Homily on Zacchaeus Sunday and the Feast of the Chains of Saint Peter
As part of their study of Homiletics at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary, students prepare and deliver a series of sermons in the second semester of their final year. Below we offer one such sermon from a fourth year seminarian.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
If I were to ask you what true freedom is, many of you would not immediately think of a dark and confined prison cell. However, our Orthodox Christian faith is full of paradoxes and today’s feast is no exception. It is a commemoration of the true freedom that only Christ can offer us.
We read today of Saint Peter’s imprisonment in Jerusalem in the early days of the Church. This was not the last time he sat in prison for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. The paradox lies in that, despite his many imprisonments, Saint Peter was truly free – more so than those who clamped him into those chains, which we can still see and venerate in Rome today.
We should contrast this physical imprisonment of Saint Peter, and indeed of all those Christians who are suffering for their faith today, with the spiritual slavery of the age that we live in. Contrast how Saint Peter and the other apostles imprisoned in those days sang spiritual songs whilst imprisoned, how the Orthodox faithful of the Soviet gulags and Romanian prison camps soared the spiritual heights whilst confined to their dank cells, while those who are ‘free’ in our modern society are nothing more than slaves to their passions, their egos, and their desires. Instead of embracing Christ, the Truth that sets us free, they embrace the world, and the false freedoms offered by it.
The revered Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) spoke often about the “spirit of revolution” that has distorted the idea of freedom, how it has changed from freedom from (oppression, slavery, etc.) to freedom to – freedom to do whatever one wants without any kind of restraint, moral or otherwise. This spirit of revolution attempts to build a paradise based on this false idea of freedom, but instead creates a hell on earth. Look at how quickly the states of the former Soviet Union went from freedom from communist oppression to freedom to engage in exploitative and rapacious capitalism, with no consideration of the human cost. Look at how we in the west have gone from freedom from so-called outdated traditional values, to freedom to engage in the basest and most inhuman behavior, with no end in sight to the godlessness. Without Christ as a reference point, humanity stares into an abyss that promises only emptiness, desolation, and enslavement to the passions.
The paradox I mentioned earlier is that to experience true freedom and overcome this false freedom (which is in reality spiritual slavery) we must be obedient to Christ. According to Saint Paul, this true freedom is when we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness1, or in other words, servants of Christ. Obedience to Christ is life and freedom, disobedience is death and slavery. However, Christ our God does not force us to follow Him. He simply says that if we love Him, we should keep His commandments2. By choosing to love Christ and follow Him, we can begin the process of purification that frees us from the passions and death, to which they lead, and eventually be united with Christ, the source of life itself, going, as Saint Paul says, from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). This must be done, however, with a serious spirit of repentance and determination to change. Our best examples in this are those saints who have fought the battle and won.
The two acts of repentance that we heard about in today’s Gospel readings serve as icons of this salvific path.3 Saint Peter, who was enslaved by fear and denied Christ, repents and throws off his spiritual chains, being reconciled to Christ by confessing his love for Him and accepting the yoke of service. Zaccheus, who was enslaved by the vice of theft and political corruption, repents, throws off his spiritual chains and ascends the tree, being reconciled to Christ by public confession and acts of reparation, the fruits of which are evident in Christ’s words: Today salvation has come to this house (Lk. 19:9). Like Saint Peter, Zacchaeus became a bishop in the early Church and may even have been shackled in his own chains for Christ’s sake. Like Zacchaeus, Saint Peter climbed a tree, but his was a cross upon which he was nailed for Christ’s sake.
Brothers and sisters, soon we begin Great and Holy Lent. Let us take our salvation seriously and embrace this period of time, sanctified and given to us by the Church for repentance. Let us ascend our own tree — the spiritual ladder — and take up our own cross, and, with the help of God, break the chains of the passions that imprison and enslave us. Let us throw off the old man and put on the new and superior one. Let us die with Christ that we may be freed from sin. Let us die with Christ that we may live forever with Him, glorifying Him with His Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages.