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On the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, by St John Chrysostom

Updated: Jun 29


The sermon On Peter and Paul (CPG 4572) attributed for centuries to St John Chrysostom, was an enormously popular text in antiquity.[1] Coming down to us in over 150 manuscripts, it circulated widely in the Orthodox world and was translated in the Byzantine period into both Old Slavonic and Georgian. Drawing extensively on the Scriptures and reflecting a fairly developed liturgical and hagiographical tradition surrounding the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, it praises the Apostles as pillars of the Church and the fons et origo of Orthodox faith and piety. Complete with “salutations” to the saints, the festal sermon is offered to our readers for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29). The text presented here, for the first time in English, is translated from PG 59:491-496.


 

On the Coryphaei of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and on their Glorious Martyrdom

St John Chrysostom


I behold a contest between heaven and earth on account of the present festival commemorating the apostles. On the one hand I see the celestial hosts praising with honored voices the report of their toil, since through the apostles the mystery of the divine dispensation was made known to the angels, as Paul proclaims: That now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and authorities in the heavens (Eph 3:10). On the other hand I see the race of men on earth striving to extend worthy praise from the honor in which they hold the coryphaeoi, since it was through them that they attained salvation. For what is greater than Peter? And what is equal to Paul? These men surpassed, in deed and in word, all creation, both in the heavens and on the earth. For even though they were bound up in the mire of the body, they were nevertheless found to be better even than the angels. What, then, can we say to those who were teachers of both the higher and the lower creation? I can find no word worthy to glorify those who are the glory of our race, who traversed every land and sea, pulling up the roots of sins and sowing the seeds of piety in the hearts of indominable men.


Peter was the leader of the apostles, and Paul was the teacher of all the world and the co-communicant of the hosts on high. Peter was the bridle of the stubborn Jews, and Paul was the admonition of the gentiles. And behold the transcendent wisdom of the Master! For he chose Peter from out of the fishermen, but Paul from out of the tentmakers. And he did this for a reason: for it brought low the glory of the Jews. For this reason the Lord entrusted them to this particular fisherman, saying, Go out into the sea and cast your hook, and take up the first fish that comes up, and open its mouth, and you will find a stater (Mt 17:27). By “the sea” he means the immovable will of the lawless Jews. By the “hook” he means the subtle word of doctrine. By the “fish” he means the Law. By the opening of its mouth he means the interpretation of the Law. And by finding a stater therein he means the drawing forth of the Law’s spiritual meaning.


But to Paul, as a tentmaker, he entrusted the gentiles, that he might, through the Law and Grace, clothe the naked with the red garment dyed in the blood and body of the Lord.[2] For this reason the Lord cries out to him, saying, Go forth, for I will send you far off, unto the nations (Acts 22:21).





O blessed pair, entrusted with the souls of all the world!


Peter: the beginning of orthodoxy, the great priest and steward of the mysteries of the Church, the essential counselor of Christians, the treasury of the hosts on high, and the apostle most honored by the Lord!


Paul: the great preacher of the truth, the boast of the whole world, a man in the heavens and an angel on the earth, the glory of the Church, the eagle soaring in the heights, the harp of the Spirit, the swallow and the cicada,[3] the instrument of the Lord, the watchful servant of Christ (cf. Lk 12:37, 43)!


Peter and Paul: the yoked oxen of the Church who procured a handsome profit for the whole world. In the place of a yoke, they took up the Cross; in place of a driver, the Savior; in place of two yokes, the Old and New Testaments of the Scriptures; in place of a goad, the grace of the Holy Spirit!


Paul and Peter, who illumine the Church day after day. They are the treasuries of the Lord, the shelter of all the world, the receptacles of the Spirit,[4] the keys that unlock the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, and the exegetes of the dispensation of the divine Word!


Peter: my spiritual eros (love)! Paul: the vessel of election, my staff! Peter: the temple of God!


Paul: the mouth of Christ, the harp of the Spirit, and the man who at three cubits tall touched heaven! Being circumscribed in place, he encircled all the world for the Master. From Jerusalem round about as far as Illyricum he filled it with the Gospel of Christ. He was a swift-traveling runner (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27), an eagle soaring into heaven, filled with divine grace, called by the Lord to bear his name before the whole world. Passing through the third heaven, he entered into paradise, ascending even as far as the incomprehensible throne of the Lord and hearing mysteries that cannot be uttered, of which it is not permitted a man to speak (2 Cor 12:2-5).


