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Epiphany 4, Year C, 27.01.2013 (C of E)
Neh 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10:
P s 19:
1 Cor 12.12-31a: Body. Many members, Apostles, Prophets, Teachers.
Lk 4.13-21: Jesus’ manifesto in Nazareth (1207)

God of heaven, you send the gospel to the ends of the earth and your messengers to every nation: send your Holy Spirit to transform us by the good news of everlasting life
in Jesus Christ our Lord.  

(Paul' says his  ministerial pattern is 'God-given' - but it has been changed over the years.)

          Today’s sermon took quite some time to gel, and though I knew what I was going to talk about, I couldn’t see that it was leading up to a pastorally relevant point.  And then I remembered something, and it was this.

          When I was newly ordained over 55 years ago there was a lot of academic discussion going on, especially in Anglican circles, about bishops in the historic succession. The question posed was this: are bishops of the esse, the bene or the plene of the church?  To put it in English, are bishops of the very essence of the church, so that no bishops no church?  Or are they a good thing to have, but not essential?   Or are they, while not being essential, still such a good thing that in the fullness of time, the plene, all churches will have them?  Which is another way of saying that churches without them are, in the meantime, somewhat deficient.   Unless one were to argue that bishops were not even of the bene or well-being of the church, there was no question of getting rid of them, if only for the simple reason that old ways die hard and the vast majority of Christians historically have belonged to churches with a three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

          And for at least a thousand years the Church in England has been ordered as provinces with archbishops, dioceses with bishops and parishes with priests.  To say that this system is beginning to creak is to put it mildly, as we know it all too well in a united benefice.

          Today we have continued to read from the 12th chapter of Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians.   This letter is believed to have written about AD 51.  We know from Luke’s account in Acts and from Paul himself in 1 Cor (15.9) that Paul had earlier persecuted the Christians.  So by the time that Paul himself became a Christian some years had elapsed.  Now, in today’s reading from 1 Cor Paul specifies that ‘God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’.   This indicates that by the time that Paul became a Christian it is highly likely that there was already in place this ministerial pattern, a pattern that Paul not only accepts, but which he takes to be of divine origin.  Keep that in mind.  Not only does Paul accept this threefold pattern, but he claims for himself the role of an apostle.

          In the remaining chapters of 1 Cor Paul spells out that the apostle plants God’s Wisdom, Christ crucified, the very love of God, in the heart of a new community; the prophet is the local pastor and preacher who builds up the Body of Christ in hope by the power of the Spirit, and the teacher is the one who teaches the faith based on the scriptural witness.

          Probably about some 20 years after Paul wrote 1 Cor the author of Ephesians writes by drawing together elements of a number of letters from the Pauline churches.  Strikingly, he now speaks of the church as ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (2.20), whom he calls ‘his [that is, God’s] holy apostles and prophets’ (3.5).  They are the revered original founders who are now in the past, and the author names the present ministers as ‘evangelists, pastors and teachers’, so the functions have stayed the same but the names have changed already.

The pattern Paul presents in 1 Cor is echoed in Luke (11.49) when Jesus says,  '... the Wisdom of God said, "I will send to them prophets and apostles ...."'.and this is confirmed in Matthew, where it is put on Jesus’ lips, since for Matthew Jesus, is Wisdom. Jesus says (23.34), "I am sending you prophets and wise ones and scribes", with the ‘wise ones’ corresponding to Paul’s use of ‘apostle’ as a church-founder, and the scribes being teachers.  Once again, as in 1 Cor, the ministerial pattern is something divinely given.  

          I think one might legitimately pose the question: if this pattern is of divine origin, how can the church dare to change it?

          Let me remind you why a ministerial pattern arose so early.   The answer to this question lies in the cultural milieu of the Greek and Roman world in which the followers of Jesus found themselves.  From no later than the middle of the first century many non-Jews were becoming members of the Christian community.  They brought in with them elements of the surrounding Hellenistic culture, which included, for example, a dualistic tendency that downgraded or even rejected things physical.  The Hellenistic age also had a syncretistic outlook that tended to take a bit of this and a bit of that and make up a mishmash.  It was against this stream that there is a definite attempt within the NT to maintain a Jewish Christian teaching leadership in the face of an increasingly Gentile membership.  The purpose of this was to try to keep the understanding of Jesus firmly anchored to the witness of the scriptures, that is, the witness of what we call the OT.  The earliest sign of this effort is to be found in what Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (3.1-2).  He says, ‘What advantage has the Jew? ... In the first place they were entrusted with the oracles of God’.   But Paul never goes on to a second point, so a better translation of the Greek word prõton is  “First and foremost” or even better, ‘’Above all’ – ‘Above all they were entrusted with the oracles of God’.  It is these scriptures as understood by the Jewish Christians that assured a balanced and stablizing understanding of Jesus and what God had done through him.  Hence the detectable concern not only of Paul but of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, plus the authors of Ephesians, Hebrews and 1 Timothy to maintain a continuing teaching ministry, a ministry done by those who understood the scriptures and the living tradition of their interpretation.   Twenty centuries later the equivalent in our day is the maintenance of an authorised and recognised ordained ministry, called, educated and trained for the purpose.  In effect these persons are to be teachers and interpreters of the gospel and of our life in Christ.  They are called to be not only teachers but also exemplars of the life in Christ.  They are to help others to see and to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by life in our times.  Their job is to be what we might call normative enablers, that is, those who show forth an exemplary life in Christ and help others to do the same.    So some kind of recognised and authorised ministerial pattern is needed, but no matter what claims of God-givenness or long-standing tradition we may bring up, changing times may force change upon us.  Quite simply, let us not be afraid to consider change simply because it differs from the past.  That is what I would have you see to be the pastoral point and lesson of today’s sermon.

          And, with tongue only slightly in cheek, I would suggest that as Anglicans we might name Paul’s trio as Missionary, Vicar, and Sunday School Teacher.