Sermon for Sts. Peter and Paul 2008
I heard this morning that the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople declared the next 12 months to be “the year of St. Paul.” This will mark the 2000th Anniversary of the birth of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations.
I think as a parish we should find out if there are ways we can participate in the Year of St. Paul.
St. Paul is thought to have been born in the year 10AD in the city of Tarsus. A sobering thought for all of us, both as members of St. Paul Parish and as Orthodox Christians, is that today, there are no (0 – zero) Christians living in Tarsus. Though St. Paul became the Apostle to the Nations and made it possible for hundreds of millions of people worldwide and throughout history to be disciples of Christ, not one Christian remains in his hometown. And the ancient church building in Tarsus is now a museum.
St. Paul was a special apostle. He was not among the original 12 disciples that Jesus picked. In fact St. Paul as far as we know never met Jesus during Jesus’ life time. St. Paul was specially picked by Christ to become an apostle, sometime after the Resurrection of Christ. Paul was not present with the disciples on the day of Pentecost. He also was not evangelized or catechized by the apostles, but received a special direct revelation from Christ which changed him from persecutor of the church to evangelist for the Church.
St. Paul is therefore in the second generation of Christians. He was recruited by Christ to evangelize the Gentiles. And in this sense he represents a new kind of leadership in the church – not one in the direct descent of the apostles, but one called out especially by Christ. And because of this St. Paul was not at first warmly received by the original apostle’s of Christ. But eventually they do offer him the right hand of fellowship and do appointment him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
But St. Paul remained a challenge to the authority of the original apostles. Remember they were the ones who argued which one of them was the greatest when Christ talked to them about his upcoming crucifixion, and they jostled to see which one of them would be sitting at Christ’s right hand in the kingdom, and they tried to forbid others from doing miracles in Jesus’ name because these others didn’t follow the disciples. So they were not men who took kindly to threats to their sacred position in the Christian hierarchy.
But God had His own plan, and He chose from outside the original group of apostles to really push evangelism among the Gentiles. Perhaps Christ did this to help prevent a despotic hierarchy from trying to control His church!
And Paul had a pugnacious personality, and go into several serious fights with other Church leaders. One of the most famous Paul himself describes in his Letter to the Galatians. There St. Paul confronted St. Peter to his face about Peter’s hypocrisy. Paul says “I opposed him to his face!” Them’s fighten’ words! (Look at the icon of Sts. Peter & Paul – are they embracing, or wrestling, or both?)
St. Paul argued adamantly with the original apostles that the mission to the Gentiles means for all Christians including Jews that the following of the Torah laws is no longer mandatory and that Christian Jews must no longer separate themselves from Gentile Christians when it comes to meals and other functions in which Jews generally would not participate with Gentiles. St. Paul argued the dividing wall (=The Torah) has been torn down and now the righteousness of everyone comes from Christ, not from one’s diligently keeping Torah. It made St. Paul angry to see the hypocrisy of St. Peter who was sometimes tempted to please his fellow Jewish Christians by excluding the Gentile ones.
St. Paul argued that it is not necessary for Gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christian. And St. Paul’s teaching is affirmed by all of the apostles at the Council in Jerusalem described in Acts 15.
The decision of that Council had broad precedence for all Orthodox mission work. In the same way that it is not necessary for converts to become Jews in order to become Christian, it is not necessary for converts to become Greek, or Russian or American in order to be Christian. It is not the language, customs, dress, food, or rituals of these people that can make them or us Christian. In Christ means that Torah and legalistic traditions are of limited value. This is a lesson we Orthodox have not always embraced even though we often like to give lip service to allowing every Orthodox people to worship God in their own language. I believe St. Paul would embrace and bless the vision and design of the Orthodox Church in America as the Church to embrace Americans into the Orthodox Tradition and Faith.
St. Paul has shown us that sometimes it is good, necessary and right to have to argue and fight for what is right within the Church. He shows us that the established hierarchy sometimes has to be challenged in order for the Church to remain faithful to Christ’s command to teach the Gospel to all nations. He shows us that controversy and disagreement and debate are not always wrong in the Church, and sometimes really do help Christians to discern God’s will.
And through the Council at Jerusalem which St. Paul attended and gave witness to his work, we have learned of the importance for assemblies or councils to take up the hard task of discerning God’s will. Everyone of our meetings in this parish, whether it is Parish Council or the Outreach Committee or the Annual Parish Meeting, and every Church meeting – Diocesan Council, Diocesan Assembly, Metropolitan Council or All American Council all exist for the purpose of discerning God’s will. And to make that discernment we do need to have debate and sometimes harsh disagreement among the Saints of the Church, and among Church leaders, and even challenging the established leaders at times.
May we embrace this spirit of St. Paul to discern God’s will in every meeting we hold or attend as Church. And may God bless each of you with the determination of St. Paul to see God’s will accomplished in the Church.
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2008 Saint Paul Year Tarsus