Sermond delivered June 29, 2008
Who do you say that I am (Matthew 16:15)?
Have you ever wondered what other people thought of you? What they say about you to others? For most of us it is a central activity of our life. Some of us probably need to worry less about what others think and say about us. Perhaps some of us need to ponder this more often. In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mt.16:13). However, I doubt that He asks because He really cares what others think. He asks the disciples in order to get them to start thinking in preparation for His next question which is directed pointedly at the disciples themselves. “But who do you say that I am?” (v.15).
We know, of course, that Peter answers the question by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v.16). Bingo, correct answer, ding-ding-ding, what does our contestant win today? Jesus affirms not only the correctness of Peter’s statement by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah” (v.17). More importantly, Jesus affirms the faith of Peter by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (v.18) and invests leadership and authority to Peter and all the Apostles and succeeding bishops, presbyters, deacons and lay people who imitate his faith by saying “I will give you the keys to the kingdom” (v.19).
We Orthodox see this passage a bit differently than Roman Catholics. They see it as the foundational teaching for the primacy of the Papacy (the Pope or Bishop of Rome) as the physical inheritors of Peter’s authority as the first Bishop of Rome. However, the Orthodox say that Christ builds His church on the rock of Peter’s faith, not the person of Peter. Nevertheless, the whole reason we read this passage from Matthew 16:13-19 today is because today is June 29th, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles. Although it is not a great feast of Christ or the Theotokos, it comes pretty close. The feast is preceded by a variable fasting period starting on the Monday of All Saints. When it falls on Sunday, like today, the appointed gospel and epistle readings supplant the regular readings of the Resurrectional cycle.
Who are Peter and Paul? Let us briefly look at both of these men.
Peter = Rock
- Simon (from Grk. “Symeon” and Heb. Shimon = “hearkening, hearing”; Confused with Greek: Simon from simos = “snub-nosed”)
- Fisherman, unlearned and poor
- Called by Christ through brother Andrew
- Denied Jesus three times (out of fear)
- Confessed Jesus three times (out of love)
- Repented and forgiven
- Crucified upside down (64AD)
- Apostle to Jews
- Wrote 2 Universal Epistles
Paul = Small, little, less
- Saul (from Heb. “asked for”)
- Jew, Pharisee, educated, Roman citizen
- Persecutor of Church -- became persecuted
- Conversion (Damascus Road, Acts 9:1-30)
- Called by risen Jesus Christ directly
- Blinded by Jesus; Received sight through baptism by Ananias
- Not one of the 12 Apostles
- Beheaded (67AD)
- Apostle to Gentiles
- Wrote 14 Epistles in the New Testament
What can we learn from the lives of Peter and Paul?
First, God calls all us to faith and service in Christ. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, learned or uneducated, sinner or saint, of high standing or low or anywhere in between on these worldly scales. God has a job for you to do. Christ may call you directly in some miraculous or wondrous way. Most often, He will use someone else to call you and help you along the way.
Second, our name is significant of our calling. Most of us were baptized as infants, some of us adults. Either way, in the Orthodox Church we receive a Christian or saint name to signify our new identity. Even if we are not commonly called by that name, we use that name when we participate in the sacramental life to remind us of our true citizenship in heaven that should inform and guide our life on earth. Some of us have names that express deep spiritual beauty and meaning, either from etymology or from the legacy of our patron saint. Some of us may not have that but we have the potential to change the future legacy of our name through our own faithful, saintly example.
Third, we are called to be disciples and some will be called to be apostles. Disciple comes from the Greek “mathetis” and means “student/follower”. We all must be followers of Christ, willing and ready to learn about Him and His teachings. Apostle means “one who is sent with a message”. The age of the apostles did not end with the twelve or the seventy during the first century. Some, like Saints Constantine and Helen of the 4th century and Saint Innocent of the 19th century, became apostles, sent to the people of their time bring the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, being called by God is no guarantee of perfection. Peter, the rock of the Church, denied Christ three times. Yet, Christ gave him another chance and forgave him and restored Peter. Both Peter and Paul disputed with each other about to lead the early Christian Church but eventually reconciled as evidence by their loving embrace in certain icons of them. Even after our baptism and realization of our calling we will stumble and fall. However, the opportunity to repent, to pick ourselves up and walk again, is ever-present for us through the pure love of forgiveness in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, we are called to care for the Church. Whether we are called to be apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators (1Cor.12:28) or some other ministry in Church, we are called to support all the ministries through generous and sacrificial monetary stewardship. Some of us will ignore the call to ministry and stewardship or both. No worry, not for the ignorant, but no worry for the Church because Christ said, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt.16:18). Even during times of fierce persecution, the Church is somehow strengthened through purification.
This leads to the sixth and final point. We are called to martyrdom. Being baptized and become a follower of Christ and a member of the Church is no guarantee of safety and comfort. In fact, usually the opposite is true. The more we draw closer to God, the farther we are drawn away from the world. In this process, the more the world will hate us and thus persecute us through the efforts of Satan and his demons. Peter and Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, were rewarded for the efforts by crucifixion and beheading respectively. I am not saying that will happen to anyone of us. But I will say that we will suffer, in some form or another, as we grow closer to Christ. Nevertheless, Christ says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Mt.5:12).
So, now we come back to the beginning. Christ is asking each one of us today, and every day, “Who do you say that I am?” What is our answer? Is it “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And if this is our answer, are we willing to serve and follow this Christ, with a new, different and holy identity, ready to repent, forgive and be forgiven as we care for His Church, ready to give even our earthly life for Her as an example of faith in God to all.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.