(1 Cor. 4 : 9–16)
Believe it or not, brothers and sisters, I think of the holy Apostle Paul as though he were our contemporary, a man I might run into around the corner, if only I went looking for him. Not a single word he wrote or inspired others to write, is excessive. Generation upon generation of Christians recognized themselves in every thought of his. Likewise, we, the Christians of this day and age, see ourselves and the age we live in, in every one of the Apostle’s thoughts.
If we read carefully the First epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 4th chapter, we meet a different St. Paul than we are used to seeing, for in the words he uses to address the Christians in Corinth we sense certain reproach and even anger. It is as though his patience, which is normally endless, has come to an end. Only he knew how sad his soul was and what trouble assailed him, for he really had to pour his heart out for once.
It seems that the Christians of Corinth, a wealthy city of tradesmen, had let themselves be carried away by their wealth and power and had begun to disobey the law of God and to turn their minds to the things of this world, at the same time disregarding their teachers and spiritual shepherds, the apostles and the presbyters. “You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us,” writes St. Paul to them (1 Cor. 4:8).
What follows next is St. Paul’s reproachful lament: “For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but you are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the earth, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Cor. 4:9-13).
“We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one” (2 Cor. 7:2).
Whenever I read these words of the Apostle, I feel that they are addressed to me personally, as a priest. I, a sinner, am so very far from the Apostle who blesses those who revile him, endures when persecuted and prays for those who defame him. On the contrary, I complain near and far about even the smallest trouble that comes upon me. I had better not speak of the sandstorm that is stirred up inside my soul when I am insulted and humiliated. In brief, when I compare myself with the Apostle’s goodness and capacity for forgiveness, I feel very small and weightless.
After the Apostle’s outpouring of feelings, his tone changes. It is as though he was suddenly concerned that he might be condemned and rejected by the proud Christians of Corinth and that his words of reproach might be misunderstood. He now speaks to them in a kind and conciliatory tone. “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14-15).
It is a well known fact that St. Paul was one of the most learned men of his time and in his country. However, he has something more, an erudition that is often out of reach for people with formal high education: all the crevices and whirlpools of the human soul are known to him. Here we see him following the wise Solomon to the letter: “A man of great wrath shall suffer punishment: for if thou deliver him, yet thou must do it again” (Prov. 19:19).
The epistle St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth is meant for us, the Christians of the present day, to hear as well. It is meant for us priests more than for our parishioners, for we have been entrusted with a flock which we will answer for. As you know, there are often disagreements between us. And, very often, we do not know how to act in such situations, which is impermissible. We are too stern in our opinions when we should be kind and, for fear of the people’s reactions, we are too soft when we should be firm. It is very difficult for us to find the right balance and if we sometimes do find it, it is extremely difficult for us to follow through with it.
It is not expected of us to indulge and comfort all the time, as many think. Even the holy Apostle Paul, the epitome of human kindness and goodness, has been known to chastise his flock, as we have just seen. We, however, cannot compare ourselves with the Apostle. He scolds his flock, but then he lovingly embraces them. Through his disciple the young bishop Timothy, he exhorts us by the name of Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His Second Coming and in His kingdom, to preach the word, both in season and out of season, to convince and rebuke, but also to comfort with long suffering and teaching (2 Tim. 4;1-2). “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). He also taught his other disciple, the holy Apostle Titus, to rebuke his flock sharply so that they may be sound in the faith (Tit. 1:13), but always with good measure and in good time. “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).
The holy Apostle Peter, as St. Paul’s older “colleague,” as we would say today, has the same advice for us: “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed. Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; not as being Lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:1-3).
The holy Apostle reminds us of our great responsibility as Christians: all that has been given us, Christ purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).
We, the shepherds of the Church have been given a great responsibility, but so has our flock. We are here to lead with love, and they are here to follow without resisting. “Obey those who rule over you and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
Both the shepherds and their flock are expected to bear themselves with love and kindness: “Let all that you do be done with love,” says St. Paul. “Likewise, you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).