Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“Let a man so account of us, as of the Ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).
In the Church there is to be an order of things. St Paul writes, in his first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 40, “Let everything be done in a proper and orderly way”. God Himself has established this order in His Church, and no man or organisation of men can violate it or overthrow it. Yet there has always been some amount of disorder in the Church (due to the human element); it is for this reason that we have had so many heresies and schisms over the centuries.
In the times in which we now live, however, a revolutionary wind, and a spirit of disobedience seem to prevail everywhere, even among the co-workers of the priest. Sometimes these people, lacking in proper understanding of the priesthood and/or the Church, adopt methods and manners not only foreign to the Orthodox Christian Faith, but diametrically opposed to it. The results are endless arguments and controversies and hurt feelings on the part of all involved, and sometimes, in the end, a good priest is forced to leave his beloved community.
My sermon this morning has one unique purpose: to demonstrate and prove clearly from the Holy Scriptures and tradition the place held by the pastor of a church. I must state from the outset that were I to quote every Scripture passage from the New Testament alone that deals with this subject, my sermon would go on for hours without interruption. Thus we will examine but a few. I repeat once more that the disorder we see in the Church today has as its basic cause the ignorance, on the part of clergy as well as laity, of the function of each in the Church. We do not know our duties or our positions.
The Fathers of the Church likened the Church to a ship, the “ark of salvation”. Today, in our stormy epoch, we are all of us in danger of drowning in the social ocean; for not only do we not know our task, we do not know the Captain of the ship, let alone who is the boatswain and who is the sailor. All of us together, clergy and laity, are the “pleroma”, but each has his separate position, his separate mission.
What is a pastor? How are we to view the pastors of the Church, and the work assigned to them? Let us hear the words that Jesus Christ addresses to His Apostles: “He that listens to you, listens to me, and he that refuses you, refuses me; and he that refuses me, refuses him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). These words the Lord Jesus spoke to the first 70preachers of His Gospel of Grace. The whole mission of the Apostles, in their sermons and in their lives, was to present Christ. The attitude of the people to those who preach the Gospel of Christ is indicative of their attitude toward Christ Himself, and toward the Father who sent Him.
After our Lord’s resurrection, when He first appeared to the Apostles, He breathed upon them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles were completely “filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of speech” (Acts 2:4). Here was manifested the divine calling and mission of the Apostles, the spiritual authority that has its derivation not from the world (Christ said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”); rather, this spiritual authority comes from God through Christ. It is divine authority. Only God can forgive sin. Only God can transform a lost sinner into a radiant new creature in Christ.
The Apostles were to preach repentance and forgiveness of sin; for this reason Jesus told them, “If you forgive the sins of any , they are forgiven; if you hold fast the sins of any, they are held fast” (John 20:23). St Paul writes that “Through Him I have received grace and been appointed an Apostle…” (Romans 1:5). This truth St Paul declares in almost all his letters, usually at the beginning, in order that his readers may realise that he is appointed, not by a majority of the people, nor by any secular authority, but by “His Grace”. This gift – this grace – is a special gift which the pastors of the Church possess. It has been transmitted from Christ to the Apostles, and by them to their successors – the bishops, priests and deacons.
Many are the verses in the Acts of the Apostles which testify to this transmission of authority from the Apostles to their successors. Peter and Barnabas preached the Gospel to the people of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, and “in every church they chose elders (presbyters) with prayer and fasting, and commended them to the Lord, in whom they believed”. Paul writes to his disciple Timothy, whom he had left in Ephesos, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift that is in you, which was given to you when the prophets spoke and the elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14). The prophecy of which Paul speaks is the same that he mentions earlier in the same chapter where he refers to sanctification “by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5).
In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul writes, “Therefore I would remind you to fan the flame of that spiritual gift of God, which is yours by the laying on of my hands”. To Titus, whom the Apostle Paul left in Crete, he writes, “I left you in Crete with the intention that you should finish putting things in order there, and appoint elders (presbyters) in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
Finally, at the great gathering of presbyters which took place in Miletos, St Paul spoke these words that carry a vital message for us today: “You know how I spent the whole time I was with you, from the first day I arrived in the province of Asia…Take care of yourselves, and of the flock in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as bishops, to feed the church of God, which he has made his own with his own blood” (Acts 20:18-28). From all these testimonies it is evident that there exists in the Church a special order, that of the clergy, to which has been given a spiritual authority “to feed the church of God”. This is the position and the duty of the pastors, of the sacred clergy who received their uninterrupted succession from the Apostles. Bishops, presbyters and deacons are not employees in the same sense as those who are privately or publicly employed. The priest is divinely called and appointed by God. He has as a pastor the spiritual authority necessary to shepherd his flock.
What is the pastor’s mission to the world? Is he to be a social worker, an architect, or a social butterfly, whose business is to erect schools and recreation centres, to raise money through dances and banquets, raffles and bingos? Many people today seem to think in this vein.
But the New Testament conception is totally different from this warped picture. “Then Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you; as the Father sent me, I send you” (John 20:21). Thus we see that the Apostles were to continue the mission of Christ to the world. In the High Priestly prayer of Jesus before His passion, He prays, “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). And what was the mission of Christ to the world? Listen: For God so loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not die, but have eternal life (John 3:16). “And this is eternal life: for men to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3).
“God has raised this very Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses to this fact. Therefore…surely know that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32, 36). The mission of Christ was the salvation of the world, and this is to be our mission as well. St John the Evangelist writes in his first Letter that the Father “sent His Son, Saviour of the world”. The very name of Jesus is demonstrative of His mission. As the angel of God explained to Joseph, “And thou shalt call his name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins”. This is plainly the work of the pastors today.
St Paul writes, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14). And to these faithful preachers, St Peter writes, “You are winning the reward of your faith, that is the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). St Ignatius the Theophorous wrote: “Without bishops, presbyters and deacons, the Church does not exist”. St John Chrysostom views the calling and ministry of the priesthood as above that of angels. St Basil the Great thinks that there is no mission more important than that of the priest. And St Paul calls the priests “ministers and stewards of the mysteries”.