Blessings on this Gaudete (rejoyce) Sunday!
"Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ,
and stewards of the mysteries of God"
(1 Corinthians 4:1).
It would be convenient to think that when St. Paul writes, "let a man so account of us" he is speaking only of himself and of a few companions. Life certainly would be simpler for the rest of us, if St. Paul were calling for a unique judgment that only he and a small number of people have been appointed the ministers of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God.
But the "easy way" (I hesitate to say "the lazy way," but that would also be fair enough) is not open to the rest of the Christian Church. We are not allowed by the Christian Faith, as God has given it in the Scriptures, to choose a few men to be religious on our behalf. We are not allowed to divide our time so that an hour, here or there, belongs to God, while the rest of our time belongs to us to do with as we please, or more accurately, to do with as our unbelieving neighbors please.
To be a Christian is to provide the proof, every day and in everything that we do, that we are the ministers of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God. It is most important, of course, that we should prove this fact to God, because that is how we love him in return for the unmerited love that he has freely given us. It remains, however, very important indeed that we prove our ministry and our stewardship to one another in the Church and to an unbelieving world, because that proof is how we maintain the life of the Church and how we fulfill our Christian obligation to make disciples of all nations.
The Church exists, and we live forever, to give praise to God in Christ by an entirely dedicated life of on this earth and by action. St. John summarizes these purposes in a "doxology," a "prayer of praise" in his Book of Revelation:
Unto him [Jesus Christ] that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen (Revelation 1:5-6).
What makes us Christians is that we are washed in the Blood of the Son of God made man, shed for us on a cross. Every inconvenience that we might ever suffer, up to and including our own deaths, let alone some social awkwardness or having to choose between one use of our time and another, pales before such a sacrifice offered on our behalf. The Son of God never needed to be a man. The Son of God never needed to limit his omnipotent power to the tiny power of a human being. The Son of God never needed to die, and especially by being whipped and tortured to death. And yet he did all these things for us, to show forth his Father’s mercy.
But washed in the Blood of the Lamb of God, we are not "just the same old thing." We are still human and fallible, but we are also redeemed from our sins. We have a God-given new life, and a God-given new purpose for living—the glory of God. And to fulfill that purpose, Christ makes us an entire people of priests and kings in the service of his Father, assisted by the Holy Ghost who dwells within us, to the glory of God the Blessed Trinity for ever and ever.
Furthermore, the "Amen" that concludes St. John’s summary of praise and purpose is not merely a punctuation mark. St. John was a Jew, and adding "Amen" to a statement was a Jewish way to make it an oath. It is God’s oath that we are washed in the Blood of his Son and that we are made a priestly and kingly people before him, just as much as the "Amen" that ends our prayers is our oath of loyalty and faith.
Now it should be obvious that every member of the priestly and royal families of the Old Testament did not hold office as a priest or king, but holding office isn’t what St. John and St. Paul are writing about. There is nothing wrong with holding an office, if that is our particular vocation from God. But just as those offices under the Old Testament were representative, with certain men representing the people to God and God to the people, the formal offices of the New Testament are also representative.
We expect our governors to obey God and to represent the people, but we most definitely don’t want them to live our lives for us. We expect our bishops, priests, and deacons to be godly men, to preach God’s true Word to us, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead us in our prayers, but that doesn’t mean that we give up reading the Bible, saying prayers, or doing good works ourselves. Under Jesus Christ we are not slaves or moral idiots. We are the children of God by adoption and grace, and the members of a single kingly and priestly family of God, in the Body of Jesus Christ.
The Body of Christ is the key to understanding what we are to be. Every member (every cell, organ, arm, leg, hand, foot) of a body shares with every other member a single life, even though every member has a different job in the body. Eyes, for example, are used to see things, and not to hear or handle them. The same is true of the Body of Christ, where each of us has his or her own vocation, his or her own purpose, in the one life of Jesus Christ. What is also true, is that whatever our particular calling and God-given purpose in life, we are all engaged in being the ministers of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God.
The word St. Paul uses for "minister" is a Greek word that means "an under-rower" in a galley, an oared ship like the one that Ben Hur rowed in the movie. The Greeks extended the use of this word to mean anyone who serves another by getting his hands dirty. The word finally takes on the meaning that St. Paul is stressing—someone who acts as the hands of another to carry out his will, in this case, the hands that carry out the will of God on earth.
Every Christian, in every walk of life, is meant to be the "hands" that carry out the will of God given in the Scriptures. While this sort of service can be very hard work, it is meant to honor us—to show us that God trusts us enough to give us a chance to do his work among men. And it is precisely to identify that work that God makes us the stewards of his mysteries. A "mystery" is a truth that can only be known if God reveals it. A "steward" is someone who protects and preserves what belongs to his master. Thus, we are meant to preserve the Truth that God has revealed, because it belongs to him and not to us. And then, we know what to do as God’s ministers, because we have preserved what God has told us to do.
We see a working example of ministry and stewardship in this morning’s Gospel. St. John is a good minister of God, because he directs others to Jesus Christ. St. John is a good steward of the mysteries because he will only accept Christ on the basis of God’s revelation in the Scriptures. This good stewardship is the reason that our Lord sends John the following message: "Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:4-5).
These proofs are taken from the Old Testament Prophets, especially Isaiah (e.g., 29:18); but that is not the end of the story. How could our Lord invoke these proofs from his Father’s revelation, and how could John and his followers recognize them? It’s not good enough to say that the Prophets wrote them, because most of the ancient books that were ever written are completely lost. What happened?
A whole chosen people, as ministers of God and as stewards of his mysteries, copied these books, studied them, and learned them. They built their lives around them, admitting that when they lived or acted otherwise than as God commands, they sinned. They repented and reformed themselves. They persevered, and they taught God’s Word to others by word and by deed. They kept their faith alive by teaching it to their children, dragging them kicking and screaming (just like modern children, no doubt) to religious schools and to religious services. They kept their faith alive by keeping it alive in their own lives, in their homes, and in their families first. Their ministry and stewardship, called "tradition," delivered the Word of God intact to the generation chosen by God to hear the Gospel preached from the lips of Christ himself.
We have the same calling. When Jesus Christ returns on the Last Day, it is our duty that he should find the Christian Faith, the totality of the Holy Scriptures, and the active Christian life under God intact and alive. We can only fulfill this calling if we are willing to do the kind of work that gets our hands dirty in the service of others. Then we will be ministers to God, to our children, and each other. We can only be stewards of the mysteries of God if we hear them, know them, and teach them, both together in the Church and together in our homes.
But if we take the effort to be good ministers and good stewards, we have this promise from God. He will remember us as surely as he remembers his Prophets, his Son, and all the saints of both Testaments. We will be alive with God and with those saints, those ministers and stewards, forever. And living forever is worth all the effort our divine calling demands.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne