A sermon by Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (+430AD)
On this present day the holy Church piously commemorates the suffering of the holy, glorious and all-praiseworthy apostles Peter and Paul.
Saint Peter, the fervent follower of Jesus Christ, for the profound confession of his divinity: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, was counted worthy by the Savior to hear in answer: “Blessed are you, Simon… I tell you, that you are Peter (Petros), and on this stone (petra) I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:16-18).
On “this stone” (petra), is on that which you say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is on this thy confession I build my Church.
Wherefore the “thou art Peter.” Peter (Petros) is from the “stone” (petra); the “stone” (petra) is not from Peter (Petros) – just as the Christian is from Christ, and not Christ from the Christian. Do you want to know, from what sort of “rock” (petra) the apostle Peter (Petros) was named? Hear the apostle Paul: “that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1-4). Here is the Rock from whence Peter is the “Rock.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the final days of his earthly life, in the days of his mission to the race of man, chose from among the disciples his twelve apostles to preach the word of God. Among them, the apostle Peter for his fiery ardor was granted to occupy the first place (Mt. 10:2) and to be as it were the representative for all the Church. And therefore it is said to him, especially, after his confession: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16:19). Wherefore it was not one man, but rather the one catholic Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loose”.
And that actually it was the Church that received this right, and not exclusively a single person, turn your attention to another place of the Scriptures, where the same Lord says to also all his apostles: “Receive ye the Holy Spirit” – and further after this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:22-23). Or: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18). Thus, it is the Church that binds, the Church that looses. The Church, built upon the foundation and cornerstone, Jesus Christ himself (Eph. 2:20) binds and looses. Let both the binding and the loosing be feared: the loosing, in order not to fall under this again; the binding, in order not to remain forever in this condition. Wherefore “each is ensnared by the passions of his own sins” (Prov. 5:22); and except for holy Church nowhere is it possible to receive the loosing.
And after his Resurrection the Lord entrusted the apostle Peter to shepherd his spiritual flock. Not because among the disciples only Peter was worthy to shepherd the flock of Christ; but Christ addresses himself chiefly to Peter because Peter was first among the apostles, and as such the representative of the Church. Besides which, having turned in this instance to Peter alone, as to the foremost apostle, in this Christ confirms the unity of the Church.
“Simon son of John,” says the Lord to Peter, “do you love me?” And the apostle answered: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And a second time it was thus asked, and a second time he thus answered; then being asked a third time, seeing that as it were not believed, he was saddened. But how is it possible for him not to believe the One, who knew his heart? And therefore then Peter answered: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, all three times, “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17).
Besides this, the Savior’s three questions to Peter and Peter’s three confessions before the Lord had a particular beneficial purpose for the apostle: That one to whom was given “the keys of the kingdom” and the right “to bind and to loose,” had bound himself three times by fear and cowardice (Mt. 26:69-75); so now the Lord thrice looses him by his questioning, and in turn by his confession of strong love.
And the burden to shepherd the flock of Christ was received by all the apostles and their successors. “Attend to all the flock,” urges the apostle Paul to church presbyters, “among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). As the apostle Peter appeals to the elders: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).
It is remarkable that Christ, having said to Peter: “Feed my sheep,” did not say: “Feed your sheep,” but rather to feed, good servant, the sheep of the Lord. “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Peter or Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:13). “Feed My sheep.”
For this reason, “wolfish robbers, predatory oppressors, deceitful teachers and mercenaries, not being concerned about the flock” (Mt. 7:15; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jn. 10:12), having plundered a flock not their own, and making of the spoils as though it were their own particular possession, they think that they feed their own flock. Such men are not good pastors, as pastors of the Lord. “The good pastor lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11), entrusted to him by the Prince of pastors himself (1 Pet. 5:4). And the apostle Peter, true to his calling, gave his life for the very flock of Christ, having sealed his apostleship by a martyr’s death, and is now glorified throughout all the world.
And the apostle Paul, being formerly Saul, was changed from a robbing wolf into a meek lamb. Formerly he was an enemy of the Church, but afterward is manifest as an apostle; formerly he stalked it, then afterward preached it. Having received from the high priests the authority at large to throw all Christians in chains for execution, he was already on the way: “He breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), he thirsted for blood, but “the Living One in the Heavens mocked him” (Ps. 2:4). When he, “having persecuted and vexed” the Church of God in this way (1 Cor. 15:9; Acts 8:5), had come to Damascus, then the Lord from Heaven called to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” saying, in effect: I am here, and I am there, I am everywhere: here is my head; there is my body.
There arises nothing surprising in this; we ourselves are members of the Body of Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? it is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul, however, “trembling and frightened”, cried out: “who are you, Lord?” and “I am Jesus,” answered the Lord to him, “whom you are persecuting”.
Now Saul suddenly undergoes a change: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” he cries out. And suddenly for him there is the Voice: “Rise up and go to the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Here the Lord sends Ananias: “Rise up go to Straight Street,” to a man, “by the name of Saul”, and baptize him, “for this one is a vessel chosen by me, to bear my name before the nations and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:11, 15, 18). This vessel must be filled with Grace. Yet Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name” (Acts 9:13-14). But the Lord urgently commands Ananias: “Seek and bring him, for this vessel is chosen by me; for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:11, 15-16).
And indeed the Lord did reveal to the apostle Paul what things he had to suffer for his name. He instructed him regarding the works; he did not stop at the chains, the fetters, the prisons and shipwrecks; he himself felt for Paul in his sufferings, he himself guided him towards this day.
On a single day we commemorate the memory of the sufferings of both these apostles, though they suffered on separate days; but by the spirit and the closeness of their suffering they constitute one. Peter, going first, and Paul, following soon after him, demonstrate this. For Paul was formerly called Saul, and afterward Paul, having transformed in himself his pride into humility, as means also his very name (Paulos), meaning “small, little, less” – demonstrates this. What is the apostle Paul after this? Ask him, and he himself gives answer to this: He says “I am the least of the apostles: but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:9-10).
And so, brethren, celebrating now the memory of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, remembering their honorable sufferings, we esteem their true faith and holy life. We esteem the innocence of their sufferings and their pure confession. We love their sublime quality and imitate them by great exploits, “in which to be likened to them” (2 Thess. 3:5-9), that we may attain to that eternal joy which is prepared for all the saints. The path of our life before was more grievous, thornier, harder – but “how great the cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Heb. 12:1), having passed by along it, has now made the way easier, and lighter, and more readily passable for us. First there passed along it “the Author and Fulfiller of our faith” our Lord Jesus Christ himself (Heb. 12:2); his daring apostles followed after Him; then the martyrs, children, women, virgins and a great multitude of witnesses. Who acted in them and helped them on this path? He who said: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).