Address of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros
Archdiocesan Presbyters Council National Clergy Retreat
San Antonio, Texas
October 28, 2019
The Aim of Our Charge:
Sacred Wisdom for the Contemporary Priesthood
Beloved brothers in Christ,
With a heart filled with the joy we share in our fellowship and with love for you and your dedication to the Holy Priesthood, to you my brothers, grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord! (I Timothy 1:1) χάρις, ἔλεος, εἰρήνη ἀπὸ Θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ Χριστοῦ ᾿Ιησοῦ τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν.
It is a blessing to be with you as you gather for prayer, fellowship, and most importantly renewal and reflection on your divine calling to the service of God and His people. The calling to serve as a priest is a sacred duty, one that is focused on the care of souls, on spiritual healing, on leading in worship and service, and on offering Christ and the Gospel through your lives to all you encounter. Your presence here today affirms that you know the needs and challenges of your service, and on behalf of the Hierarchs of our Holy Eparchial Synod, I offer my gratitude to you for making the effort to attend this national retreat. I also give thanks to God for your parishes and their support of this opportunity for you.
Sharing this time with you is a blessing to me, both as your Archbishop and personally in knowing the tremendous commitment you have made and the service you offer in the name of Christ. I am here today with this in mind, to offer guidance and encouragement, as well as divine wisdom from Holy Scripture that will guide you in the Holy Priesthood in our contemporary world. Before I do this, however, I would like to thank you for the reception I have received as Archbishop of America. In kindness and love, in the true and deep fellowship we share in Christ, you have welcomed me to the Holy Archdiocese of America. You have opened your hearts to the mission before us in this land, a mission we share that is focused on sharing the Gospel and strengthening the witness of Orthodox Christianity through our ministries in all areas of the Church. Together, we have a renewed spirit of love and commitment. We know what we must do, and in the months since my arrival, I have seen a willingness to affirm our unity, the strength to address our challenges, and the love that will prevail and help us begin a new era. Your leadership in your parishes and Holy Metropolises and your commitment to sharing a vision of the power and potential of our Orthodox faith in this country is critical now more than ever. Each day, I give thanks to God that I am here with you and that I have the opportunity to serve with you, so that together we may see the blessings of more and more people walk in the newness of the life that comes from our Resurrected Lord.
In addition, I would like to extend to you the love and blessings of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As our spiritual father, you can be assured of his prayers for you. He gives thanks to God for the beloved flock of America. Just as a shepherd cares for and protects his sheep, you can know that the spiritual well-being of the beloved people of our Holy Archdiocese is a priority of his ministry and critical to the global witness of Orthodox Christianity. He also knows of the legacy of faith that you have, as well as the potential for great and marvelous works that will bring honor and glory to God. His All Holiness is thankful to God for the prayers and support you offer on behalf of our beloved Ecumenical Patriarchate. As we will examine this evening, our contemporary world is filled with conflict and challenges, and our Mother Church is in a region where conflict is ever-present, violence is perpetuated, and disregard for life and human well-being is rejected. In the midst of this, His All Holiness consistently offers a message of peace, a peace from above that can heal and restore. May we continue to pray for his ministry and advocate for the freedom and security that will permit the Church to share the truth in love.
You have come to this retreat, not as a withdrawal from the challenges and demands of everyday life. You are not here to escape the needs of your families and communities. You are here this week to find strength in one another and the communion you share in Christ. You are here to evaluate and equip. You are here to prepare for the service that lies ahead. To do this, we are blessed with inspired words in Holy Scripture, guidance offered by the Apostle Paul to his beloved spiritual son Timothy. One might ask, “How could guidance offered almost two millennia ago be relevant to the contemporary priesthood?” “How could anyone, even the great Apostle Paul understand the complexity of our modern world and the new societal challenges that arise every day?” “How could someone in the first century know the demands of the priesthood in the twenty-first century?” For those of us who preach the Gospel, we are very well aware of the relevancy of the Word of God. We firmly believe as did the Apostle Paul that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:16)
The Aim of Our Charge
The title of my presentation to you today is “The Aim of our Charge: Sacred Wisdom for the Contemporary Priesthood.” The first part of this title is taken from Saint Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Allow me to read this passage:
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, or to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. (I Timothy 1:3-5)
In this passage we find the unique phrase used by the Apostle Paul, the aim of our charge is love, τὸ δὲ τέλος τῆς παραγγελίας ἐστὶν ἀγάπη. These words clearly indicate that our aim, our goal, the focus of our work in the Holy Priesthood is love. We are called by Christ to love another. We are called and ordained in His grace to serve. Our charge is to carry the Gospel of love to all, to offer service in the love of Christ, and to hold forth love as the focus of our relationship with God and one another, and to encourage greater love among the fellowship of believers.
