On June 29, we celebrate two of our most revered saints, two men whose names have been intertwined in the Church’s memory from earliest times. Were there ever two more different people than St. Peter and St. Paul? Their backgrounds – family, education, social status – were completely different, their personalities, and even their physical characteristics were completely different. Peter was the rough, strong fisherman, a Jewish tradesman from the small village of Bethsaida who lived and worked surrounded by family, who was impetuous and who could be described as one who “spoke before thinking”. Paul, on the other hand, was born in the sophisticated metropolis of Tarsus; he was highly educated by the eminent teacher, Gamaliel; although a Jew, he was a Roman citizen and therefore, protected by Roman law. He was an intellectual, a gifted writer, and his actions were based on well-thought-out convictions. He was afflicted with a physical infirmity. They were two very different men. And yet, in God’s great plan for his Church, these two men were dramatically changed and they were brought together in such a way that they changed the world forever.
The vivid pictures of the two men presented in the Holy Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, our primary source of information about them, are very familiar to all of us as we hear them in the liturgical readings throughout the year. We first encounter Peter in Matthew 4:18 when Christ is “walking by the Sea of Galilee” and sees two fishermen – Peter and his brother Andrew (obviously, this was a family business). He called them to follow Him, and they immediately dropped their nets and did just that. (In St. John’s Gospel, Andrew is called first and he brings his brother to meet Christ so that he, too, can follow Him.) The Orthodox Study Bible notes describe these disciples as “peasants”, unlearned and unsophisticated in their understanding of Judaic theology.
Throughout the Gospels, Peter is continually with Jesus, hearing the parables, witnessing the miracles. He is present at the Transfiguration and, even before the majesty of that moment could sink in, impetuous Peter blurts out his desire to build a booth for Jesus, and for Moses and Elijah who had appeared in the light with Christ, just as those in our day who would snap photos on their cell phones instead of fully experiencing an important event!
Peter knows that Jesus can heal so when his mother-in-law is sick with a high fever, he calls for the Lord who brings her back to health immediately. [Luke 4:38-39] Above all, Peter knows that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [Matt. 16:16]
Jesus had changed Peter’s name from Simon to the word which means “rock”. For three years, this rock of devotion and loyalty had followed Christ as a fervent disciple, but when faced with the most difficult test leading up to the Crucifixion, Peter’s courage dissolved and he denied even knowing Jesus. The remorse which he felt was then wiped away by the knowledge of the Resurrection and by Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. Peter’s courage was renewed ten-fold and he miraculously became an eloquent preacher, converting 10,000 souls by his convincing words on the day of Pentecost.
From that time on, Peter lived up to his name as the “rock” of the Church, traveling throughout Palestine and Asia Minor, preaching and healing in Christ’s name. Because of a dream in which he was told by God to eat anything that God had cleansed, the Church was released from the restrictions of Jewish dietary laws. Peter became the first Bishop of Antioch before serving the Church in Rome, where he was imprisoned by the order of the Emperor Nero and crucified upside-down in the year 67. This “rock of faith” – despite his impetuous nature and the limitations of his background – had been the chief of the Apostles and now became an intercessor for us at the heavenly throne.
The biblical stories first reveal St. Paul at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. The angry Jewish zealot who stood by and watched this murder was Saul of Tarsus. Saul was on a rampage to root out the followers of Jesus, going house-to-house and arresting men and women and putting them into prison. [Acts 8:3] But these misguided efforts soon came to a sudden end when Saul was on his way to Damascus to make more arrests. The dramatic story tells how Saul was struck blind and heard the voice of Jesus saying that he had been persecuting Him and that he was to go into the city and await instructions. Another vision was given to the Christian Ananias, who reluctantly found Saul and healed him of his blindness. Jesus said that Saul had been made a “vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” [Acts 9:15]
Most of the remainder of the New Testament is a record of the changed life of Paul – renamed by Christ as an indication of his new life and purpose. After instruction by the other Apostles, Paul traveled extensively throughout the Roman Empire, preaching and teaching, establishing churches, being persecuted himself and having some narrow escapes, being shipwrecked, and always suffering from his unnamed chronic illness. His sometimes irascible personality led to conflicts (particularly with St. Barnabas). After being under house arrest for several years and demanding that his case be tried in a court in Rome, Paul was executed by beheading in the year 67 on the same day as the martyrdom of St. Peter. St. Paul’s letters to the Christian communities he had established in many places have been read in churches for 2,000 years. This great “apostle to the Gentiles” now also intercedes for us in heaven.
The lives and witness of these two great saints should be an inspiration for those of us who follow them in the way of Christ. We should see that God can take any sort of person – simple or brilliant, strong or weak, poor or privileged, impetuous or thoughtful – and make a new person, one who can help to change the world. The icon of Saints Peter and Paul show the two holding a church building between them – a reminder to us that the Church needs people with many different characteristics and backgrounds and that we can all work together to further the Kingdom of God. May the intercessions of Saints Peter and Paul help us as we strive to serve Christ in His Church.
Sources: Orthodox Saints, Vol. 2 by George Poulos; The Orthodox Study Bible; The Lives of the Holy Apostles (published by Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, CO); The Prologue from Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirović.