St Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church
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/ Weekly Message / Weekly Message 06-29-08: Regional Sunday of All Saints
Weekly Message 06-29-08: Regional Sunday of All Saints

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Once again, we find ourselves at a crossroads on the calendar.  Everyone who follows the new calendar is celebrating today the feast of SS Peter and Paul, which marks the end of the Apostles Fast begun this past Monday.  According to our diocesan calendar, today we celebrate the Sunday of the Saints of Carpatho-Rus, the holy men and women from the geographic area where the Carpatho-Russian people came from.  Right here in our own parish, we celebrate the patronal feast of St. Paul, and since this year marks the 2000th Anniversary of the Birth of St. Paul, a Pauline year began yesterday in Rome, with Solemn Vespers for the Feast of SS Peter & Paul at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, jointly celebrated by our Holy Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. 

Clearly there are several reasons worth celebrating today, and there are choices of what readings are to be taken.  In the most Solomon like way, I took both Gospel readings prescribed for today, because I believe that they go hand in hand, for we read of Jesus’ initial call to his disciples, where they left their boats and nets by the seashore and immediately followed Him.  As we continued in the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read of Jesus asking His Disciples who they believe the Son of Man is.  Peter boldly proclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus, in turn, promoted Peter to the first Disciple, giving him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Since we’re talking about saints today in general, and since we’re celebrating the feast of SS Peter and Paul, let’s talk a bit about the saints.  First of all, what is a saint?  There may be several textbook answers, but truthfully, a saint is a sinner with a past and figured out how to change.  Our blessed Orthodox church glorifies many saints who were less than perfect, for the saints had their struggles, just like the rest of us ordinary people.  Look at St. Peter, for example.  Even he ran away from our Lord during his time of suffering and trial.  It was a natural reaction for St. Peter to flee, rather than be apprehended by the authorities for being a collaborator with Jesus.  But our good St. Peter had a moment for redemption after remembering our Lord’s promise to him, “Before the rooster crows this day, you will deny me three times.”  Peter was ashamed of his actions, and he wept bitterly.  Peter was now faced with a choice.  He could have slithered away, choosing to go back to fishing, carry a grudge, and be an angry man the rest of his days, but he didn’t.  Peter couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from Jesus, and instead, he rose up and did what was required of him as a Servant of God.  When he heard from the women that they had seen Jesus, he ran to the tomb to see for himself.   He rejoined the Disciples, and became their leader, just as our Lord Himself rewarded Him in today’s Gospel reading.  Peter was honored with the title as the first Vicar of Christ on earth.  He was a zealous preacher and defender of the Gospel, and ultimately, he died as a martyr for the faith.  In fact, tradition tells us he was also crucified, but he begged to be crucified upside down, as he felt unworthy to die in the same way as did Jesus.  Peter had a good start, then he fell, but was forgiven, and he worked hard the rest of his days for a cause much greater than himself. 

Along with the story of St. Peter, we have the story of our blessed patron, St. Paul.  We first hear about St. Paul, or Saul, as he was known at that time, in the Acts of the Apostles.  At the time of the stoning of the first deacon, St. Stephen, we read that the witnesses laid their cloaks at the foot of Saul, who consented to Stephen’s death.  From there, Saul was persecuting the church, dragging off men and women and putting them into prison, and shortly after, started his journey towards Damascus to further harm the Church.   

It was on the road to Damascus where Saul was knocked off his horse, after a light from heaven flashed around him, and he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)  What we have here my brothers and sisters in Christ is the grace of God, knocking Saul in the head with a 2x4 to get his attention.  Once his attention was caught, Saul asked, Who is it?” The Lord responded, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.”  Saul, now blinded, got up and was lead to Damascus, where he met a man named Ananias, who was instructed by the Lord to help Saul.  Ananias prayed over Saul, causing him to regain his sight.  Saul then rose up in strength, was baptized, and became a zealous laborer and proficient defender of the Church.  He set up communities far and wide, and made a vast contribution in the continuation of the faith as we hear in his Epistles to the Churches at Rome, Corinth, Galacia, Ephesus, Colossae, Thessalonica, and his pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus.  Ultimately, our beloved St. Paul died in prison in Rome around the same time as St. Peter.  By tradition, we read that St. Paul was beheaded, and he is depicted in iconography holding the book of his Epistles to the churches, where in the west, he is portrayed holding a sword.  Unlike St. Peter, St. Paul started off bad, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit he was forgiven, and he rose up and did what was required as a Servant of God. 

And what about the Saints of Carpatho-Rus, as we see them depicted in the icon on the tetrapod this morning?  Similar type stories can be told of each one, in that they had ordinary lives, and at some point, they too were smacked by the grace of God to understand there were more important things then themselves.  God had a mission for them – he wanted to use them as examples to the faithful.

One such person depicted on this icon, as well as in a separate icon on the tetrapod is St. Alexis Toth, a Greek Catholic priest in the late 1800’s, who endured the ignorance of a Latin rite Bishop who wanted to suppress and eventually eliminate Eastern Christianity among the church in America.  St. Alexis, after battling and laboring for acceptance, ultimately came home to Orthodoxy, and as a zealous laborer, succeeded in bringing tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans to our blessed Orthodox Church.  Canonized by the Orthodox Church of America in 1994, he is considered to be the Father of Orthodoxy in America. 

Do you see the pattern here, my brothers and sisters?  All of our saints had a past.  Some of these saints whom we glorify did dastardly things.  They cursed their fellow man, they robbed, stole, beat, cheated, even killed.  Then the Holy Spirit came upon them, each in His own way, enlightened them, and made them to realize that something was missing in their lives.  That something is God.  The grace of God in His forgiveness allowed them to change into beings on fire for Christ.  That grace of the Holy Spirit enabled them as ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

God also interacted with the victims of these dastardly people, too.  Go back again to the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul was instructed to meet Ananias.  The Lord instructed him, “Rise and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul, who is praying.”  But Ananias objected and replied to the Lord, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done.”  You see, by his own admission, Ananias knows enough about Saul to know he is evil, and therefore is suspicious of him.  It is human nature to be suspicious of people when they try to change, but thanks be to God that by his grace we can come to believe that change is authentic and genuine.  The grace of the Holy Spirit allowed for the people to trust and believe in our saintly brothers and sisters.  As God forgave them, so too did the people.  

As our saints all had a past, all of us have a past too.  We have all done things, or said things that are regrettable and unfortunate.  But, just as we have a past, we also have a future.  If God will forgive us through the grace of the Holy Spirit in the mystery of Confession for the wrongs we have done, for the cruel words spoken, for all of the evil set before us by the devil himself in this world, then surely, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are capable of forgiving each other.  Certainly, we should be just as capable as our early church fathers to forgive, to trust, and to move on and become zealous laborers for the Lord.  Truly, this is how the saints lived their lives, and it is exactly what God expects of us if we want to be counted among His Disciples, for He told us Himself, if you would be my disciple, you must first deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. 

So my brothers and sisters in Christ, think about this and reflect upon it today as we commemorate these saintly people depicted in icons on our tetrapod.  And let me be the first to say, with all humility, if I have offended you, or treated you badly in any way, I beg your forgiveness, as a Disciple of Christ.  Amen.



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