The Church in the Apostle’s Eyes

ON THIS, THE SIXTH SUNDAY after Pentecost we read how Christ healed a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:27-35). We also hear St Paul’s prescription for healing a paralyzed church: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). The Church is fully alive, then, when we use the gifts we have been given.

St Paul describes these gifts as charismata, a Greek word meaning undeserved favors. We have not earned them – God has given them to us freely in order to build up the Church. The word is sometimes transposed into English as charism. In popular use, a charismatic person is one who has a particular gift or flair, usually for leadership or influence.

Charisms in St Paul

St Paul then catalogs some of these charisms: “…if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (vv.6-8).

A few of the gifts listed – teaching, giving – are self-evident as they are familiar to anyone active in one of our churches. Most parishes have church school teachers, some have youth and adult groups with lay leaders who exercise real teaching ministry. Others of these gifts are less familiar, perhaps none more so than prophecy.

When we think of prophecy our minds often turn to the great prophets of the Old Testament: Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest who foretold that God would work on behalf of His people. We particularly think of those who foretold the coming of the Messiah. We don’t usually think of prophets in the New Testament, apart from John the Baptist whom the Lord called the greatest of the prophets (cf., Luke 7:27-28).

Scripture tells us that there were prophets in the early Church. We read in Acts, “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (Acts 13:1). Not only were there prophets, but St Paul (Saul) was one of them.

We tend to equate prophecy with fortune-telling: looking into the future. The early Church had a wider understanding of prophecy. Prophecy was understood as a Spirit-prompted utterance that was rooted in a true revelation whose full meaning was not evident. Thus Diodoros of Tarsus (+390) described it as “the explanation of things which are unclear, whether future or past, whether present or hidden” (Commentary on Paul). Another Antiochian writer, Bishop Theodoret of Cyr (+466), said that prophecy “does not refer only to the prediction of future events but also to the knowledge of things which have been hidden” (Commentary on the Letter to the Romans). In a thinly disguised attempt at anonymity St Paul tells of “a man” (thought to be himself) who had such an experience.  “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

Many notable Christians have been given to see or hear the hidden things of the Spirit. The last bishop of Alexandria to suffer in the Roman persecutions, St Peter of Alexandria, had such a prophetic vision. He saw Christ clutching to His chest His garment which had been torn in two. When St Peter asked who had torn the Lord’s robe, Christ replied “It was Arius.” The torn garment was a prophetic symbol of the Church divided by heresy as described in this vision.

Leadership in the Church

It may surprise us that there is no mention of the priesthood in St Paul’s list of charismatic gifts. In fact, this catalog contains two such references. In v.7 we are told that “ministry” is one of the Church’s charisms. The actual word in Romans is diakonia, which appears in some translations as “serving” or “service.” Early writers were divided as to its meaning. In Pelagius’ Commentary on Romans we are taught that “Diakonia refers to the office…” of deacon. In St John Chrysostom’s Homily on Romans, 21 we read that “The word diakonia is comprehensive, covering everything from the apostleship itself to any spiritual function. It is indeed the name of a particular office, but here it is used in a general sense.”

At its inception the purpose of the diaconate was to provide food for the poor, primarily widows who had no one to support them. As the Church developed, deacons’ responsibi-lities came to include the property and material resources of the Church as well as its care for those in need. Thus the offerings which people brought to the Liturgy were given to the deacons who allocated them as needed. The deacons became the “ears and eyes and mouth and heart” of the bishop (Apostolic Constitutions III, 19). Their liturgical role derived from their position as the bishop’s right hand man.

All those who participate in the charitable work of the Church or the material administration of the Church participate in its ministry of diakonia.

Most modern English versions of the Bible translate the gift in v.8 as leadership. The Greek term is o proistamenos, the one who presides. Like presbyter (elder) and hegumenos this term designated the head of the community, the presiding bishop or senior presbyter of a local community. This term is used today in Greek churches for the senior priest in the parish who, like his first century predecessor, needs to give careful and assiduous attention to all the needs of the Church in his care. “Diligence” is one of the “seven heavenly virtues” in Prudentius’ Psychomachia, or Contest of the Soul where it is the opposite of sloth.

Another gift which is not clear in the above translation here is paraklisei, which we see rendered as exhortation. This Greek word is related to the terms Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and Paraclesis (the “service of consolation” to the Theotokos). Perhaps “spiritual encouragement” might be a clearer translation for this gift, the gift of many counselors in the Church today.

Behave Like a Christian

While these and other charisms described in St Paul’s epistles are particular gifts given to one or another believer, those mentioned in vv.9-13 are for everyone. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

Hospitality was particularly prized in the ancient world where travel was fraught with danger and uncertainty. This was particularly true for Christians in St Paul’s day when both the state and people of other religions saw Christians as their enemies. Believers were expected to provide food, shelter, security and other necessities for any fellow Christians who might come their way. St Paul and the other apostles all benefited from the hospitality offered by their hearers and urged it on all the faithful. As we are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).