For the aim of our charge to be love, we must strive for three things as indicated by Saint Paul to Timothy: a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith, ἐκ καθαρᾶς καρδίας καὶ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς καὶ πίστεως ἀνυποκρίτου. In these two verses we find a treasure of sacred wisdom that can guide a lifetime of service in the Holy Priesthood. To ensure the aim of our charge is love, we must first have a pure heart, a heart that is repentant and forgiven, a heart that is cleansed, a heart that is prepared to be filled with the love and presence of God so that we can accomplish His will. And when we are pure in heart, as our Lord said, we shall see God. (Matthew 5:8) There can be no other greater guide for service in the priesthood than to see God through a pure heart.
Second, for the aim of our charge to be love, we must have a good conscience. Here we see the depth of Saint Paul’s understanding of our humanity. From a pure heart, looking within, comes a good conscience, looking out--our perceptions and thoughts, our values, how we interact with the world around us, and see our place in it. As human beings, we do not have only an inward state of being. We have a conscience that engages us at a substantive level with the world around us, and a good conscience guides us in seeing the world as God intends us to see it. As priests, this is essential to meeting needs, to pastoral care, to spiritual guidance.
Third, for the aim of our charge to be love, we must have a sincere faith. Purity of heart and a good conscience open all of our soul, mind and body to the power of faith. We believe in and see the power of faith and grace in the world. We experience and understand the redemptive power of God’s grace through our faith in Christ, and when the messages of the world, such as vain discussions, speculation, myth and false ideologies that demean life, corrupt the heart and anesthetize the conscience, we are able to affirm the sacredness of the created order, the value and potential of human life, and the nearness of God.
At this point we turn to the relevancy of this sacred wisdom for the contemporary priesthood. We can read Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy and the larger context of the passage of our focus, and I think you will see how much this does speak to our modern world. Listen and reflect on this context after what has just been said:
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, or to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. (I Timothy 1:3-7)
In the second letter to Timothy it is very clear that this applies to the priesthood today:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress.
Can we say we live in stress and with stress!!
For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. (II Timothy 3:1-5)
We see all of this around us today. We see the power of evil and sin, and all of the things that captivate hearts, minds and souls. We see so much that is destructive, violent, and empty. Saint Paul in his words to Timothy, though, is exhorting him to keep his focus on Christ, to remember the aim of his charge. Certainly, Timothy and many Christians in the early Church could have lived in fear, frustration and condemnation of the world around them. They could have met all of this with virulence, acting in a hostile manner toward those who rejected Christ and the Gospel. But Saint Paul reminded Timothy, and we are reminded today, the aim of our charge is love. How do we respond to these forces, ideas, and challenges of our contemporary world? We respond in love. We let grace prevail. At all times and in all ways, we reveal the love of God, and with a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith, we labor for the transformation of lives and the salvation of souls.
Appointed by Christ
A second treasure of sacred wisdom we find in the first letter of Saint Paul to Timothy is the following:
I thank him wo has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service…. (I Timothy 1:12)
As clergy we can stand firmly in the Holy Priesthood because we have been appointed by Christ for His service. In these words we can find the strength to endure. Here is the foundation of our boldness in the Gospel. Affirmed is the higher calling that gives priority to our work. Our commission, our direction, our ministry, our appointment is from Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In strengthening Timothy with these words, the Apostle Paul does not turn to discussion about power, position and authority. He is very much aware of the danger that this understanding of leadership presents. He immediately turns to the power of God’s grace that has been revealed to him, a love that transformed his life. Saint Paul continues:
…though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (I Timothy 1:13-16)
The great Apostle Paul guides Timothy and offers sacred wisdom to us in understanding that we are appointed by Christ through the grace He has revealed. We are appointed in love, so that the aim of our charge is love. We can offer the love of God, because first and foremost we are recipients of that love.
How much is this message of love needed in our world today? How much do we need leadership that is not focused on control and position but is tempered by compassion? In the Holy Priesthood, if we know our need for grace and if love is the aim of our charge, then it is our calling to find places where grace can be offered. Again, we see the sacred wisdom offered by Saint Paul to the contemporary priesthood, and we have to ask, how much of our ministry, our day, our focus is seeking the people and places where love is needed? From our own experience, from our spiritual lives, from our worship and experiences in service we know the power of this love: power to save, to heal, and to transform. How engaged are we with the lives of those around us to understand how grace can be applied? How we can use the Holy Mysteries to minister, or when a prayer, a hymn, a passage from the Holy Scriptures, a word of guidance, can be the grace that is needed? The necessity of this ministry of love as our vocation is affirmed in the Apostle’s second letter to Timothy:
Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord…but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works, but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave to us in Christ Jesus…. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher…. (II Timothy 1:8-11)
To us grace has been given. We have been called by grace. His grace is the aim of our charge.
