Not I, but the grace of God


(1 Cor. 15 : 1 – 11)

In chapter 15 of his first epistle to the Corinthians the holy Apostle Paul puts his apostolic and priestly calling to the test before the Christians of Corinth. The criteria that St. Paul set then as a basis for priesthood is still valid today. The grace of God is the only measure by which it can be determined whether someone is really a priest, or an impostor. A priest is someone on whom the Grace of the Holy Spirit has been invoked by the laying of hands of the bishop during holy Liturgy. The grace of God is invoked in order that the candidate for priesthood to be enabled to minister the holy mysteries and to lead the flock of Christ in faith and piety (Father Justin Popovic). What a certain priest is like personally, whether he is a good or bad one (God forbid), a good singer or not, fat or thin… all these questions are secondary in importance and do not have any impact on the fact that he is a priest.

For we believe in the teaching of our holy Church, that every rightfully chosen and ordained priest is called to the mystery of priesthood by the hand of god. Whether he will prove himself worthy of this call or not is of no consequence – he will be judged more severely and asked for more, as one who has been given more and who knows more.

I urge you to read the whole first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where you will see how Apostle Matthias was called to apostolic dignity in place of Judas who had fallen away from it. At a gathering where there were about one hundred and twenty people they proposed two men: Joseph called Barnabas, who was surnamed Justus and Matthias. “And they prayed and said, ‘You, o Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.’ And they cast their lots and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles (Acts 1:23-26).

As He chose Matthias, so we believe that He still chooses His servants to this day.

The Apostles, who had abundant grace (Acts 4:33) never took any steps until they received a blessing from God. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” (Acts 15:28) they said when they wrote the decisions reached at their first assembly. In the Holy Orthodox Church, to this day these same words are used to convey any decisions brought at any assembly of bishops, including the decision to ordain a certain person worthy of priesthood.

“And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was,” (Heb. 5:4) says St. Paul. By this he means that no one must engage in sacramental services of his own accord. When King Saul, pressed by fear and urgency, dared to offer up a service to the Lord by himself, the Lord punished him by taking away his royal dignity and his kingdom (1 Sam. 13). And a man by the name of Uzzah, who accidentally touched with his hand the Holiest of Holies, the Arc of the Covenant, which only priests were allowed to touch, was struck dead on the spot (2 Sam. 6:6). Also in the old testament, Dathan and Abiram led a mutiny against the priests so that they could take their place and the Lord punished them with a terrible death – the earth opened up beneath their feet and swallowed them (Num. 16).

“To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,” says St. Paul modestly” (Eph. 3:8). We also hear his humble words that “last of all the Lord was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:8-10). And truly the Lord confirmed him as His apostle, for St. Paul became His chosen vessel to bring the name of the Lord to the Gentiles, kings and the sons of Israel. The Apostle was highly aware of his calling. “Paul, a handservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God,” (Rom. 1:1) is how he introduces himself to the Christians in Rome.

As it was with St. Paul, it was with all the disciples of the Apostles, and with all priests, past, present and future. “Listen, o isles, unto me, and hearken ye people from far; the Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother hath He made mention of my name” (Is. 49:1) We see, therefore, that the Lord chose His prophet while he was still in his mother’s womb (Is. 49:5).

Why is this important for us to know?

Because today, more than ever, there are many wolves in sheep’s skins. There are many “priests” who have put on vestments and call themselves ministers. They are everywhere, howling like wolves and luring people into their dens. They are on every television channel, over the radio, on the internet and practically on every street corner, speaking out eloquently. They are well-versed in the art of persuasion, dressed in the most expensive suits and every movement and facial expression is rehearsed. They usually have a huge auditorium, thousands of people who wave their hands, sway as in a trance, clap their hands and mimic their words.

In comparison to us Orthodox priests, whose sermons are sometimes too toned-down and lifeless, these “preachers” seem like Hollywood actors. A person who knows little or nothing about his faith can easily fall into their trap.

That is why it is necessary for us to ask ourselves whether there is God’s grace in this well-directed theater production.

Of course there is not.

Our holy Apostle Paul foresaw what would happen in the centuries to come and saw all these wolves in sheep’s clothing clearly. He took a firm stand against them with his humility and simplicity. “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but of demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1 Cor. 1:17).

On the terrible Day of His dread last Judgment the Lord will weigh all our deeds and actions. “Each one’s work will become clear, for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire (1 Cor. 3:13) says the holy Apostle. And each one of us, both priests and laymen, should tremble like straws in the wind when at the very thought of the Last Judgment. The Lord only knows all the sinners that wear black cassocks. However, it is not up to us to judge anyone, and that includes our priests. As for our “false brethren who by stealth came in to spy out our liberty” (Gal. 2:4), let us leave them to themselves.

Let us support our priests, for as the Apostle says, they guard over our souls “as those who must give account.” Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable to us (Heb. 13:17).