Keys to the Kingdom - St. Peter

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It is a practice of ancient Christianity to celebrate the memories of the Apostles Peter and Paul on the same day and to celebrate them together. It’s also the tradition that when monasteries or churches are dedicated to the memory of these apostles, who are called in Church the “all-laudable and foremost apostles,” the “chief apostles,” that that would be done together as well. You can find it in certain places where in the Orthodox Church it would just be St. Peter’s Church or just St. Paul’s Church. Sometimes the St. Peter’s Church has its feast day on the day of the chains of St. Peter, but normally a church or a monastery would not simply be St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s, but it would be Saints Peter and Paul together. That was an ancient practice in the West as well as the East. From the earliest times, these two apostles, these two men, were always kept together. They were kept together in the consciousness of the Church and certainly that was for very good reason.

Now, the festival of Ss. Peter and Paul is on the 29th of June, and then the very next day is the synaxis or the assembly of the Twelve Apostles. So you have this celebration of the apostles at the end of June on the New Calendar.

We believe that these two men must be kept together in our consciousness and in our contemplation for very, very good reasons. Not only the reason that they are so different as individuals, as persons, in their calling, in their life, but also in the place that they hold within the life of the Church and what they, well, to use the verb, symbolize, what they show to us, manifest to us, about the very nature of the Christian faith, and therefore about the very nature of human life and human life with God. When we contemplate each of them separately and both of them together, then we have wonderful insights into many, many important truths and realities of the life of the Church, of the life of Christianity and the faith, of the meaning of the Gospel, and the meaning of human life itself.

First of all: Peter. We know from the gospels that Peter was a Galilean. We know also that he had a brother named Andrew. From the Scripture it tells us that Andrew and Peter were followers of John the Baptist. It also tells us that Andrew was the first-called of the apostles. He’s even called that in Christian Tradition, Orthodox Tradition: the First-Called Apostle Andrew. Then he went and found his brother, Peter, and brought him to the Lord.

Now, there are different versions of this, in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke on one hand, the Gospel of St. John on the other, but what we see is that, from the very beginning, from right after the baptism of Jesus, Peter and Andrew become disciples of Jesus. They are called by Jesus; they are chosen by Jesus. And they are brothers. There was another set of brothers; James and John were also brothers. It’s important even to note that Peter had a brother and that they were together, because this togetherness, it’s one of the things that we want to contemplate: that holy people come together. They have holy parents, very often; not always, but as a rule they do. Usually their siblings are together with them in the faith, and then their close friends, their relatives. Whenever you study the lives of the saints, you are struck by how often this happens and how we find this already in the holy Scripture.

Peter and Andrew, it says in Scripture, were partners with James and John, and they were fishermen. They had a pretty good business, so it would not be right to say that they were poor and lowly and degraded, as sometimes even Communist propaganda used to say: Christianity began by the lowly and the outcast and so on. Well, that’s simply not true. In the case of Peter, it’s certainly not true, because he had a thriving business, and he seemed to be doing well with his business. He’s called by the Lord and they’re mending their nets and they have their boats and very often the interaction between Peter and the other apostles—Andrew, James, John—is in connection with their fishing. We won’t go into that now, but it’s something also to think about: how the Lord comes and how they’re in the boats with him, and even the Lord puts the boat out and preaches from the boat, and then how they’re going back and forth on this sea of Galilee, the sea of Tiberius, and they’re in storms. Then after Christ is risen from the dead, he also appears on the shore of the water, and he tells them to go and catch their fish, and they bring in 153 fish, and then Jesus breaks the fast with them, being risen from the dead, to show that he’s not a ghost, and so on. So you have this interaction around the water, around the fishing.

Then when these apostles—those who will be the apostles; they’re first the disciples: disciple means one who studies, one who learns, one who follows a master, so Jesus begins as a master, a rabbi. By the way, when the King James Version of Scripture calls Jesus “Master,” almost always, almost without exception—there’s a couple of exceptions, but almost without exception—it means “Master,” like a master’s degree, like a magister, a teacher, a didaskalos, a rabbi. It’s not “master” like slavemaster or master of a household or something; it doesn’t mean master in that sense.

So the disciples are, first of all, disciples; they are students. Peter, it seems, was first a disciple of John the Baptist. Then he was given over to Jesus, as it were, as John the Baptist says in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus had to increase, John had to decrease; Jesus had to be raised up, John had to fade away. Then, of course, Jesus is the Messiah, he is the Christ, not John the Baptist, and John the Baptist is the preparation for Jesus. So Peter, with Andrew, James, John, the other of the apostles and, according to Scripture, Jesus had twelve disciples, whom he then named apostles, it says. “Apostle” means a person who was sent. In Greek, the word apostelo means “I send.” “Apostolos” is a person who was sent.

So Peter is one of those disciples who is called and then is sent, and is sent ultimately to preach the Gospel of the risen Christ, which he does preeminently, and certainly the Scripture shows that very clearly also. But from the beginning Peter is one of the disciples and then he becomes one of the Twelve, and then very, very clearly he becomes the leader of the Twelve. There is no doubt whatsoever, in Scripture and in Christian Tradition and in the ancient Christian Tradition, that Peter was clearly understood to be the leader of the Twelve Apostles, that he was the leader of that group.

There was a special word that was used, especially later in Greek theology. It’s the same word in Greek and in Latin. In Greek it’s koryphaios; and in Latin it’s coryphaeus. It’s just a difference of an o and a u. So coryphaeus, and coryphaeus means leader or chief or head. It is very clear in the Scripture and the Christian Tradition that, among the Twelve, Peter was the head. He was clearly the head; he was the leader.

We also know and believe that the reason that there are Twelve Apostles is because of the twelve tribes of Israel, the same way that the Israel of God was built on the twelve tribes, the children of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. So the Christian Church is built on the Twelve Apostles, with Christ Jesus himself, of course, being the head. It’s interesting that Jesus himself is called Apostolos in Scripture. He is called the One sent by God the Father, sent into the world, so he is also one who is sent, but he is sent as the Son of God to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. But he gathers around himself his disciples, and then he has the Twelve, who are then becoming the foundation of the Christian Church, the Twelve Apostles.

Here we should also pay attention when we read Scripture of the different relationships that Jesus has with different people. First of all, there’s the distinction between the disciples and the crowds. The ochlos is the crowd. So you have: sometimes Jesus speaks to his disciples, sometimes he speaks to the crowd. For example, the Sermon on the Mountain is given to his disciples. He goes apart with his disciples. Then among the disciples, there are those who are nearer to him and further from him, men and women. You have the women disciples of the Lord, the women who followed him and ministered to his needs. Then among the men you have the Twelve who were the closest. Then among the Twelve, you have three or four who seem to be much closer to Jesus than the others: Peter and Andrew and James and John. Very often, Jesus, for example, in the Transfiguration or when he does a healing or a raising from the dead, he will just take Peter, James, and John with him; sometimes Andrew will be there. Of course, later on, Thomas becomes prominent especially because of the event of seeing the risen Lord and calling him “my Lord and my God” in St. John’s gospel.

So you have these various relations, and then, of course, in St. John’s gospel, one of the Twelve is called the beloved disciple: the beloved disciple, which, according to ancient Tradition, is John, the youngest, the brother of James, [James] and John: Zebedee’s children, the sons of thunder. So you have these different relationships that Jesus has.

That’s important to think about, too, because it tells us that the Lord Jesus, and even God Almighty, does not have exactly the same relationship with everyone. He loves everyone equally, but when, especially in the human life of Jesus… Even St. Maximus the Confessor, he speaks about this specifically in his Centuries on Love. He says when you’re a Christian, you love everyone without discrimination. And he said believer or unbeliever, Christian or Jew, righteous person or evil person, the love is the same for all. It’s unconditional and without qualification and without discrimination. Nevertheless, there are those who are closest to us, closer to us, family members, co-workers, people of one mind and heart. So you find that in the gospel itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s very common, especially even in the Christian tradition. For example, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, Theoctist and Euthymius the Great, Cassian [and] Germanus. In the case of those men, those three partner-men who were together, they all described their relationship as being one soul in two bodies, that they really had one mind and one heart, one mouth. They lived together. That kind of friendship is very deep and very true and very necessary.