A Priesthood of Prayer
With a focus on the grace of God, a foundation of a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith and an understanding of being appointed by Christ, the Apostle Paul directs Timothy to the next most important task of the priesthood—prayer. He writes:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable to God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:1-4)
From a foundation of love, the aim of our charge, the first mode of action is prayer-- prayer in worship, prayer in solitude, prayer in our churches and homes, prayer for others, prayer always—a life of prayer, prayer without ceasing! We cannot stress enough the priority of prayer in the Holy Priesthood. To lead as Christ calls us to lead, we must be men of prayer. We must live in constant communion with God, with our source of life and guidance. Again, we hear the words of the holy Apostle:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (I Timothy 3:8)
Prayer in every place. Prayer that provides an environment where are minds and hearts and words are turned to focus on God. Prayer that breaks down barriers, calls people to look beyond themselves and the challenges of life to something greater, to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious. (Philippians 4:8)
The challenge of living in prayer in our modern world is that contemporary life seems so far removed from the life of prayer. Endless activities and distractions vie for the attention of hearts and minds. But as we see from Saint Paul’s instructions to Timothy, our present and our human experience is like that of the first century. It was just as challenging for the faithful of that time to live in prayer. Why did Saint Paul give so much attention to prayer? Why did he affirm the priority of prayer and the unceasing action of prayer?
He did so because he took seriously the role of prayer and his responsibility as an Apostle of Christ to teach people how to pray, how to commune with God. To do this, to lead in prayer and to teach the life of prayer, you must look to his example and be men of prayer. If the aim of your charge is love, and you have a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, you will know and experience the blessings of constant communion with God through prayer.
Life of Godliness
Finally, we see a fourth treasure of sacred wisdom offered by the Apostle Paul to Timothy. If the aim of our charge is love, if we live a life of prayer then we will also offer a witness of our communion with God and our transformation through a life of holiness. We are very much aware of the moral instruction provided by the Apostle Paul to Timothy. He addresses the high moral qualifications for service in the Church. He offers specific instruction on how to act toward others, and the dangers that await those who are overcome by pride. In the midst of these exhortations Saint Paul offers beautiful words that should inspire us to strive for the highest level of character and action:
If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed…Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (I Timothy 4:6-10)
From the words of the Apostle and the instruction he offers to his spiritual son, I think we know the necessity of living in godliness. This is most certainly a witness that is needed in our contemporary world. It is not just that it is expected of those who have been called into the priesthood, but it is essential to guide others in a manner of life that is Christ like. The life of godliness is essential to seeing how life should be lived in communion with God, with all of the blessings offered in the present life as a foretaste of the life to come. People must be shown a vision of the potential of our humanity as created by God and in His image through the holy lives of priests and through the lives of the faithful. Again, if the aim of our charge is love, if we are pure and heart and see God, and communion with God through unceasing prayer, we will be the holy people God made us to be. We will offer to others a witness of the Gospel, and by the Holy Spirit they will be inspired to draw near and receive life, and receive it more abundantly.
In his commentary on I Timothy 1:5, the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith, Saint John Chrysostom offers a very succinct observation of the power and meaning of this in action: He states, “For faith points out the truth, and a sincere faith produces love, which he who truly believes in God cannot endure to lay aside.” (Commentary on I Timothy) Sacred wisdom is again affirmed in these words. Through faith, we know the truth, the truth that offers purpose and meaning, the truth about our experience and our destiny, the truth about our need for grace, and the truth about our salvation. Our sincerity of faith, in the truth that God has revealed to us, means that we are fully engaged in sharing the truth, so that all might know the truth that will set them free. Because truth has been revealed to us in love, we share it in love. And because we truly believe in God, we can never lay aside this love. We are redeemed in love. We are called in love, and we serve in love. The love of God can never be removed from how we live and what we do. Just as we cannot be separated from the love of God by any power or dominion or authority, we cannot separate the love of God from our service in the holy priesthood. The aim of our charge is love, and through a ministry of love we will be able to offer the power and truth of the Gospel in our contemporary world. I ask you to take these words of the holy Apostle to heart. Reflect on them. Shape your pastoral and priestly ministry around them and see the blessings that God will bestow upon your life and the marvelous works He will do in the lives of others. Grace be with you.