Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fidelity to Our Calling: The Example of SS Peter & Paul

Sunday, June 29, 2008, 2nd SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST —All Saints of America (All Saints of Russia). THE HOLY GLORIOUS AND ALL-PRAISED LEADERS OF THE APOSTLES, PETER AND PAUL (ca. 67 A.D.).

And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.
At the first moment of our life, in fact before that first moment, there is divine grace and the call of Christ to us. I am because I am called.

The Gospel for the feast of SS Peter and Paul offers us a glimpse, a brief account, of the call of not only the Apostle Peter, but also his brother Andrew. Thinking about this the thought that comes to mind is that while we are all of us called personally and to a unique ministry within the Body of Christ, we are not any of us called individually, in isolation or apart from others. Yes, we are each of us called, but we are called as part of a community that existed before us and that will continue after us—and so Christ calls not simply Peter but his brother Andrew as well.

As the story in Gospel unfolds—and it unfolds quickly, almost too quickly—we discover that not only are Peter and Andrew called together, but that (as I said a moment ago) they are called to a specific ministry or life of service in the Body of Christ. These two men are told by Jesus that they are to follow Him and become "fishers of men." It is worth noting that they will become evangelists not primarily through their own efforts.  Rather this is something in to which Jesus will make them. Fishermen will be made into fisher of men in much the same way that bread and wine are made into the Body and Blood of Christ--at the command of the Father, through Jesus Christ, and by the power and operation of the Holy Spirit.

We get a sense of the importance of the office to which Peter and Andrew are called in a sermon attributed to St John Chrysostom: "Before He spoke or did anything, Christ called Apostles." Why did Jesus do this? So "that neither word nor deed of His should be hid from their knowledge, so that they may afterwards say with confidence, 'What we have seen and heard, that we cannot but speak.'" (Ac 4,20) While there are different ways in which this is accomplished, while each person does so in his or her own way and in the unique circumstances of their daily life, we are all of us called—like the first apostles—to first witness and the bear witness to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is before all else to be a witness to Jesus Christ in all that I say and do.  And I do so not only for my salvation, but for yours and for the life of the world.

One of the great obstacles to fulfilling our vocation to witness to Jesus Christ is simply this: So many of us do not know that we have been to be a witness. And in the main we do not know because, as the other apostle who we remember today said (Rom 10:14-15):

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
"How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!" (compare, Isaiah 52:7; Nahum 1:15)
While on the one hand the whole of the tradition of the Church, Scripture, the sacraments, the Councils, the fathers and the lives and teaching of the saints, all point to our personal call toof often the clergy fail in our obligation to help the laity (and I dare say our brother clergy) first hear their own unique call and the act on that call within the circumstances of their daily life. If, as a recent survey, suggests, the vast majority of the Orthodox faithful live lives that while morally sound are only marginally related to Christ and His Church it is the clergy who must bear the first measure of responsibility. Again, as the Apostle Paul writes, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?"

As I said a moment ago, while we are each called personally, we are none of us called alone. Rather we are called as a member of a community. And this is where maybe we encounter the second obstacle to fulfilling our vocation: We are often prone to deny that our vocation is always fulfilled communally. We deny this by trying artificially to limit our Christian life to only one area of our life. I am always tempted to narrow the focus of my Christian life to an area I designate "religious" or "spiritual."

Looking back at the call of Simon-Peter and Andrew we see that trying to divide up my life in separate and unrelated compartments is simply the wrong way to go. Again in a sermon attributed to St John Chrysostom we read that for Peter and Andrew, "The operations of their secular craft were a prophecy of their future dignity. As he who casts his net into the water knows not what fishes he shall take, so the teacher casts the net of the divine word upon the people, not knowing who among them will come to God. Those whom God shall stir abide in his doctrine."

Yes, they were apostles and witnesses because they were called and formed by Christ. But they are such not simply because of God's election. They were also called and formed by their father whose nets they abandoned to follow Jesus Christ.

And it is not only their father who prepared them to be apostles.

There were the other men and boys with whom they fished. There were their teachers who instructed them in the Law. And of course, their mother who bore them, nursed and feed them, and one day watched as their boys became men and, now as men, left their father and his nets to follow an itinerate preacher.

What the apostles did, they did by divine grace and their own effort. While these are not the same, neither is unnecessary and neither undoes they need and contribution of all those other men and women who helped Peter and Andrew along the way.

Though we looked at all this through the lives of Peter and Andrew all of this is just as true of the other disciple of Christ we remember today, the Apostle Paul. Of himself he says (Acts 22.3), "I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today." But unlike Peter, Paul began his relationship with Christ as His persecutor: "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished." (vv. 4-5)

But like Peter, there comes a moment when his self-imposed isolation, and the violent hatred and anger it fostered in him, comes to an end:

Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" So I answered, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said to me, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting." (vv. 6-8)
If the end of Saul's isolation is announced more dramatically than Peter's, end it does for both men. And as Peter joins with Andrew to follow Christ, Paul begins his own discipleship with Ananias, by whose hand he is baptized and healed of his physical and spiritual blindness (Acts 9:17-18):

And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
Again like Peter, following Christ means for Paul that he travels not alone, but in the company of the Church: "So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus." (v. 19)

Peter and Paul were different men—they were in many ways very different kinds of men. One, Peter, was a fisherman, poorly educated, and was no one of consequence in the Jewish community in which he lived. Paul, though a tent maker by trade, was also a scholar, an educated man, a Pharisee and the intimate of scholars and a trusted agent of those among the Jews who had power.

Peter found Paul's words "hard to understand," and, in the hands of "untaught and unstable people" liable to be "twist[ed] to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures." (2 Peter 3:15) As Peter had his reservations (however charitably worded) about Paul, he was also not exempt from an even harsher criticism by Paul (Gal 2:11-21):

Now when Peter[a] had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. "But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain."
Yet for all their differences and criticisms of each other, both men were disciples of Jesus Christ and faithful to the point of death in their commitment to Christ, His Church and each other.

It is this respect and support of the vocation of others that, I think, is at the heart of fidelity to our own vocation. Just as none of us is called alone or can live the Christian life alone, so to can none of us live that vocation faithfully, authentically, for ourselves alone. Just as Christ is "God With Us" (Mt 1:23) and even God for us (Jn 1:1-18), so too fidelity to our own vocation—in whatever form it takes—means that we must live lives with and for others. First this means with and for our brothers and sisters in Christ—beginning with our families and the parish, and moving outward in ever larger concentric circles. And second this means we must live with and for the whole human—again beginning with those who are closest to us and moving ever outward to the limits of our own unique calling.

If we do this, if we are faithful to our own vocation, our own calling with all that it entails in its preparation and enactment, then the angels together with the saints in heaven and on earth will sing of us the words the sing of Peter and Paul:

Thou hast taken the firm and divinely inspired Preachers, O Lord, the leading Apostles, for the enjoyment of Thy blessings and for repose. For Thou hast accepted their labours and death as above every burnt offering, O Thou Who alone knowest the secrets of our hearts.
(Kontakion for the feast of SS Peter & Paul)
In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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