These different relationships… Sometimes it even said in Scripture, Jesus said about Lazarus and Mary and Martha, “those whom he loved” died, and it says Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha. A point is made of it. So that’s very good, and that kind of friendship and unity in the Lord… In fact, St. Ignatius of Antioch, at the very beginning of the second century, about the year 110, around there, he even had the first definition of the katholiki ekklesia, the catholic Church, the Church of Christ, as a henosis agapis kai pisteos, as a union of love and faith.

So this is what we find among the apostles and Peter and the Twelve. Peter is clearly, from the beginning, the leader. Also, when we look at Peter in the pages of Scripture, we see that he was a kind of a hot-tempered man. He was impulsive, he spoke a lot, he took over. Very often, to use modern jargon, he put his foot into his mouth. He would say things and babble on, for example, when Jesus said that he had to be crucified, Peter said, “Never!” And then Jesus appears to him walking on the water; he dives into the sea, and says, “Depart from me! I am a sinful man!” At the same time he wants to walk on the water, so he asks Jesus if he could get out of the boat and walk on the water during the storm. He actually does it, according to the Gospel narrative, but then he loses his faith somehow in the process and begins to sink, and Jesus has to pull him out.

I often even chuckle a little bit about the part after Christ was risen. It was almost as if Peter saw him and said, “Oh no, here we go again.” When he was fishing, it says he was stripped, and then he put on his clothes and then jumped into the water. I often thought that was kind of funny: that he was naked, by fishing, but before he jumped into the water, he put his clothes on. So Peter is this kind of volatile, strong, vehement, with a very kind of strong temperament, leader-type, mouthy-type, fervent-type, and he was that way from the beginning.

Then we know from the Scripture that after Jesus preached for a while and did the signs of the messiah-hood and did the miracles that he did, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we have Jesus asking this question to the disciples—the Twelve, actually; in this case it was to the Twelve Apostles—he asked, “Who do the men say that I am? Who do people say that I am?” And they said, “Some say that you are John the Baptist, risen from the dead. Some say you’re Elijah, a prophet, whatever.” Then he says, “Who do you say that I am?” And here the answer is given by Peter, and that’s a prominent fact in the Christian faith, that it is Peter who makes the confession of faith.

In Mark and Luke, Peter says, “You are the Christ.” That’s simply what he says: “You are the Christ.” Then in both those gospels, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anybody until the Son of man is risen from the dead, because the Son of man has to be rejected and delivered into the hands of evil people and Gentiles and to be mocked and scourged and beaten and ultimately killed.” In Matthew’s version, 16th chapter, when Jesus asked this question, the answer that Peter gives is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That becomes the basic foundational Christian confession of faith.

Here you could even say that that’s the first Christian creed: Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah is God’s Son. Then it will be further confessed that God’s Son is the Lord: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord. Then, of course, that Lord is the Savior. So you have Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. And that is why, by the way, the fish is used as a symbol for Christianity. You see it on cars now and so on. ICTHYS, because it stands for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior; Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord.

This confession of Peter in Matthew’s gospel, we know that Jesus said to Peter that this was not revealed to him by flesh and blood; it was revealed to him by God the Father. Then he says the famous words: “You are Peter,” and he calls him Peter. Originally his name was Simon, and he’s called Simon Peter very often. But “Peter” means “rock,” in Aramaic “Cephas” or “Kephas,” “Petra, Petrus,” a Latin term: it means “rock, a rock.” So he says, “You are the rock.” Then he says, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell”—sometimes they translate it, badly in my opinion: it should be “the gates” or “the doors of Sheol, of death”—“will not be prevailing against it.”

Then he says to Peter, “And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on the earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on the earth will be loosed in heaven.” So Peter very often is depicted in icons holding the keys in his hands. So he is the leader; he is the one who confesses, but he says to Jesus, “You can’t be crucified,” once Jesus announces the cross. And then the Lord Jesus Christ calls him “Satan,” says, “Get behind me, Satan, because you look at it humanly and not divinely.”

Archbishop Demetrios, the present archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, wrote a book on St. Mark’s gospel called Passion and Authority. It’s a very good book, highly recommended. He wrote it when he was a professor of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School and Harvard Divinity School, but in this book he points out that the only one that the Lord ever called Satan was the chief of the apostles, was Peter the Rock, because he did not affirm the need and the necessity for the Messiah to enter into his glory by being rejected, reviled, crucified, killed, and put to death in the shameful death, which is the center of [the] Christian Gospel and Christian faith.

But he is, as he’s called throughout history, the coryphaeus. He is the head, the chief, the leader. However, he not only makes these kind of blunders, gets called Satan, but of course what is also very well-known about Peter is that he denied Christ three times; that when Jesus was going to his Passion, all the apostles said, “Let’s go with him. Let’s die with him.” Thomas said it; the others said it. And Peter said he would never deny him, no matter what. Then we all know the story. Jesus said to Peter, “Before the cock crows,”—and in Mark it’s “Before the cock crows twice”; in Luke and John and Matthew it’s once, but before the cock crows—“you will deny me three times.” You will deny me three times that you know me. You will say you do not know me three times.

And we know how the story happened, how [Peter] followed him. The people said, “You were with him. Your accent betrays you. You’re a Galilean.” The relative of Malchus, when Peter took out his sword in the garden of Gethsemane and cut the guy’s ear off, that’s Peter, you know, that’s his style—Jesus healed him, said, “Put that sword back,” well, one of this Malchus’ relatives said, “Yeah, we know you. You were there in the garden.” And then we know in the gospel that the third time they asked him and he denied the third time, he said he began to curse and swear, even, bring a curse upon his head: “I do not know the man.” It’s so terrible to think. “I do not know the man.” And it’s the one that he confessed as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

In Luke’s gospel you have this little touch where Jesus was in sight of Peter when that happened. Peter was looking through the gate of the door. John had gone in, Peter was outside, and in Luke’s gospel it said that Jesus looked at him when that happened. And then he was crushed. Then, of course, all the gospels say that he went out and wept bitterly.

So Peter was a denier. He was a person who denounced, said, “I don’t know him.” He lied, basically, because he certainly did know him. But then we know that Jesus in Luke—Luke is very kind in his gospel; he’s the kindest of the evangelists—he even has Jesus telling Peter, “Well, when you turn again, strengthen your brethren. Strengthen the brethren. You’re going to fall away, but you will be coming back and you’ll have to strengthen the brothers, and you’ll take over as the leader again.”

So we have this incredibly powerful story of the denial of Peter, but then when Christ is risen from the dead, he appears to Peter and to, as it says in Scripture, the Eleven, because of course Judas was not there any more. He had gone, betrayed, and went out and hanged himself. He did not repent. He could have; it seems like he could have, in any case. But Peter weeps bitterly. But then when the Lord is risen, Peter sees him, confesses him, and then he becomes the leader so that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples in the upper room, about 120 of them, including the women and Mary the mother of Jesus—they were all together there in that upper room—then Peter is the one who gives the first sermon.

He comes out on Pentecost and he preaches. Then he and John together are the main public figures in the book of Acts who are preaching the risen Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter refers to Joel and the outpouring of the Spirit. He refers to Moses, who will raise up the prophet, that you must listen to him or you are lost. Generally he calls the Lord the Author of Life and that he is the Lord and that he is the Christ through what he suffers. Then Peter becomes the main spokesperson in the beginning of the book of Acts. Then we know that he was preaching the Gospel, that he’s the one who went to Cornelius the Centurion, the Roman, upon whom the Holy Spirit had come and received him and baptized him.

But he was known, and he was called even by Paul, later, the Apostle to the Circumcised, to the Jews, the leader of Judaic Christianity, the Church in its beginning among the Twelve who symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. Then the Tradition would be that Peter went about preaching, that he ended up in Rome, and he was in the city of Rome where he was martyred. The Tradition is that he was killed by being crucified, and even the Tradition is that he was crucified upside-down. He asked to be hanged on the cross upside-down so he would not be in the position of his Lord.

So Peter was faithful, but we know from St. John’s gospel—and it’s even a kind of addition to the gospel; the gospel seems to end, and then you have one more chapter added—where it seems that there must have been some kind of controversy about Peter, that people were saying, “Well, wait a minute. How could he be the head? How could he be the coryphaeus? How could he be the chief and leader? He denied. He denied the Master. He denied him three times. He denied that he knew him.” Well, the end of St. John’s gospel seems to be written to show that the Lord Jesus reinstated Peter, not only to the Twelve but even as their leader, by asking him three times, “Do you love me?”

