by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Years ago, I had a friend who, after a terrible battle with an infection, had to have one of his lungs removed. Life changed a lot for him after all that. Now, when he wakes up in the morning, he has to sit on the edge of his bed for several minutes so his blood regulates itself before he can stand up. If he tries to get out of bed too quickly, he’ll pass out. Everything he does now has to be done painstakingly slow. A host of other health issues came along with having his lung removed. This is because, something had to fill that space where his lung once was. So, his chest collapsed a bit and his heart, liver, and other lung shifted over toward that void. And as a result of all this movement, his spine also began to curve in toward the lungless side. Also, yearly bronchial infections brought on by allergies keep him constantly alarmed, since it almost always means a debilitating hospital stay with a high possibility of death. Suffice it to say that, even though it’s medically possible for a human to live with only one lung, it’s certainly not something that anyone in their right mind would find preferable to having two good, healthy lungs.
In Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus declares that He and His disciples together are “one, just as He and His Father are One,” and that we are “in Him, just as He is in the Father.” Expanding upon that image, Saint Paul refers to the Church as though it’s a living human body (Romans 12:4; 1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:24) with many parts—organs and limbs—with Christ as its head (Colossians 1:18). Therefore (by way of the Holy Spirit), when Christians gather together, they form a single physical organism through which Christ continues to take on human flesh, ministering to others within the Church and to the world…with each of us being His fingers and muscles and even the cells of His body.
Throughout the scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers, in a myriad of ways, this body imagery has helped to illustrate both, wholeness, and illness the life of the Church. For instance, it’s painfully evident, when someone who was created to fulfil a particular role within the body of the Church (some body part) is filled with spiritual illness, or suddenly decides to stop doing their part…like a hand that goes limp when simple tasks need to be accomplished for the sake of Christ…or worse, simply cuts itself off from the rest of the body. The whole body suffers.
This all brings us to this Saturday’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul. They were each martyred during the same year, 67 AD, in the same month, June, in the same city, Rome. Saint Peter was crucified upside down, while Saint Paul was beheaded. Although this coming Sunday is the feast of the Apostles…both Saint’s Peter and Paul are commemorated on their own separate day…the day before the Apostle’s feast. Why does the Church set them apart in this way? Is there some spiritual meaning to this? The illustration of the Church being a body whose parts fulfill different functions comes to mind when we encounter this Saturday’s feast-day, emphasizing the unity of Saints Peter and Paul. Together, they offer us two archetypes that our “Apostolic Church” (as we state in our creed) needs, working together—embracing each other—to live in fullness for the healing of our souls, like two healthy spiritual lungs.
First, let’s take a quick look at Saint Peter. In the Gospel Reading (Matthew 16:13-19) for this feast day, we have a particular conversation between Jesus and His Apostles, where Jesus asks, “Who do folks say that I am?” Each of the Apostles toss up the various things they’ve heard people say about Jesus. “I’ve heard some folks say that You’re John the Baptist come back to life. Others say You’re Elijah. And there’s even some who’re insisting that You’re Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” And Jesus suddenly gets intimate with them asking, “But who do you say that I am?” And all the apostles fall silent, until Simon Peter blurts out, “Well…You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God!” By God’s grace, Peter recognizes Jesus for who He is and He can’t help but say it aloud. Without even stopping to think, Peter is always aiming towards Him, jumping out of the boat to go to Christ, always leading the way toward Him. In spite of Peter’s faults (his rashness, his distraction by the storm, his Passion-Week denial of Jesus, his caving in to peer pressure from Judaizing Christians), because of his clear resolve about who Jesus is, he naturally rises into place as the leader of the twelve.
Now, let’s look briefly at Saint Paul. In this feast day’s Epistle Reading (2 Corinthians 11:21-33; 12:1-9), Saint Paul illustrates the ascetic nature at the center of an outwardly focused Christian life. This Epistle Reading is about the immense, personal struggles Paul went through so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be formed in Him and brought to the world. Being careful not to let the sin of pride slip in, Saint Paul says that his struggles, his weaknesses, his infirmities, his anxiety over the state of the churches under his care, and the persecutions he’s endured are the means by which God’s glory shines out most brightly in Paul’s life. They are what allows him to be such a powerful witness to the love of Christ. Every single struggle was turned into a victory for Christ.
Paul goes further to say that, “God’s strength is perfected in our weakness.” Saint Chrysostom unpacks this for us. He clarifies, “When we humble ourselves…when we admit our weakness and our need of God for all things, then we’ll see, by God’s grace, His strength being made perfect in us. Just as St. Peter also says, “God gives grace to the humble” (1Peter 5:5). Building upon that, Saint Silouan takes it a step further and speaks of difficulties that God sometimes adds to our own human weakness and the benefit they bring us, saying, “The Lord loves mankind…but He sends us times of distress that we may perceive our weakness and humble ourselves to seek God.”
But to merely have this humility—to only see our great need for God—does us no good unless it moves us to repent from our own self-absorption towards God’s will being lived out in each of us. So, even if someone is chronically ill—where they realize how desperately they need God’s help—they’re not really in a state of humility unless it moves them to repentance towards fulfilling God’s will in their lives…towards living in unity with (in participation with) Christ’s loving mission toward others in the Church and towards the world. Otherwise, that alleged “humility” is just another form of self-centeredness. “Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
So, we have two lungs—Peter & Paul (one lung resolutely aiming and leading the way toward Christ & the other lung having a willingness to go through any struggle so that Jesus may be revealed in Him— both of these help us to breathe in and preserve the breath (πνεύμα) of God—the Holy Spirit—within a man. With the Holy Spirit, everything becomes an experience of good, an opportunity to be joyful, a place to find healing…whoever humbles their self will be content (Philippians 4:11-13) with every kind of circumstance, since the Lord has become their riches and their joy.
You might wonder here, but didn’t I receive the Holy Spirit at my baptism & chrismation? Or, didn’t I receive the Holy Spirit last Theophany, when we prayed the prayers of blessing over the waters…or last Pentecost…or the last time I partook of the gifts at the chalice…? Yes, but you don’t just take a breath on the day you were born and then you don’t need to breathe after that. You don’t just breathe on special occasions once a year, or even once a week. Breathing is something you do all day and night long, isn’t it? Jesus said, “If you then, with all your human frailty, know how to give your children gifts that are good for them, how much more certainly will your Father who is in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (Luke 11:13). How often do you ask God to give you the breath you need? How often do you pray for the Holy Spirit to fill those two lungs? “O Heavenly King, Comforter, and Spirit of Truth…You Who are everywhere present and filling all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.”