The chains of St Peter in Rome

Freedom Through Obedience

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. 

Orthodox icon of Christ calling Zacchaeus
Call­ing of Zacchaeus

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.