Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve the tables” (Acts 6:1-7).
I read the other day an article in a newspaper concerning the sermons of contemporary preachers. The title was, “What Is Lacking Today From the Pulpit”? The newspaper columnist expressed a real truth which we the priests often discuss. There doesn’t exist a strong sermon which can attract people to the church and inwardly shake them up like an earthquake does. I heard a preacher, on St. Nicholas Day, speak about the life of the saint. Among others, he said that St Nicholas is honoured by the Protestants and Catholics. And the cantor of the church murmured, “Oh the poor priest doesn’t know that the Catholic Church excommunicated, by her agiologion, St Nicholas from the catalogues of the saints. If a powerful sermon is lacking today in the Orthodox churches, are we, the priests, totally responsible? Is it due to our negligence, or due to our work which is many-fold and complicated? Do the priests have time to work and to prepare for a good sermon, or have they not? The answer is given to us in today’s epistle reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7). The text is very instructive and very timely and we have to pay special attention to it. The church, as well as the laymen board and board of trustees, very unfortunately expect a priest to do everything.
After Pentecost the number of Christians astonishingly increased daily. The first church, along with delivering the sermon, undertook the responsibility of feeding the poor people. That means the apostles, besides their pastoral work, were busy not only with the sermon but also with serving the tables. Complaints started from the first days as always happen to the Church, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily administration”. The apostles could not give all their attention to the administrating of the tables and to act as waiters. But on the other hand, it was also the obligation of the church. The church cannot ignore and must not ignore the poor, the sick, and the needy. “For I was hungry and ye gave me meat, I was thirsty and ye gave me drink, I was a stranger and ye took me in, naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me, I was in prison and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:35-36).
When the apostles saw that the work of administering the tables was becoming a failure, they decided to solve the problem differently. They could devote themselves to the tables. The first is first. St John Chrysostom says, “We cannot put the head to the feet or vice versa, the feet to the head”. The holy apostles, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, neither neglected the sermon nor were indifferent to the poor. What they did, the Book of the Acts relates to us. “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, it is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God and serve the tables”. Then they entrusted all members of the church to elect seven faithful people with fear of God, modesty, tender heart and delicate feelings with whom they could charge the care of the poor.
“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business”. It is difficult for the priest to do everything in the imminent field of the church. On the other hand, all laymen are not properly qualified for ecclesiastical office administration. The office requires much attention and much prudence of the church’s part as well as on the people’s part. Many times the people choose the most improper and most indifferent people to serve as co-workers of the priest and servants of the people. Such people have only one purpose, how to counteract the work of the priest and his mission and the mission of the church, and how to perpetuate their own teachings and theories on the administrating of the church. How many such examples do we have? Such people who would probably not be permitted to stay in the courts of the church, due to their immoral life and uncharacteristic social Christian behaviour, have offices in the church. Now we need not elaborate more about this subject, because we respect the principles and rules of the sermon.
The many that serve and work in the church should be people with wisdom, prudence and with fear of God, “Full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom”. The priest would not be distracted; instead, he could be occupied with the spiritual works: performing the divine liturgy, preaching the word of God, preparing himself for the extraordinary charisma, confessing the people, visiting the sick and staying with them one, two or three hours and performing spiritual and priestly works that his co-workers cannot do. As the apostles said, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word”. Prayer and sermon are the first and most important tasks of the priest. When I say “Prayer” I mean in general the whole worship and the sacramental life of the Church, among which the divine liturgy takes precedence. Unfortunately, many of these important facets of our religion today are of necessity sometimes neglected. We, the priests, in many cases do not have enough time for prayer and the ministry of the word because of the time we must devote to things which are irrelevant to our divine ministry. Many tasks, such as arranging for bazaars, films, dances, banquets, and picnics, can be performed by the laymen without encroaching on the limited time available to the priest.
In a parish where the laymen do not accept their responsibilities regarding these non-priestly activities, a strong and inspired pulpit sermon may be lacking, and other important facets of our religion are sometimes neglected. The first and main purpose of the Church is the saving of souls and not providing recreation for the people. The duty of the priest is to perform the holy worship and to preach the Word of God. He should also take an interest in the poor. We should leave the responsibilities for all other activities in the hands of the priest’s co-workers, mainly to the members of the board of trustees. These men must be “men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business”. Efficient co-workers and deacons will see the church as the centre of the whole community life, as the ark of salvation, and will regard the priest not as a hired clerk but as the Father of the community and the representative of Christ.