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The Power of Repentance
A Sermon on Sts. Peter & Paul
We celebrate today the feast of the Holy, Glorious, and All-Praised Apostles Peter & Paul. Out of all the countless generations of mankind, out of all the vast multitudes of every tongue and tribe and nation to have lived and walked upon this earth, Christ our True God chose precisely these two men — above all others — to stand at the very forefront of the ranks of His holy disciples and apostles. So important is today’s feast — so important are these two holy men whom we now celebrate — that one of only four fasts in the entire Church year has been appointed to prepare us for this great and holy day.
But what is it precisely about these two men that caused Christ to so highly exalt them? What virtues made them worthy of such unparalleled glory and praise? What ascetic feats and labors did they accomplish that the Church should today set them before us as the highest of heroes, worthy of all honor and the most steadfast imitation which we sinners can muster?
Truly, their virtues are without number and their praises can hardly begin to be sung. Yet despite all our inadequacy and the blindness of the eyes of our hearts, even so we can and must make a beginning in trying to comprehend the lives of the two holy men standing noetically before us today.
On the surface there is much that separates these two saints. St. Peter was a poor and simple man, unlearned and uncultured; St. Paul was a citizen of Rome, “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6), one highly educated “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” (Acts 22:3). St. Peter was with our Lord Jesus Christ from the very beginning of His public ministry and spent years at His very side, witnessing all the wondrous events of the Gospel firsthand; St. Paul, on the other hand, (so far as we know) did not so much as glimpse Christ while He walked on this earth prior to His glorious ascension — St. Paul’s experience of our Savior was strictly heavenly, rather than earthly. And so it was that St. Peter became the first of the apostles to confess Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16); St. Paul, however, became the last.
Of course, there is much more that unites these two saints than separates them. The most obvious trait they share is their great and unparalleled zeal for God. St. Peter constantly showed his readiness to cast aside absolutely everything and run after Christ, from his first encounter with the Lord at the Sea of Galilee to the last; neither did he in any wise hesitate to lay down his very life itself at the end, sparing a thought only to ask that he be crucified upside-down — since, despite being the foremost of all the apostles, he nevertheless felt profoundly unworthy of meeting death in the same form as did his Savior. St. Paul, for his part, likewise freely cast aside absolutely everything for which he had spent his entire life laboring before he met Christ, and henceforth he lived with such abundant zeal that nobody could doubt him when he proclaimed:
I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ… That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead… I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:8-14)
Indeed, without such zeal their preaching could scarcely have had the power to “turn the world upside down” (cf. Acts 17:6), and to bring so many countless souls to the knowledge of Christ. And unless we ourselves learn to imitate their zeal, neither will we be able to become participants in their apostolic labors. After all, if the love of Christ has not yet been able to utterly transform our own lives, how can we possibly expect to be able to help bring such transformation to the lives of those around us? Therefore each of us ought to pray fervently today to these holy saints to help us to imitate their apostolic zeal, and so to become sharers in their apostolic labors and participants in their apostolic love.
And yet there is a hard truth here, and one that we must always keep before the eyes of our hearts. Even such great and unmatched zeal was utterly unable to keep St. Peter from denying his Lord, out of fear of a simple serving girl; it was likewise unable to keep St. Paul from his savage and bloodthirsty persecution of the very Church of Christ. In fact, it was not only in spite of their great zeal that these two saints each suffered their most terrible fall, but it was even precisely because of it. St. Peter’s zeal was what led to his false and foolish boast that nothing could ever cause him to deny or abandon Christ; St. Paul’s zeal was, of course, the very reason he went to such great lengths to hunt down and destroy every Christian he could possibly find, whether in his own city or in any other. And so we must take to heart these two twin lessons: that zeal is absolutely necessary for us in the spiritual life, and that nevertheless — at least on its own — it is also wholly insufficient.
But through their great and terrible falls, St. Peter and St. Paul are also ready to teach us a third and final lesson: one which is by far the most important that any man or woman on this earth can possibly learn. And that lesson, quite simply, is the incredible power of repentance — a power springing forth from the infinite and incomprehensible mercy and love of God.
Yes, it was through their greatest virtue that each of these saints suffered their greatest fall. But even more amazing is that — for each of them — their greatest fall was precisely what brought them to know the incomparably greater love which the Lord Jesus Christ has for each and every one of us sinners. No matter how great our failures. No matter how terrible our falls.
It was through their own personal experience — bitter beyond any measure, yet sweet beyond all compare — that each of these saints became able to confess: “this is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). And it was through the power of this confession — the power of their profound repentance — that they went forth to become the greatest preachers of the Gospel of Christ that this world has ever known. Because they both knew that if the Gospel could save them, then the Gospel can save anyone.
What profound humility! What unshakeable faith! And indeed, such humility and such faith are far from easy to come by. After all, it was not only St. Peter who betrayed His Lord on Great and Holy Thursday… and in this terrible reality is laid bare the sharp and double-edged sword of sin. It is unavoidable that we believers should suffer falls; as we have seen, even the greatest of the apostles themselves could not avoid them. But what will come next? Will our sins cause us to flee from before the face of God, as did Adam at the first, as did Judas at the last? Or will our sins cause us to run to Christ in repentance, as did St. Peter, and as did St. Paul? This is the great choice — and truly, the only choice — of our lives on this earth. And to make our choice rightly, we need precisely such profound humility and such unshakeable faith.
It is as one anonymous monk in Metropolitan Tikhon’s wonderful book, Everyday Saints, quietly explained:
”It is only in that way, through mysterious humility incomprehensible to the world, that a true Christian comes to one of the two greatest revelations in life. The first of these revelations is that one must discover the truth about oneself, and see oneself as one truly is. You must meet your own self. And believe me it’s the most important acquaintance. A vast number of people live their lives never even bothering to discover themselves at all. Sometimes we only have the vaguest notions or fantasies of who we are, and so depending upon our own vanity, pride, resentments, and ambitions we see nothing. But the truth, however bitter it might seem to us, is that we are ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’ … Remember that verse from Revelations? And this truth only comes to us through scriptural and ruthlessly honest examination of oneself. Through true humility. True humility does not humiliate a man. On the contrary, anyone who survives this ordeal, this bitterest and harshest of truths becomes a saint. It is only those who are humble who can peer into the future, who can become prophets and miracle workers, wondered at by all of you.”
“But what is the second revelation?” we asked. “He said that there are two main revelations in a person’s life. The first is to become acquainted with one’s own self. But what is the second?”
“The second?” The monk smiled. “You know the second revelation not one bit less than I. It is the truth that our Church patiently reminds us of in every single Divine Service without exception: ‘May Christ, our true God, through the intercessions of His most pure Mother and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and lovest mankind.’ ”
And so, on this great and holy feastday, let each of us fervently beseech the Holy, Glorious, and All-Praised Leaders of the Apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul, to open our spiritual eyes to both of these truths in equal measure. Let us not shrink from the knowledge of our own wretchedness. But let us also never forget the boundless love and mercy of our God. Let us hold both of these two truths together, so that — when we inevitably suffer some sinful fall to our passions — we will be able to run zealously not away from God, but straight towards Him. If we can muster the faith and the humility and the courage to do this, then Christ our True God will without any doubt turn even our most shameful defeats into the most glorious of victories — no less than He did for St. Peter, and no less than He did for St. Paul.
Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen!