Why Do We Call Simon Peter?

And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.

-Matthew 16:18

Not too long ago, I was asked the nature of Simon being named Peter. 

It was a question that forced me to pause, not because I thought the answer too obvious. The question itself, I detected, had a great deal of curiosity behind it, a mining of meaning in this very formative moment in Peter’s journey as a disciple.

So why was Jesus’ disciple Simon renamed Peter?

It’s important for us to examine how the disciples show up in the New Testament.

When we look at the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter really taking center stage out of the twelve. Just behind him is John, though Peter tends to be far more memorable to us for all that he said and did whereas John tends to be depicted as more passive yet nontheless close to Christ.

It is Peter who declares boldly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the same disciple that falls on his face in repentance seeing Christ bring the miracle of the haul of fish. Peter is the one who acknowledges Christ’s power and asks to be allowed to walk on water, but also is the disciple who’s doubt is manifest to the other eleven and to the rest of history. Peter boldly swears to die with Christ and draws his own blade to fight for Him in the garden, and he is also the one who denies Christ three times. While Thomas does go on record once in his boldness of saying, “let us go to die with Him” (John 11:16), Peter’s boldness is a reoccurring theme in the Gospel and Acts accounts.

Besides John, Thomas, and Judas, the rest of the disciples fade in the narrative. We get to know Judas’ deception and love for money. We get to see John’s closeness with Jesus. We get to see Thomas’ zeal before he begins to doubt. The rest of the disciples personality and works unfortunately are not well covered in canonical scripture. Peter is the star, and in just about every film adaptation of the New Testament it is Peter that is often given special spotlight.

And for good reason.

As mentioned already, Peter is the consistently bold disciple, but with his imperfections. Peter enjoys so many peaks in the Gospel accounts, but he has so many human moments of weakness. We sometimes, unfortunately, categorize Peter as a bad example of faithfulness while failing to give credence to his triumphs and later works—similar to how Thomas is ONLY remembered for doubting. Peter doubts, Peter calls himself sinful, Peter promises to kill and does even maim in Christ’s name, and Peter denies Christ three times. And yet Peter is restored at the end, and his ministry is powerful in Acts. But most of all, Simon is called Peter, the Rock, the rock on which Christ builds His Church.

This goes to Simon Peter, not to anyone else, not even John.

Consider the disciple and evangelist John for a moment. He is continually called the beloved disciple, a disciple close to Jesus. He is the author of John—or at least its narrator—and most commonly attributed as well to the Book of Revelation. John doesn’t have a negative account in the narrative. In fact, when the other eleven disciples failed to show up at the foot of the Cross, John was there. It’s often interpreted that John’s showing up at the Cross was reason for his escape from martyrdom, that he already risked his life being a witness to the crucifixion. John is not called Peter, not given this incredible new identity and responsibility from Christ. And it’s nothing against John. That being said, there’s something powerful about Christ’s appointment of Simon Peter.

Simon Peter represents both the potentiality of the Church as well as its flaws. Simon Peter is the rock the Church is founded on because he shows up in his walk with Christ and in his ministry with zeal, despite how brash it sometimes can come across. And Peter has his moments of weakness. Christ blesses Peter with this role, blessing the zeal the Church is to embody while also recognizing our human error.

Often the Church—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, whether it be a parish or a synod–comes under scrutiny for its ability to err. “The institution of the Church” is a too common scapegoat for the modern Christian, spiritualist, and secularist. We find ourselves allergic to the association of the church because of what we think we know about history. Yes, there have been abuses of power, from the lay level to the episcopal level. But Christ appointed Simon Peter as the rock for His Church. Peter nearly murdered in Christ’s name and had acted “un-Christian” in his denial. But just as we ought not focus solely on Peter’s shortcomings and instead consider his zeal and goodness, so too the Church should be afforded some similar credence. While members of the Church have not always been faithful and sometimes overzealous as Peter, the Church also is an agent of truth and healing like Peter. As much as we like to point fingers and shout out “but what about the scandals and crusades” we need to pause and evaluate the institutions of healing they’ve also provided, the refuge it has been in war for the ostracized, the supporter of the sick, orphaned, and widowed through its instituted agencies. 

Simon Peter reminds us of Christ’s trust to us despite our shortcomings. He didn’t call the qualified to this task, he qualified the called. 

If you think you’re unworthy to serve Christ, think on Simon Peter’s shortcomings as well as his triumphs and realize that Christ can and will teach us how to direct our zeal. If you think your priest, pastor, church cannot be trusted because of its humanness, remember you are just as human as Peter and that the institution is what Christ trusted and ordained. 

Afterall, Christ did not come for the healthy, but for the sick.

What Does Forgiveness Look Like? An Armrest

Let me share with you the longest flight I ever endured.

It was a 20 hour flight across the world, though it wasn’t the duration of the non-stop flight that made it so long, but rather my neighbor…

He was a bigger gentleman, binged on R-rated films for most of the flight, and like most of us was in need of a shower and some deodorant from a very long venture. None of that bothered me, because I got it: we had a long trip home in front of all of us, and we were all trying to make the best of this day-long flight.

But the spitting tobacco was what set me over.

A few hours into the flight, the man asked for a Styrofoam cup from the flight attendant and began dipping and spitting. Having lived around smokers most my life, I feel I have a rather strong disgust tolerance for all things tobacco. So, believe me when I tell you that this was the most repugnant aroma I have smelled in my life.  The man had concocted a miasma of foul poison from his mouth to this cup, comprised of his spit, the tobacco, and whatever other toxins that particular chewing tobacco had. The sound of this ichor going from his mouth to the cup was so visceral. Though I could be imagining this particular detail, I’m fairly certain the man’s backsplash into the cup flung at least one droplet into my space.

His Styrofoam cup became a biohazard as he dozed off to his film, his grip on it uncertain during his dreams. Thankfully he awoke about fifteen minutes in and had the kindness of using my armrest’s cupholder to secure his petri dish of backwash.

Some theaters and airplanes are designed properly to give each seat a full armrest. Some are not. Some are so inadequate and unpartitioned that it makes the dividing line of “mine” and “yours” rather ambiguous. But there’s an ideal to be pursued with armrests: each person taking up the seat ought to have one armrest to themselves, undeterred, no questions asked. The man had usurped my armrest with chemical warfare like a World War One affront across the Maginot Line. Worse than that, it wasn’t just that I was an armrest down, but that all my senses (sight, smell, sound, perhaps even touch) had been assaulted by the man’s nasty habit of chew poison. Such grievances have caused humanity to ratify ethical rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention.

“So why didn’t you say something to him?”

You’re right to ask that. I have only excuses for why I didn’t engage with the man, all coming from base fear and calculated reasoning:

1. It was a 20 hour flight. Depending on how our conversation would go, I would have to endure a day’s worth of travel with an enemy instead of a stranger, and I didn’t have the stamina to take our relationship to that level.

2. I was alone on this flight. I’d flown back at a different time than my friends had, and so I was surrounded by strangers who looked just as tired and checked out as me. Would they have the gumption to get my back should things escalate? I wasn’t so sure.

3. Should the man become upset with my boundary setting, I might have had to wear his chewing tobacco the entire flight, if you catch my drift.

All that being said, I had a responsibility to say something to this new friend of mine, to patch up our budding relationship, and to say it in a tone that would be easy for him to hear. I think we sometimes neglect to say something because we are afraid how our words will be received, or how they’ll come out when emotions are high. But to say nothing while there is something coming between us and the other is to keep a person away rather than to draw close in authentic relationship. Who knows, maybe if I voiced my disgust for his chewing tobacco our conversation could develop into an edifying topic of mutual interest.

We sometimes assume from the Gospels that Christian love and humility means acting like a doormat. While we are called to bear with one another and be charitable in our actions and resources, we must also consider times when Jesus said “no” and set boundaries. It might seem that Jesus is pushing away the Pharisees and Scribes in His list of “woes” at Jerusalem, though really He is pleading with them to change something, so that they too may become disciples. We also see how often Jesus leaves cities after periods of being unwelcome or retreats into the wilderness after trying times of ministry. And then there’s the overthrowing of the vendors’ tables at the temple, rebuking Peter for cutting the ear of a soldier, denying Herod a sign & miracle…the list goes on.

These acts of our Lord are not gestures of pushing away even though externally they may seem as such. The honesty, the firmness, the line in the sand is all a means of healing a broken relationship. It’s like a bone fracture that sometimes tries to heal on its own without any guidance (a phenomena called malunion), for which the cure is actually rebreaking the bone in order to set it back in the proper place.

