Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful."
(1 Corinthians 4.2)
In the season of Advent, our attention is focused upon the coming of the Lord: his coming as our saviour and our judge. We are like servants who await a master. We watch and wait. And on this third Sunday of Advent, the Church's liturgy presents us with the figure of St. John the Baptist - John the baptizer - as the great example of one who watched and waited.
We know very little, really, of John the Baptist, the preacher in the wilderness of Judaea, "who clothed himself in camel's hair, and wore a girdle of skin about his loins." (Matthew 3.4) He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness who said "Make straight the way of the Lord." (Isaiah 40.3)
It is sometimes supposed that he must have belonged to one of the radical sects of Judaism, such as the community of Qumran, which produced the "Dead Sea Scrolls." The Qumran community was a group who had separated themselves from the main stream of Jewish life, and had gone to live in caves by the Dead Sea, awaiting the coming of the Messiah with intense expectation. Perhaps John came from such a group. At any rate, he was one of those who watched and waited for the fulfillment of the mystery of God's promises. He was a minister and steward of the mystery of God's coming in Christ. He watched and waited, asking,"Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?"; that mystery was revealed to him: "Go and show John again those things ye do hear and see."
As John was witness to the promise, so the Apostles were witnesses to its fulfillment in Christ: "Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1.26) This is the mystery of God's coming to us, the mystery of God's presence with us and in us, the hope of glory.
In the Epistle for today, St. Paul argues with the Christian converts at Corinth. Some of them claim to be followers of Paul, some of another preacher, called Apollos. St. Paul tells them that "that way of thinking" is nonsense: "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?" (1 Corinthians 3.5) "Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God." That is to say, the mystery of Christian faith, the mystery of "God with us," is not the invention of Paul or Apollos. It is there in Christ, once for all. The Apostles are simply its ministers and stewards, and their task is to be faithful to that revelation. They are not judges of that mystery, picking and choosing, redesigning and improving, deciding what works best, and so on; rather, they are its servants. Judgement belongs to the Lord.
St. John the Baptist is our Advent example, for it is our vocation, too, to be ministers and stewards of the mystery of God's coming. It is our vocation, too, to watch and wait. And in our time, as much as ever, perhaps even more than ever, it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.
Faithfulness to the mystery is no easy matter. The world is always ready with other ideas: ideas for redesigning and improving, ideas about what works best, ideas about what is more relevant to our times and customs. It is not easy for us, really, to think of ourselves as servants of a truth revealed so long ago. Even some of our theologians tell us that we have reached maturity now, and have no need of the old authority; that we have grown up and can judge for ourselves now. Well, it's an engaging notion, perhaps; but surely the evidence of our religious maturity is less than overwhelming.
There are those who would persuade us that the old forms of Christian belief and life are antiquated and irrelevant: we must keep up with the times, and redesign our creeds and institutions in accord with current fashions. There are those who claim that a new spirit is abroad, and that we must move with it. And no doubt there is a new spirit abroad (or maybe it's not really so new), but the advice of St. John is good, when he says, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try (test) the spirits, whether they be of God: because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4-1).
It would be nice to be able to say with St. Paul, "it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgement"; but in fact, it is uncomfortable and disagreeable to be out of step with the times. "But it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful"; that is, faithful to the mystery revealed in Christ.
We prepare ourselves to rejoice in Christmas, because it shows us that amid all the confusions and uncertainties of our lives, amid all the fancies and fads of this world's gyrations, there is the fact of God's coming. There is the revelation of the mystery of God with us. This is the mystery of which we are ministers and stewards; servants of a returning Master, "Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts." As a very ancient hymn expresses it,
Happy those servants, whether he returneth
At dead of midnight, or at early morning;
Happy those servants, if he only find them
(#813 Nocte Surgentes verse 2, trans R. Bridges in Yattendon Hymnal)
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne