I Corinthians 4:1-5
Our Collect today contains this petition: “Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight.” These words remind us that the prophet, St. John the Baptist, prepared the way for the Lord’s ministry in Israel by preaching repentance from sin, and by inviting the people to come into the waters of a mikvah, a ritual bath of cleansing that the Greek New Testament calls baptisme, that is, baptism. It draws from two sources, the book of the prophet Malachi and the Gospel of St. Luke. Malachi said: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”1 In the Gospel of Luke the angel Gabriel expounds on this passage of scripture when he announces to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, about John: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”2 To understand why the Lord told Peter, James and John, as they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration that Elijah had already come and suffered the fate that would be dished out to the Son of Man, and why he tells the crowd to whom he speaks in today’s Gospel reading (a little further on), “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come,”3 you have to pay attention to what the angel said. John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy, because it was not really a prediction that Elijah would come himself, but that this other prophet would come in the spirit and power that had rested on that Old Testament prophet. Only this time, the Ahab and Jezebel of the period, namely Herod and Herodius, would kill the prophet, John, who confronted their sin; something that the Old Testament king and queen could not do to Elijah.
Where does this phrase come from: “and he shall turn the hearts…?” The very concept of a prophet who turns the hearts comes from that story in the first book of the Kings where Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal. The people of the Northern kingdom of Israel were filled with terrible confusion, having the religion of Baal worship all mixed up with the worship of the true and living God of their fathers (and seemed to have forgotten the golden calves of Jeroboam). Baal worship is the same as the worship of Molech, the god to whom agonized parents would offer their own children in sacrifice, because by this religion they were deceived into a dreadful compulsion. We need to understand something very important. All religions are not the same. We need to understand something else. Whenever Paganism is properly researched we learn of its unspeakable cruelty. I know why the Law of Moses commands that the altars and groves of idols must be torn down. Whether it was the human sacrifice of the so-called peaceful Celts (and the idea of “peaceful Celts” is a historical absurdity), or simply the indifference of the Norse gods who offered no blessings, but only the darkness of fate; whether it was the human sacrifice of Aztecs, or the impersonal nothingness of far Eastern mysticism into which individual consciousness and identity is, at best, swallowed up and lost; whether it is the violence of Islam (that pagan version of monotheism with its god who is alone), or the cruel caste system of Hinduism with its Suhtee ritual banned by the British, in which widows were burned alive at their husband’s funerals (in front of their children and everyone): Paganism is the darkness in which Satan has longed imprisoned and tortured the human race due to its ignorance and fear. And, only the worship of the True God has ever set people free from this cruel tyranny of mind and spirit. That is historical fact, and as such a theme oft repeated in various times and places of human experience, whether or not the neo-Atheist movement wants to face reality.
The people of the Northern kingdom of Israel in Samaria were lost in Baal worship due to the evil queen Jezebel and the weakness of her husband Ahab. Elijah called together the prophets of Baal and challenged them to a supernatural contest. They agreed, and the contest was to see who had the power to bring down fire from heaven to consume an offering. From morning until noon the prophets of Baal called on their god, finally waxing so desperate they resorted to cutting themselves. Elijah called a halt to the spectacle, and summoned the people to gather to him. He made it hard on himself by pouring a large amount of water in a trench around the altar and the dead animal, just to show that no fire could be lit by natural means. Then he prayed:
“LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.”4
There we see that phrase about the turning of the hearts, the work that God did through his prophet Elijah. The scripture goes on to say:
Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
This is how their hearts were turned back by the prophet Elijah, back to the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Some modern Bibles have quite dishonestly rendered the Hebrew word for “fathers” in the book of Malachi as “parents.” This is completely unjustified. The word does not mean parents, it means fathers, specifically and clearly. When the ideology of the zeitgeist is allowed to interfere with Bible translation, the results cannot be good. Nothing is more disastrous than loss of fatherhood from homes, and in a larger sense, from a society. The father is the protector and provider, above all, the God appointed head of his family. In this case, when the prophet Malachi speaks of the hearts of the fathers turned back to the children and of the children to the fathers, and the angel expands that to include the turning of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, we dare not lose the meaning, for it is to our loss.
We can speak of the fathers as the fathers of our whole Jewish and Christian heritage, a line dating back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that continues through Moses and the prophets, right up to that Man that Isaiah called “the everlasting father,” our Lord Jesus Christ; the last Adam by whom comes the whole spiritual seed of the redeemed, the Church of the living God to be granted eternal life by means of, and following the pattern of, his resurrection.5
We see the fathers of the Church, and among them the holy fathers who gathered for the Ecumenical Councils. In terms of today’s Collect, which is based on the meaning of today’s Epistle, we must see the fathers who stand in Apostolic Succession, those of us, unworthy as we are apart from the grace of God, who have been ordained to be fathers among the people of God. So writes St. Paul to St. Timothy, “if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” 6
Today’s Epistle says: “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” This is what the Collect draws from also, for it says: “Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight.” To some, the ministry of the priest takes place only in functionary terms. He fulfills his religious role in services, and does all those social and religious things that they require of him, such as weddings and funerals, and some community things from time to time, like praying at civic events, and so on.
But, to contradict this limitation, and the limitation that some of our own place on the significance of the priesthood, I will quote myself from an article called Priesthood and the Church:
“The priesthood is not only the ministry of the altar. To reduce anything to its main function at the expense of its entirety is a serious mistake. When the Archbishops of England wrote Saepius Officio, they made it very clear that they fully agreed with the teaching of Apostolicae Curae, from the Roman Magesterium, about the nature of the priesthood and Eucharistic sacrifice unique to that office. But, they found fault with the papal document for failing even so much as to mention the pastoral ministry of the priesthood. A priest is always alter Christus, not only when he offers the Eucharist. And, this gives a special sacramental charism to his teaching, his advice, and his fatherly love for the people of God. An individual priest may fail to exercise all the gifts of his office, but he does not lose the sacred character implanted in him. So we do not agree with those who say that the priesthood is only about the ministry at the altar and nothing else. Rather, as the ministry of the Church extends the grace of the Incarnation among mankind, the priesthood extends the graces of the Incarnation among the people of the Church, and does so at all times by the sacramental charism of the indelible character added to the man who is ordained to the priesthood.”
It is our responsibility in this Advent season to call upon the people of the Church to be holy, and to attend to their own salvation, to walk with God in all purity of conscience. What we do is not simply about feeling good. It is far more than a warm and fuzzy feeling that we seek to impart.
As part of my own stewardship in the mysteries of God, for your benefit, I want to plant a thought in your minds. For some of you, this new year that began on the First Sunday in Advent is a good time, especially during this Penitential season, to come and make your first ever private confession. The sacramental power to absolve sins is so important in Anglicanism that it is mentioned directly in our Ordinal. When a priest is ordained, the bishop speaks the words of Christ (that is, he is Christ’s own mouth, through whom the Lord speaks) words from the Gospel of St. John.7 The bishop says these words:
“Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Confession followed by Absolution hurts before you do it; but it feels very good after it has been accomplished. When I have gone to another priest for confession, I have had to remind myself that I am there to appear for the prosecution. Jesus Christ is my Advocate, and he plead my case with his own blood as he poured out his soul unto death for me on the cross.8
Quite often people come to church without realizing the wonderful gift imparted to them here. Have you ever wondered why the Church of England added to the list of names that already had been given to this principal service of the Church? In addition to the names “The Holy Eucharist,” “The Divine Liturgy,” and “The Mass,” the English Reformers came up with the name, a name taken directly from scripture, “The Holy Communion.” As St. Paul wrote: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”9 The English Reformers were not rejecting the word “Mass.” But, they wanted to correct a false understanding among the common people, namely that their religious duty was to come and “hear Mass.” So, in that first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, they named the service: THE SUPPER OF THE LORDE AND THE HOLY COMMUNION, COMMONLY CALLED THE MASSE. The Anglican message about this service is that you come here not simply because it is your religious duty to attend; you come here to receive from God that grace by which he meets the deepest need of your soul. You have that need whether you believe it or not, whether you see it or not, whether it presents itself to your conscience or not. The Holy Communion is not where you come in order to affirm that you are a good person, but where you flee to Christ as a sinner in need of his grace. You have come here today to receive the food and drink of eternal life.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.”10
In the comedy, Life with Father, Clarence Daye, played by William Powell, had a great line: “If there’s one thing the Church should leave alone, it’s a man’s soul.” Well, as “stewards of the mysteries of God” who must give an account for your souls,11 we simply have to meddle. As much as I still encourage you to make a private confession (and to do so without fear, “early and often”), consider the grace that is offered even in the General Confession that comes up shortly. If you want to appropriate what God offers you in the General Confession followed by the General Absolution, then take time before you come here to ask the Holy Spirit to show to you your own sins, not to be morbid, but in order to make a good and sincere confession. Remember the lesson I had to learn for myself: You are, when you confess, appearing for the prosecution. Jesus, your Advocate and the propitiation for our sins, has already appeared for you. He appeared for you on the cross. He everliveth to make intercession for you at the right hand of God. 12 Finally, to summarize the responsibility that stewards of the mysteries of God have within the Church, I quote St. Paul:
- Malachi 4:5,6
- Luke 1:16, 17
- vs. 13, 14
- I Kings 18:36, 37
- Isaiah 9:6, 7, I Corinthians 15:45f
- I Tim. 3:5
- John 20:22, 23
- Leviticus 17:11, Isaiah 53:12
- I Corinthians 10:16
- John 6:51-59
- Hebrews 13:17
- Hebrews 7:25
- II Corinthians 5:17-21