And what shall I say with respect to Peter? He is the sweet vision of the Church, the shining splendor of the world, the most-pure dove, the leader of the apostles. He is the ardent apostle, seething with the Spirit. He is angel and man, filled with the grace of God; the firm rock of the faith; the mature mind of the Church; the one who was called “blessed” and “son of a dove” by the very mouth of the Lord on account of his purity (Mt 16:17),[5] and who received the keys of the kingdom of the heavens from the Lord himself (Mt 16:19).


You [Peter and Paul] have outstripped the ranks of angels. What more can I say? The Lord himself acclaims you, saying, You are the light of the world (Mt 5:14). You are more prosperous than kings. You are more powerful than the rich. You are stronger than soldiers. You are wiser than the sages and the philosophers. You are more eloquent than rhetors. Having nothing, you possess all things (2 Cor 6:10). You are the endurance of the martyrs, the orthodoxy of patriarchs, the ascesis of monks. You adorn the virgins with crowns, you bring peace to those in wedlock. You are the bridle of the ravenous rich, the self-control of the licentious, the protection of kings, the wall of Christians, and the restraint of the barbarians. You muzzle the heretics. You mortify the irrational passions of our bodies. You drive away the legions of demons. And you cast down the altars of the pagans. Both things above and things below have been entrusted to you, for you have received the keys to the things above, but you also have power to loose and bind sins here below.


O the miracle of the uncultivated! O the wisdom of the unlettered! Peter heals paralytics with his shadow (Acts 5:15) and reverses death (Acts 9:36-43). Paul drives away diseases with his garments and scatters demons (Acts 19:11-16). They had Christ and his Mother in their midst, and they became receptacles of the Holy Spirit.[6] Paul is the never-resting swallow of the Church, and Peter, like an unceasing nightingale, serenades the whole world without resting. They are the pillars of the Church, the great luminaries of the world, outshining one another and together surpassing all creation.



Rejoice, Peter, the rock of the faith!

Rejoice, Paul, the boast of the Church!

Rejoice, Peter, the foothold of Orthodoxy!

Rejoice, Paul, the solicitude of the churches!

Rejoice, Peter, adornment of the whole world!

Rejoice, Paul, thou entrance to paradise!

Rejoice, Peter, thou guide into the kingdom of the heavens!

Rejoice, Paul, calm haven of the tempest-tossed!

Rejoice, Peter, who was found worthy of much praise from the Lord!

Rejoice, Paul, director of the many gifts of the Spirit!

Rejoice, Peter, who is ardent and seething with the Holy Spirit!

Rejoice, Paul, the strenuous runner!


You [Peter and Paul] illumined everything under the sun with your preaching. You endured myriad torments for the Church: you were locked in prisons, scorned by Jews, dragged hither and thither by barbarians, and tortured by kings. Unable so much as to breathe freely, you nevertheless never ceased from your teaching. Unable to move the limbs of your body on account of the weight of your bonds, you nevertheless freed the whole world, which had been bound in sin, through your Epistles. You routed the hordes of the demons, and through you the grace of the Holy Spirit has spread throughout all the world. You drew back the mist of deception, and you overthrew the insolence of the demons. You destroyed the altars of the pagans, and you reduced to ash all religious worship that is falsely so-called. You separated the tares from the wheat and cast them aside. And thus your daily preaching was shown to be a pure patrimony for the Church.



What thanks, then, can we render to you for all that you have done for us? I commemorate you, Peter, and I am amazed. I keep your memory, Paul, and I am brought to tears in my ecstasy. For what can I say? Or how shall I speak? Contemplating your afflictions, I am at a loss. How many prisons did you not sanctify? How many jails did you not illumine? How many dungeons did you not fill with your teachings? How many chains did you not make radiant? How many tortures did you not endure? How many places did you not sanctify with your discourses? How many false accusations were you not subjected to? How is it that you bore Christ in all this? How is it that you illumined the churches with your preaching?


