved him to draw out a sword against the whole squad of warriors who came to capture the Lord. And before the death of the Saviour on the cross, Peter said to him: «I will lay down my soul for you» (John 13:37). But the Lord foretold that the faithful disciple would renounce him three times on that night. The resurrected Christ after a deep tearful repentance of the Apostle granted him forgiveness, strengthened him with a triple question about his love for Him and commanded: “Tend my sheep” (John 21:17). In that way the Lord taught Peter not to hope for his strength, but ask for the help of God in everything and follow not his own,but the Divine Will.
After the descent of the Holy Spirit Apostle Peter preached the Word of God, visiting for that many lands and turning many people to Christ. He was truly a good shepherd, who laid down his soul for the sheep of Christ. Preaching in Rome, he suffered for Christ and received a martyr’s death by crucifixion on the cross. Holy Apostle Peter, honouring the feat of His Lord, begged his executioners to crucify him upside down, humbly considering himself unworthy to be put to death in the same way as Christ. Suffering the Great torment from the wounds from nails on his hands and feet, Peter committed his holy soul into the hands of God. It was June 29 (July 12), 67 AD.
Brothers and sisters! Celebrating now the memory of glorious Apostles Peter and Paul and the honouring all the assembly of the Holy Apostles of the Church of Christ, remembering their great feats and labours, their honourable suffering, let us love the true faith and the Holy Orthodox Church, which they built and in which we are being save to this day. Let us love those high virtues, which they manifested to the world: simplicity, patience and humility before God and people, selflessness and temperance, love for neighbours and mercy, purity and holiness. Loving these high feats of faith in the Apostles, let us imitate their great deeds, in order to imitate them (2 Thes. 3:9). Let the Lord grant us to comprehend and acquire these spiritual properties of the soul!
Looking at the holy images of the Highest Apostles Peter and Paul, let us diligently ask from them, that by their prayer they direct us to the right way of fulfilling the commandments of the Lord, give us the strength to defeat sins and weaknesses, teach us sacrificial and non-hypocritical love and service to God and people, bringing us into the eternal bliss by the way, by which the first to go was «the pioneer and perfecter of our faith» (Heb 12:2) Jesus Christ Himself. After him by that way his disciples went – the Highest Apostles Peter and Paul and all the fearless and faithful Apostles, and then all the host of saints, instructed by the One who said: «Apart from me you can do nothing» (John 15:5).
Glory to our God, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen!