As we celebrate the Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) and the Holy Apostles (June 30), we will take four days this week to talk about them and how to emulate them.
On June 29, we celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the “paramounts” of the Apostles, and on June 30, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. In the liturgical year, these two feasts fall after the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. The church even observes a fast from the Monday after All Saints Day (so it begins eight days after Pentecost) through June 28. Thus, some years the fast of the Apostles is longer some years than others.
The Epistle lesson for June 29 focuses on St. Paul, while the Gospel lesson focuses on St. Peter. So today, as we reflect on the Epistle lesson of June 29, we will focus on the life of St. Paul.
Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul was known as “Saul of Tarsus”, his hometown. He was Jewish and according to his own testimony in Galatians 1:14, he “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” This zeal led him to a place where he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” (1:13)
Saul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He was blinded by a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus calling out to him. This experience changed Saul. He went from Saul the persecutor of Christian to Paul, the leader of the Church. Paul established churches throughout the world of the time, and during his journeys and later imprisonment, he wrote letters to the churches he established, which we now call his Epistles, or pastoral letters. In these letters, he provided guidance, instruction and encouragement. He taught the neophyte Christians and helped them solve quarrels and problems.
Saint Paul embodies what we are each called to be. First, we are called to repent of our tendencies to sin and go against God. For sin is an action against God. Each of us, in order to be a true follower, must have a conversion experience. It doesn’t matter if we were baptized as infants and that the church is all we’ve ever known. There comes a time in every life where one decides, definitively, that he or she is going to follow after Christ. This is a conversion experience. It might come in a dramatic moment, such as Paul’s experience of the road to Damascus. It might come during a moment of crisis. Or it might come in a moment of peace. It might come during a speech or a sermon or after reading a book, or encouragement from a friend, or just seeing what the power of God can do in one’s own life or the life of someone else.
After one has “converted”, there should be motivation to do something with the faith one holds. Saint Paul had zeal and boldness like no one else maybe ever has had. He was so convinced of what he believed, he was undeterred by naysayers who knew him in his former life. He was undeterred by Romans and Jews who had been his friends and now were considering him an enemy. He was undeterred by imprisonment and torture. And ultimately he would give his life for Christ.
In the Epistle read on the feastday he shares with St. Peter, he talks about his witness for Christ—the labors, imprisonments, and beating, being shipwrecked, robbed, and living in constant danger. He wasn’t sharing these things in order to be prideful but rather to give witness that the faithful disciple must be willing to suffer for what he believes. His testimony was not bragging but encouraging to other Christians who were also being made to suffer for their faith.
In addition to his sufferings, Paul felt the power of God and knew the joy of Christ. He escaped from prison, and he saw “visions and revelations of the Lord.” (II Corinthians 12: 1) He also witness the faith of others.
One other thing from this Epistle that both comforts and frustrates me is when Saint Paul writes “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” (12:7) It seems often in life when things are going so well, something comes at us to take us off our game, to take our train off the tracks so to speak. This is the thorn in the flesh that Saint Paul writes about, the devil coming to us to distract us and cause doubt in us.
Saint Paul takes the human approach and beseeches the Lord to take this thorn away from him. The response of the Lord is “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (12: 9) Saint Paul then embraces the “thorn” as a challenge to be managed, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (12:9) The lesson here is for us to not become discouraged by the “thorns” that sometimes linger in our lives, despite the sincerity of our faith. A sincere faith does not mean an absence of challenges, but rather the strength to cope with and manage challenges.
Repentance, conversion, boldness, zeal and patience are characteristics of a good disciple and an effective Apostle. And Saint Paul reminds us through his life and witness that it’s not how you start but how you finish your life that counts. One can begin without Christ, so long as one finds Christ and lives out faith in the end.
Preeminent Apostles and teachers of the universe, intercede with the Master of all, to grant peace to the whole world, and great mercy to our souls. (Apolytkion of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
A disciple is a good student. An apostle is one who spreads the word of God. Be a good disciple today, so that you can be a good apostle tomorrow!