According to St. John’s gospel, three times he asks him, “Do you love me?” and he uses the verb “to love” with agape and the verb “to love” with friendship, and each time he says, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” Even there you see what kind of a temperament Peter had, what a character he was, because when Jesus asked him the third time, he kind of loses it and says, “How many times are you going to ask me?” That’s what it seems to say. He says, “Lord, you know that I love you. You keep asking me.” And the Lord says, “Feed my sheep.”

And then the Lord says to him again, as he said to him in the beginning of the Gospel: “Follow me. You follow me.” So Peter is called to follow. And the consistent interpretation of those three questions and those three answers in St. John’s gospel—“Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs”—that that is a kind of reinstatement of Peter into his leadership and to his membership among the apostles of Christ. That’s how the holy Fathers interpret that particular part of the Gospel of St. John.

So you have Peter there as the head, reinstated, teaching, but very interestingly, when the controversy arose about whether or not the Gentiles had to be circumcised, and when in the 15th chapter of the book of Acts the apostles gather in Jerusalem, and even the Apostle Paul by that time is there, the leader of that particular gathering was James, the Lord’s brother who by Tradition is considered to be, following the Scriptures, the first bishop, the first head of the community in Jerusalem, the Judeo-Christian Church of Jerusalem. And it’s James the Brother of the Lord, not one of the Twelve. That’s a very important point in [the] Orthodox understanding of things, because it means that Peter was not the head of the Church as such. He was the leader of the Twelve, a very specific role. But when they gathered in Jerusalem, the presiding officers, so to speak, the president of the gathering, the proistamenos, was James, not Peter. It was the bishop of the local place.

Here, of course, we should mention immediately, right away, that in Eastern Orthodox ancient Christian traditions, the apostles and the Twelve certainly were not bishops of any particular local place. They were universal preachers, teachers, witnesses of Christ, eye-witnesses, who had been with him from the beginning, who had heard and saw all that he said and did, who went through the Passion with him, one way or another, like Peter, but who ultimately saw the risen Lord, received the Holy Spirit, and bore witness to Jesus as the Christ. This is what we have in the holy Scripture. So he is the leader of that group of Twelve.

But it’s very important to note that in the Scriptures the gift of the Holy Spirit to bind and loose, in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel… In the 16th Jesus says it to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven” and so on—but in the 18th chapter, the Lord says this just to the leaders of the Christian community generally. He said, “If you have a brother who is not obeying and is falling away, you go to him privately, then you bring him to two or three, then you bring him to the Church.” Then it says the Church has this authority, this grace of God to bind and to loose, to pronounce the truth and therefore to pronounce a certain judgment concerning the Gospel and the faith. It doesn’t even mention there; it just simply says about the Church that it possesses the authority to bind and loose.

Then in St. John’s gospel this authority and gift and grace and power of binding and loosing is given to the eleven apostles in the closed room on the very night of Easter itself, the Easter Sunday, Pascha Sunday, the Day of Resurrection. It says the Eleven were together in one place. Actually, there were ten, because Thomas was not there. Jesus comes to them, breathes on them, and says, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained; whosoever’s sins you loose or forgive, they are forgiven.” Now, the clear ancient Christian teaching of this point is that this authority and grace is given to the Church as a whole, and it’s exercised by the leadership of the Church, it’s exercised by the Apostles together, each one personally.

But you can’t say, for example, that Thomas didn’t have it because he wasn’t there on the night of the Day of Resurrection, that he was absent. You can’t say that it was given to Peter only in a special and exclusive way. No, it’s given to the apostles, and then ancient Christianity holds that those upon whom the apostles laid their hands to be leaders of their churches, to be the coryphaei, the leaders, the chiefs, of local Christian communities, that they also had this grace and gift because the power of God remains in the Church through the Holy Spirit, and the leaders of the Church exercise this authority and power.

So it’s not something exclusively given to Peter. Here we will see and we will know that Peter definitely is the leader, but when it comes to how his leadership is understood, he’s the leader of the Twelve, and the Twelve are not somehow a college of chiefs over the entire universal Church or anything; they’re the Twelve Apostles, the eye-witnesses of the Word who preach the Gospel throughout the various places. There’s even traditions of who went where. I don’t know how historical they are, but Thomas goes to India, and Peter goes to Rome. Mark goes to Egypt and Matthew goes to Ethiopia and Thaddeus goes to Armenia. You have these traditions of the Twelve scattered through the world, and then later even the Tradition developed that Andrew went to Byzantium and to the Slavs.

But in any case, Peter is one of them, and he does not have any special kind of apostolic jurisdiction that’s different from the others. He is not an apostle over the other apostles, just like later on it would be claimed that there is no bishop of other bishops. All the bishops are bishops in their own right and they all hold in solidum the episcopate. St. Cyprian of Carthage will say that any bishop, any leader of any community who has received the cheirotonia, the laying-on of hands from the apostles, that he is the image of Peter in that church. As long as he makes the confession about Jesus—“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”—he’s a successor of Peter.

So here we have to say very, very clearly, for obvious reasons, because of the modern teaching about the papacy, about the bishop of Rome being some special successor of Peter, what the ancient Christian teaching on this is. And there’s a wonderful book, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, edited by Fr. John Meyendorff—the new edition came out in 1992; it has new material from the earlier one—but you have articles and essays about the understanding of Peter in the ancient Christianity and in the Orthodox Christian Church. The book is called The Primacy of Peter. Originally it was called The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church.

But you have articles… I’ll just read you the titles of the essays in this book. You have one by Nicholas Koulomzine from St. Sergius in Paris called “Peter’s Place in the Primitive Church. Then you have Dr. Veselin Kesich, a professor from St. Vladimir’s, [whose article is] called “Peter’s Primacy in the New Testament and the Early Tradition.” You have Fr. John Meyendorff’s essay, “St Peter in Byzantine Theology.” You have Nicholas Afanassieff, also from Paris, a priest who wrote “The Church Which Presides in Love” about the Church of Rome in the earliest Christian times. And Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology.”

So these are essays about Peter, and I believe—my opinion is very clear on this—that this is the best information about Peter in the Christian history that you can find, and it is the best material that explains how Peter is understood in subsequent Christian history. After he is martyred in Rome, how is he understood? Well, he is understood as the chief of the Twelve Apostles, but he is not understood as the first bishop of Rome. In fact, St. Irenaeus in the second century, he speaks about the Church of Rome, and he says, “the Church of Rome that is founded upon the holy Apostles Peter and Paul,” and then he says, “whose first bishop was Linus, whose second bishop was Clement, whose third bishop was Eleftherios,” and he goes up to the twelfth bishop, who was alive in his time.

Eastern Orthodoxy would say that the apostles—none of the apostles were the first bishop anywhere. Sometimes you see even on Orthodox materials that Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. Well, he wasn’t the first bishop of anywhere. The apostles definitely exercised oversight. They were overseers; they were elders; they were the leaders of Christianity and of the Church, but they were not leaders of any local community as such. But their successors were. That’s why you can say that the bishop of Rome is in the Church that was founded by and on the blood and by the teachings of the Apostles Peter, and in this instance also Paul. And that’s why they’re always kept together; at least that’s one of the reasons, that they were both in Rome, and Paul was also martyred in Rome. He was beheaded, because he was a Roman citizen, so he got a high-class execution, whereas Peter, who was a Jew, a fisherman, was killed by crucifixion, because that was the low-class execution in the Roman empire.

So here you have Peter in the early Church, leading. He has a special role, definitely: he’s the leader of the Twelve. And he has a special connection to the Church of Rome, very clear. He was martyred there. But the Eastern Orthodox Church would not claim at all that Peter had any special prerogatives or powers that the other apostles didn’t have, and certainly we would not say that Peter had some special powers that were given over to the bishop of Rome and that the bishop of Rome has these special powers as a successor of Peter, and we certainly wouldn’t say that the bishop of Rome, as some kind of unique supreme pontiff and vicar of Christ, is in any way infallible under any conditions. Roman bishops have been wrong. Stephen was probably wrong. Honorius, the pope of Rome, was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council for teaching wrong doctrine. There is no infallible see or infallible bishop—or even infallible apostle, because as we’ll see Peter fought with Paul about how to interpret the Gospel.