Blessed is that instrument that is your tongue! For the sake of the Church your bodily members have been suffused in blood, and in all things you imitated Christ without fail. For your sound has gone forth into all the earth, and your words unto the ends of the world (Ps 18:5). The Church, which was given in marriage by you, shall ever be preserved undivided by Christ. Never has anyone like you been seen before, and never shall any be seen hereafter. For who has ever received the office of teaching and dared to say anything outside of what you yourselves have handed down? All teachers have been sent by you; all theologians have been produced by you; all who were once in darkness have been illumined by you. Your patient endurance has overcome our deficits. You prayed to be anathema that you might gain the world (Rom 9:3)!


What shall we render in exchange to you for all the good things that you have given to us? Today is the commemoration of your victory in contest. Today is the festival of your martyrdom for Christ. Today we all honor your holy relics with rejoicing.


Rejoice, Peter, who didst take up the tree of the cross and wast crucified in the likeness of the Teacher! Yet you were unwilling to be crucified in an upright position like our Master but were rather crucified head down, as if tracing out the movement from heaven to the earth. O blessed nails, which pierced those holy limbs! You are most desirable to me, and more to be preferred than the glory of heaven! [Peter:] with boldness you gave your soul into the hands of the Master. You served the Lord unstintingly, and you served the Church that is espoused to him with all eagerness. You were beloved of the Master, and you served the Lord well. Seething in the Spirit you were a faithful apostle of the Master.


O thrice-blessed Paul! Man who surpasses all description! Your head was cut off with a sword. That marvelous throat, the instrument of the Master and the wonder of heaven, was cut through by a sword. And still the earth does shudder! What sort of place received your blood, which appeared as milk on the garment of the man who impaled you?[7] This blood which made his heathen soul sweeter than honey, and which led him to belief, together with his companions. For me, let that sword take the place of a crown. For Paul served the Lord with all eagerness for thirty-five years, completing his course on behalf of piety and coming to rest only at the age of sixty-eight.


In place of our own sinfulness, [O Peter and Paul] we invoke your blessed words. Rejoice in the Lord always (Phil 4:4). Pray without ceasing for us (1 Thess 5:17). Fulfill your promises. For you, O blessed Peter, have lifted up your voice, saying, Be zealous after my departure to keep my memorial (2 Pt 1:15).



This blessed Peter, the apostle of Christ in whom our Lord Jesus Christ worked so many miracles, was from Bethsaida of Galilee (the same city as Philip). The blessed Paul, in turn, was from Tarsus of Cilicia. Both died in the great city of ancient Rome, on the twenty-ninth day of the month of June, having departed this life during the reign of Nero, that most lawless of emperors, and having gone to the Teacher and Lord of all after accomplishing so many great deeds. We, therefore, must exhibit all manner of zeal, my beloved, supplicating Christ our God, the king of all, that we might be made worthy, through his love for mankind, to remain in the traditions and teachings of these apostles, so that we might obtain mercy before Christ’s judgement seat. Through whom, and with whom, is glory to God the Father, with the all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


 

[1] In Petrum et Paulum sermo (Εἰς τοὺς κορυφαίους τῶν ἀποστόλων Πέτρον καὶ Παῦλον, καὶ τὸ αὐτῶν μαρτύριον ἐνδοξότατον) (PG 59:491-496) = BHG 1497; Aldama 364.


[2] This is because the tents in question would be made of leather, which is both reddish in color and made of animal skin, thus connecting it to both the body and blood of Christ.


[3] Paul is traditionally called the “the cicada of the Church” on account of his tireless preaching of the Gospel. See Chrysostom (attr.), On Repentance (PG 60:685), On the Turtle Dove, or On the Church (PG 55:599); Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 11 on the Mother of God (PG 77:1037A); John of Damascus, On the Divine Images 1.27 (Kotter 3:118). Cf. Jeremiah 8:7, The turtle dove, the cicada, the swallow, and the sparrows of the field have observed the times of their entrance, but my people has not known the sayings of the Lord (see Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Jeremiah 8, PG 81:556C). “The Hebrew does not have ‘cicada’” (Chrysostom, Fragments from the Catena on Jeremiah; PG 64:845).

[4] There is a play here on the words “shelters” (πανδοχεῖα) and “receptacles” (δοχεῖα), both of which denote a place of lodging or storage.

[5] “Bar-Jonah” is interpreted “son of a dove.” [6] Following here the reading of BNF Paris. gr. 1470, f. 94r, rather than PG 59:493.

[7] For this detail of the martyrdom of St Paul, see, for example, the Martyrium attributed to Linus here.

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