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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
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.)
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
And for at
least a thousand years the Church in
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
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.
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
this is confirmed in Matthew, where it is put on Jesus’ lips, since for
Matthew Jesus, is Wisdom. Jesus says (23.34),
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
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
tongue only slightly in cheek, I would suggest that as Anglicans we might name
Paul’s trio as Missionary, Vicar, and Sunday School Teacher.