In Greek, the word forgiveness is συγχωρώ. The etymology of this is “syn” or together along with the verb “χωρέω”. Χωρέω sometimes has a connotation of withdrawing, but also can mean “making space” for someone or something.

I’ve sometimes struggled knowing exactly when I’ve forgiven someone or when I’ve felt forgiven by someone else. How does one forgive when someone has done something that has left things still uncomfortable? I take solace in the image that the Greek word forgiveness has here, this visual of two people together making space for one another. It’s a mutual act of the two parties understanding what each has contributed to a conflict.

This discourse is not meant to throw my fellow passenger under the bus (or plane) for not making space for me after apologizing. There’s room for me to grow in this practice of setting boundaries. As you can probably imagine, I wanted nothing to do with the man during and after the flight. A complete opposite approach was taken, stonewalling without setting a boundary. “Hey man, chewing and spitting that isn’t good for you, and isn’t good for me. Please stop it.” Though armrest etiquette is something most of us take for granted, sometimes these rules of engagement need to be reiterated, reminded, the line in the sand drawn again after the wind obscures it.

Forgiveness is obviously a two-way street, but it works best when a boundary is known by both parties. You can’t make space if you don’t know how much space is being asked for, know when the line was crossed if we can’t agree where the line is.

The beginning of Lent starts with a beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. Often we come to this service asking forgiveness from those whom we can’t remember a single time offending or being offended by. But perhaps the asking of forgiveness is an opportunity to lay to the side something we’ve kept inside as well as practicing the line “forgive me” when it’s too hard to say. Lastly, asking the forgiveness of a stranger perhaps is a spiritual way of forgiving those miles away from us who have spit and chewed tobacco next to us on a very long plane ride.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, please forgive me, a sinner!

Who Are the Unmercenaries?

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On November 1, the West & Catholic Church celebrates “All Saints” while in the Eastern Orthodox Church we celebrate Kosmas & Damian, the Holy Unmercenaries.

“Unmercenary” is both a strange-sounding and heavy metal sounding name for a rank of our saints–one of the reasons why I named my novel’s crimefighters after this rank of saint.

In the original Greek, “Unmercenary” is “Anagyroi” which literally means those not of silver, implying those who could not be paid for their service. In English, we dressed up the title using the stem “mercenary” which carries a connotation of paid-soldiers.

However, the rank of Unmerceny saints really have no military implication. Instead, this rank is a medical one, referring to Christian physicians who used both their knowledge of medicine and the fervor of their faith to heal others. However, this rank of saint specifically relates to a Christian tradition of providing medical care without accepting any payment. Just as it is today, doctor appointments weren’t cheap back in the day.

On November 1, we celebrate just two of the many Unmercenaries in the Church: Kosmas & Damian. These two brothers were raised by a single mom who dedicated her life to seeing to the Christian upbringing of her children as well as equipping them to enter into a profession of public service. We owe their mother, St. Theodota, credit for giving the Church two brothers who were extreme in their faith and in their selflesness.

The story goes that these two brothers were so adamant about not receiving payment that it actually led the two to an unfortunate quarrel. Kosmas had gone off to heal a widow who’d been seen by multiple pagan doctors to no avail. Kosmas was able to heal this woman through his prayers, and the woman being so grateful insisted he take three eggs from her as a gift. Kosmas explained his commitment to keeping nothing of his profit for this work, but the woman insisted saying Kosmas couldn’t deny a gift that was made honoring the Trinity (three eggs, three persons of the Trinity).

When Damian found out, he was grievously upset with his brother, and this caused a huge rift because it seemed Kosmas didn’t uphold his end of their fraternal promise to “freely give” to others just as Christ “freely gave” to them the gifts of healing and the gift of salvation. Sad as their rift is, their story serves for us today a kind of testimony to the importance of open dialog and to not allow the letter of rules to get in the way of holy fellowship.

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There are another set of Unmercenary saints who confusingly enough also share the names Kosmas and Damian. They too were Christian physicians who took no pay for their work. They were quite popular in Rome not merely because their service was free, but because it was overwhelmingly successful. This led to a manhunt for the two saints, wherein Roman officers began arresting any Christian they could in the hopes they’d find the two saints who had gone into hiding.

Both Kosmas & Damian eventually make themselves known to spare the local Christians from the collateral arrests, but when they show the power of the gift of healing they received from Christ they are set free–the two saints had healed a man with paralysis in the Roman court and were set free afterwards.