But Peter is that unique, marvelous character in the early Church—the coryphaeus, the head, the chief of the Twelve. He is martyred in Rome, and therefore the Church of Rome legitimately can say that it is the Church of Peter and the Church of Paul, the Church of the foremost leading apostles. And on the festival of Peter and Paul in the Church hymns, they are both called coryphaeus. The term coryphaei is used in plural for the two of them, the foremost or preeminent or chiefs of the apostles. And Paul is called a chief of the apostles, too, together with Peter, although he was not one of the Twelve. So we Eastern Orthodox Christians would deny the exegesis of the New Testament that is found in the Latin Church, the Roman Catholic Church. We would deny that Matthew 16:18 was some special prerogative given to Peter, a kind of promise that he would bestow upon him some infallible or special powers. We would deny that the sentence, “When you are converted, strengthen your brothers,” is a special prerogative to the bishop of Rome to strengthen the other bishops. And we would certainly deny that the three questions and the three answers in St. John’s gospel are some kind of special commission to Peter to feed the lambs and tend the sheep that the bishop of Rome also inherits in some kind of particular way.

We would say that the bishop of Rome is the leading bishop. He was. Rome was the church that presided in love among all the churches, because it was the capital of the Roman empire. It was the place where the emperor was. When Constantine moved the capital of the empire to the East, he found the city on the Byzantium site that he named after himself—Constantinople—and it was called New Rome. And it’s called New Rome to this present day, because the emperor and the senate [were] now in Constantinople.

But in one word, Orthodox Christians following ancient Christianity do not believe that any see as such has a preeminent place by divine will in the Christian Church, and certainly no bishop has any prerogatives that other bishops do not have. Every bishop sits on the cathedra Petri. Every bishop sits on the seat of Peter when he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And in that sense, as St. Cyprian of Carthage said, “Every bishop is a successor of Peter.” And when the bishop of Rome tried to interfere in the inner workings of the Church of Carthage where St. Cyprian was, St. Cyprian says, “You have no right to do this. We can discuss it, we can talk, but you can’t decree things for us.”

And then when the pope of Rome at the time, already in the third century, said, “Yes, but there is a tradition whereby we are the apostolic see in the West, and we can interfere, and Clement wrote a letter to the Corinthians,” and so on, “it’s an ancient custom.” St. Cyprian said, “Well, it may be an ancient custom, but if it is, then it’s nothing but an ancient error.” And then he said, “Antiquitas non est veritas. Antiquity is not truth.” And then he also said at one of the councils in Carthage that there is no episcopus episcoporum among Christian bishops; there is no bishop of bishops. There is no bishop over other bishops. There is no bishop who legitimizes the episcopate of his brother bishops. Cyprian says, “Episcopatus unus est. The episcopate is one. And each bishop holds it in solidum, together, in the same episcopate.”

And that’s how the Eastern Orthodox understand the episcopate as being successors to the apostles, all the bishops, and how we understand the special place of Peter. It is a special place, and the bishop of Rome is the successor of the Church founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, but there are no special power, no special authority, and certainly not what Vatican I gave to the bishop of Rome, which was direct jurisdiction over every other Christian in the world, including the other bishops, the right to assign and therefore to depose all the other bishops, or the teaching that all the other bishops have their authority and legitimacy by virtue of their communion with Rome, and the teaching that the bishop of Rome, under certain conditions, can make infallible decrees that are absolutely, without question, the truth of God that every Christian is obliged to follow.

Eastern Orthodoxy does not accept any of those things and does not accept it. That’s why we are not in communion with Rome—one of the reasons—and that is why we do not affirm the behavior and the activity of the pope of Rome as it’s been known in recent years, what a Roman Catholic theologian, Jean-Marie Tillard called the imperial papacy. We don’t know that. So through the history there was a big controversy in East and West about the understanding of Peter vis-à-vis the pope of Rome.

One thing is very clear, and if you read the book, The Primacy of Peter—highly recommended, edited by Fr. Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press—you will see that the Church of the East and the ancient churches always recognized the leadership of Peter and always recognized that Rome was one of the main sees of Christendom. It was the only “apostolic see” in the West, whereas virtually every little town in the East was an apostolic see. And that it had a certain primacy because of being the capital city, but that was it. But that Peter was the coryphaeus and that Paul himself became a coryphaeus as well, a leader or preeminent, and that Peter and Paul are celebrated together, that is certainly both the teaching and the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church until this day.

So we will talk about Paul in our next broadcast, and to show why Peter must always be held in mind and heart and consciousness together with Paul. Peter and Paul go together, and we will see how Paul fits into the picture the next time.