If the priest is sinful, his prayer is not

In the Acts of the Holy Apostles, 9: 32–42, the author bears witness to two touching events of which the holy Apostle Peter is the hero. We will see how St. Peter acknowledges that the real hero of these miraculous events is the Lord.

In the first event St. Peter met a man by the name of Aeneas who had been bedridden for eight years because he was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed” (Acts 9:32-34). And Aeneas arose immediately.

As exciting and touching as this first miracle is, the second one is even more so.

In the neighbouring town of Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. She was a young girl, who fell ill and died. The disciples, having learned that Peter was there, sent for him. When Peter came, “all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes and when she saw Peter, she sat up (Acts 9:36-40).

Can you imagine the amazement and wonder that these miracles of Peter caused and how the word of what had happened spread all over the land!

At this time I would like to draw your attention to a very important detail. When the holy Apostle Peter healed Aeneas, he stressed very firmly who the real healer was, so that Aeneas and all others who were in the vicinity could hear and understand: “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you” (Acts 9:34). Not for one moment did Apostle Peter succumb to the temptation of ascribing any of the miracles to himself. No, he said it loudly and clearly for all to hear: God is the one who worked the miracle.

There is another important moment which St. Luke stressed. As soon as he arrived at the home of Tabitha, he first ordered everyone out of the room, and then knelt down and prayed (Acts 9:40). The Apostle called upon God in prayer, so that God would, through him, perform a miracle. He knew that God would hear his prayer, because it was strong and sincere. Then, in simple words, without a trace of doubt, he told Tabitha to rise, in the same way as he would ask her for a glass of water.What have these evangelical stories have to do with us, brothers and sisters? You will find out in a moment.

We, the members of the clergy, are very often (too often, I should say) the topic of many conversations among our parishioners and non-parishioners. Sometimes we are praised, but more often we are criticized. Some like us, while others do not; a few openly hate us. Some they attack us while others defend us. In the recent years, thanks to the new technologies of the internet and the endless possibilities it offers, we have become the target of the filthiest and most profane lies and intrigue. No one in their right mind could believe the amount of filth that is to be found on certain websites.

Some people even feel free to set their own criteria as to which priest is “correct” and which one isn’t. It’s something like, “That one is a real priest for me, but the other one is not. This priest is welcome in my home, but that one isn’t. I want this priest to baptize my child, but the other one can’t come near me. I will confess and take communion with this priest, but I won’t even go to the church where this other one serves.”

The holy scripture teaches us that it is a sin to speak badly of priests and to force them into “moulds” of our own fabrication. I am not for one moment insinuating that we priests should have any kind of “immunity” from the opinions of our parishioners – far from it. It’s especially true that we, the clergy, give our parishioners good reason to judge us for our sinfulness.

I, personally, am very aware of my own sinfulness and unworthiness, and I confess now, right here before you, that I am very often put to shame by the piety and steadfastness in the faith of some of my spiritually mature parishioners, when I compare myself to them. I know very well and I can testify, that no one who is a slave to the passions and vices, as is the case with me, is worthy of approaching the altar and serving Holy Liturgy to the Lord, the King of Glory, for even the Angelic Powers tremble when they serve Him (from the Cherubic Hymn prayers). Therefore every priest prays to the Lord before the beginning of any service that He may make him worthy of offering up the great and holy Mysteries. Neither the priest nor the congregation he serves must ever forget that the Lord Himself ordains all priests by the power of the Holy Spirit. And every priest must always bear in mind that he has been brought to serve in the holy altar of the Lord not because of his own righteousness, but thanks to the Lord’s mercy and compassion.

I now want to draw your attention to what our holy hierarch Sava wrote to the abbot of Studenica, Charalambos, more than eight centuries ago: He says, even if the priest is sinful, his prayer is not. Orthodoxy teaches us that it is not the priest who does anything, but the Lord. God is the one offers the holy oblation and offers Himself, it is He who receives and who gives Himself. It is not the priest who baptizes new Christians, although this is our way of putting it. God is the one who baptizes them. The Lord is the one who crowns a man and a woman in marriage, not the priest. It is the same with any other service, it is not the priest who is performing it, but the Lord God Himself. The priest is but the vessel of God’s mercy. If the copper wire is soiled and rusty, the electrical current still runs through it, and light still fills the room.

It displeases the Lord when people argue with their priests and considers it a grave sin. “Let no man strive and reprove with another, for thy people are as they that strive with the priest,” says the Lord through His prophet Hosea (Hos. 4:4). Judgment and condemnation, reprieve and punishment – all this belongs only and exclusively to the Lord. As for the priests, He will judge them and pay them righteously for their deeds or misdeeds.

Even an unworthy priest is still a priest. He will have to answer for his unworthiness, more than others. Christ tell us that “the servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes… For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Lk. 12:47-48).

Christ’s great Apostle and friend, St. Peter, always points to Christ as the perpetrator of all miracles and wonders.

The Lord still performs holy mysteries and miracles, right here and now, through us priests and our sinful and unworthy hands. The teaching of St. Sava should be engraved in our souls: “If the priest is sinful, his prayer is not.”