While they were temporarily spared by the state, their teacher who had instructed them in medicine had become jealous of their success and evasion from prosecution. After the trial, Kosmas and Damian’s teacher invites them to join him on an exhibition to collect medical herbs from a nearby mountain. The two oblige–perhaps to resupply for themselves or perhaps to convert their pagan teacher–but are thrown from the mountain by the teacher, killed in envy just as Cain had slain his brother Abel.

Promo art for book, featuring Father, Sheepshead, Red, and Morgenstern

As mentioned before, I use the title of these saints in part because the English translation for this rank has a rather edgy and powerful sound to it. When we think of mercenaries, we think of antihero ronins and black sheep soldiers constrained by no obligation or uniform. “Unmercenary” had always struck me as a kind of soldier that might combat or stand against these lawless sellswords, a kind of anti-antihero, a paladin standing against the rogues.

The Unmercenaries in my fiction series “Masks” are a band of vigilantes who take no pay for their service to their city. But instead of infirmities they are curing, they are surgeons removing cancers of illicit business, antibodies fighting against infections of criminality. They freely give from their own time and well-being to heal their city.

Among Orthodox monasticism and writings of desert fathers, we also see an emphasis on attentiveness or “watchfulness.” It was these holy ascetics–such as the “sleepless ones” and stylites–who kept watch over their soul as though it were a city in need of defense, forcing their bodies to remain strong to stave away from sleep so as to be proactive in spiritual warfare through prayer. The masked crime fighters, the Unmercenaries, subtly fuse these elements of Orthodox “heroism” if we can call it that, of these superhuman qualities achieved by saints who dedicated their lives to Christ, to His Church, to their work for humanity.

That’s who the Unmercenaries of “Masks” attempt to convey. They are not a perfect analogy of any particular or group of saint, but a modern and hopefully palpable allegory of saints, ever vigilant, self-giving “healers”, and usually unseen (much like the intercessions of the saints interceding in our lives today, assisting us without much gratitude or acknowledgment).

With that, I hope we all can set sometime to give some gratitude to God for equipping these saints who pray for us. I also hope that my book–imperfect and sometimes crude–is a refreshing story that encourages each of us to examine our personal calling to become great, to become saints.

God bless you all, and Happy Harrowing!

Buy “Masks: The Unmercenaries” now!

In Honor of Emperor Constantine

A History of the Saint

Today marks the feast of St. Constantine. Yes you heard correctly: “Saint”.

Even my Catholic friends flinch when they hear Saint or Great included into the Emperor’s name. To be fair, I’m aware of the religious and historical scandals that cause these sort of reactions. Being baptized on his death bed by Arian clergy after the council he founded–that fought against Arianism–comes across as jarring, and the accounts of the execution of his son and wife are also head-scratching matters to say the least–though ancient and modern history can’t seem to agree on why the execution was ordered.

And yet, for a man steeped in brutal Roman politics and culture, his life in such a context is still remarkable and his acts of generosity were brave and counter-cultural. 

The tale of Constantine’s life is a rather heroic one, a story of a littleman ascending to leadership, a story of chaste virtue blossoming into reform of a misled empire.

The makings of a hero

Constantine was born in the humble parts of the Balkans, in modern-day serbia. His father was a well-to-do Roman officer who ended up becoming an imperial guard for the emperor before finally ascending to tetrarch; Rome had become so large that the single ruler of Rome divided the responsibility of rulership to four leaders instead of one. Constantine’s mother was a Greek of low-estate, seemingly utilized as his interpreter for a short period of time before Constantine’s father moved for his promotion. Though the father and son would be reunited once Constantine himself embarked on his military career, Constantine and his blessed mother Helen were left to fend mostly for their own in these formative years.

Constantine was fortunate to have a father of high-esteem in the eyes of room, and because of this received a rich education in Nicomedia. The Christian formation he received from his mother was built upon as Constantine received education not only from Greek/Roman pagans but also from Christians philosophers living in that area. What may have also factored into Constantine’s inclination towards Christianity was his knowledge of the Diocletian persecution of Christians during his military career under Diocletian.

Constantine came to power upon his father’s death, ruling as tetrarch to the North Western quadrant of the empire. This was not an easy governance as the far reaches of Rome here were constantly being tested by Picts and Franks among other developing tribes and groups in northwest europe. In this time of defending his post from these constant threats, Constantine endeavored to repair roads and began ambitious building projects in this Roman frontier. It’s incredible to imagine how a leader constantly under threat can still set his eyes on a vision of building and connecting, embodying both bravery and creativity.

en touto nika

Constantine’s rise to tetrarch happened to be one more tumultuous wave into the political strife already brewing in the Roman tetrarchy. Rome become a six ring circus of disputed leadership, a divided empire, in need of vision and order.

Constantine’s greatest enemy, Maxentius, felt threatened by Constantine’s position in power and had preemptively declared war on Constantine. Constantine carved a war path in response and after his first few victories into Italy was received well by the Italian-Roman population.

Constantine arrived to meet Maxentius and his army at the Tiber River outnumbered 2:1. What rallied Constnatine and his men was a vision, a dream he had before the battle of a sign in the sky. There are different reports if the sign in the sky was that of a Cross or the letters “Chi” and “Rho” (the first two letters of Christ’s name), but the message in this dream was simple: in this, conquer. It was Constantine’s blessing from heaven, a defining moment in Christian history that would allow for the Church and her faithful to regroup, rebuild, and be sent out.

Constnatine won the battle and won the heart of Rome. Henceforth, Constantine not only put an end to Roman persecution of Christianity, but became a patron to it. Constantine personally funded building projects for Christian churches, funded his mother’s venture to seek out the True Cross of Christ, and funded the Church’s First Eccumenical Council, allowing all bishops of the Christian world to convene and sort out the canon of Scripture and seal the tenants of the faith and who Christ is: God and Man, eternally begotten, Son of God.

an imperfect saint

Where we get uncomfortable hearing Constantine’s name is when we hear stories of the execution of his son and wife. The testimonies conflict as to what exactly happened here, and there doesn’t seem to be one clear narrative of motive or even culprit. We also tend to put Constantine under a lens for his death-bed baptism at the hands of an Arian bishop–a bishop that the 1st Eccumenical Council had deemed heretical in the professed belief that Christ was created and not Son of God. 

Perhaps Constantine’s life does not quite stack up to the great contemporary saints of his time: St. Nicholas, St. Spyridon, St Athanasius, etc. That being said, the Christians we think of at that time were ordained hierarchs not set on a track of public servitude and a military career. Though we might point to the lives of St. George and St. Dimitrios as being chaste military saints that have perhaps a cleaner record than Constantine, perhaps we could keep in perspective the temptations that came with leadership at the time. As we consider King David and King Solomon, both elect by God who fell into their own temptations, perhaps too we can consider how human Constantine was, and the humility of his desire to be baptized at the end of his life knowing what hard decisions he might end up regretting to make.

a patron we need today

St Constantine, dedicating Constantinople to Christ and the Theotokos

But why mention all this? Merely because his memory is kept today? Merely because I bear his name?

The highlights and honorable parts of Constantine’s life I think are fairly topical to the needs of today. 

I see a young man who is educated not merely by one side of the aisle, but knowledgeable of both (in his case, pagan and Christian). 

I see a man who in spite of having a distant parent still honors him and seeks training and admonishment (he had a distant father). 

I see a man who in the face of hostility meets adversity with courage and more importantly with faith, bowing before not his own resources or understanding, but on God’s authority (the battle at the bridge). 

I see a man who supports the pilgrimage, the journeys of faith, of others, endorsing their ventures to finding salvation (His mother and the Cross).

I see a man humble and willing to accept he is likely to sin grievously, and nonetheless seeks out a path of salvation for himself, not considering it hypocrisy to devote himself to Christ at the end, but to crave salvation after lamenting a lifetime of sin (his baptism).

I see a man who puts forth the resources to foster dialog and unity, to foster a setting of discussion to make us one, to allow for our ideas to contest in the coliseum of the world coming together (the first council).

I see a man who values the patronage of arts, of wholesome art, that can reshape society and further lead others to God. Above all, I see Constantine’s philanthropy to Christian architecture and art as needed today: we need patrons of beauty that direct our eyes not on our egos and idols, but towards the heavens that humble us, to the God that created us and saved us.

May we find more Constantine’s that will lead us in an example of courage, of dialog, and of beauty, helping reorient our eyes to the sign waiting for us in the heavens that ultimately shows us the salvific power of God.

By the intercessions of he and his mother, may our art and our speech be sharpened by the Lord Almighty.