Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are three Epistles included in our New Testament canon penned by the Apostle Paul called the “Pastoral Epistles.” They are called the Pastoral Epistles precisely because the Apostle wrote them to pastors or the presbyters of the Church, specifically to Timothy, Bishop or overseer of the Church in Ephesus, and Titus, Bishop of the Church in Cyprus. The Apostle writes because of his ongoing “anxiety” or daily “concern for all the churches,” as he puts it (2 Cr. 11:28). It is no less than what any parent has experienced for their children, even after they’re all grown up and on their own! Paul has been instrumental, if not the founder of many churches, during his years, and throughout his lifetime he had a “parent’s” heart for them all. And so, he addresses his Pastoral Epistles to “a true son in the Faith,” Timothy, (1 Tm. 1:2) and to Titus, “a true son in our common Faith” (Ts. 1:4), writing to them in their specific settings to provide them with his episcopal insights, if you will. It is in these writings we learn of the apostolic criteria for presbyters and deacons, and we hear apostolic admonitions to feed, protect, and serve the Flock of Jesus Christ entrusted to their priestly stewardship. It is in these Pastoral Epistles we learn just how crucial it is for the shepherd of the sheep to preserve intact the “deposit of Faith” handed down to them (1 Tm. 6:20; 2 Tm. 1:14), underscoring the vital and indispensable need of true and correct doctrine, albeit much to the chagrin of our cultural tastes for whimsy and speculation. Truth matters because the Truth is Jesus Christ Who incarnated the Truth in Himself. He is Divine Revelation in the physicality of human history: His words, His Life, His teachings – all of it is Divine Revelation and none of it ever changes because, like Him Who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” it, too, is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hb. 13:8). Indeed, what does our Lord say to those who marveled and questioned that He was without the prerequisite credentials of a seminary? “’My doctrine is not Mine,’” He says, “’but His Who sent Me’” (Jn. 7:16). And, again, in what we have come to know and call His High Priestly Prayer heard today in the Gospel, our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is quite clear as to the source of the Truth divinely revealed. Lifting up His eyes unto Heaven, Jesus prays to His Father, saying,
‘I have manifested Thy Name unto the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world. Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy Word. . . . For I have given unto them the Words which Thou gavest Me; and they have received them . . . .’ (Jn. 17:1-13).
Jesus is about His Father’s business of showing us, if we have faith to receive it, the Truth from Heaven that can only be known within the communion of Divine Revelation, that is, the Church which is the Body of Christ God, “the fullness of Him, Who fills all in all” (Ep. 1:22-23). The Church is the divine key to our “knowing” God, to making known the Mystery hidden from all ages (Co. 1:26). And, if the Church is misaligned the Truth she bears witness to is also out of alignment, distorted, blurred and out of focus. It involves the intellect, to be sure, but it is more than an intellectual exercise or an academic pursuit. It involves the nous – the spiritual eye of the heart and soul that alone can “see” and “know” God. This is the aspect of our soul that the Holy Spirit bears witness to (Rm. 8:16). And, if the eye is not clear, Jesus says, “’your whole body will be full of darkness [and] how great is that darkness!’” (Mt. 6:22-23).
So, God gives to His Church, to the Body and Bride of His Son, shepherds who are ordained and charged with the care and oversight of the Church; to feed, protect, serve, and defend her against the incursions of the evil one in the form and shape of wolves in sheep’s clothing, teachers of falsity interested only in garnering disciples for themselves. That’s what St. Paul tells those presbyters and Bishops from Ephesus gathered with him before he sets sail for Jerusalem in the reading from Acts. The apostolic counsel to these men whom the Holy Spirit had set over the reason-endowed Flock of God’s Word is in the same spirit as our Lord’s words found in that chapter of St. John’s Gospel we have come to know as the “Good Shepherd” chapter. Our Lord warns us all that there will be thieves and robbers whose sole intent masked in Christian clothing will be “’to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.’” He, however, unlike them who will impersonate Him, is the “’Good Shepherd” Who has come to give life abundantly by the giving up of His life. This is what the Good Shepherd does; this is what a good shepherd conformed to the image of the crucified Shepherd does. “’But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd,’” says our Lord, “’and I lay down My life for the sheep’” (Jn. 10:1-18).
The good shepherd of the Flock of Jesus, the man called by the Holy Spirit to be over the Flock, is to protect, defend, feed, and serve his Flock, and, if need be, lay down his life for the sheep. This is no different than what the groom is called to do for his bride (Ep. 5:25, 28-29). In turn, the Flock is to pay diligent attention to the voice of the shepherd who hands on to them the very Words of God Himself for only in these Words will the shepherd and his Flock find Life Eternal (Hb. 13:7, 17). They are words of the Spirit and of life because they come to us from God-in-flesh Himself through the one who serves the Son of God as servant of the Word incarnate (Jn. 6:63, 68). Having received from the great treasury of God preserved in His Church, that is, her Sacred Tradition, the shepherd finds it more blessed to give and to hand on that which he has received, which is nothing less than “the Faith once delivered to the saints,” the Faith worthy of being contended for against all other pretenders (Ju. 1:3). There is and can be, as St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Church in Ephesus, only one Faith because there is only one Lord Who is the sole Source and Fountain of the Truth.
Shepherds, therefore, beloved, are to be found faithful and obedient servants of Jesus Christ their Master and their God. They are to prepare at all times and in all places, that is, as the Apostle urges, to take heed unto themselves: by devoting themselves to prayer earnestly and being vigilant in it with thanksgiving (Co. 4:2), by regular repentance and confession and Communion, by immersing themselves in the prayerful reading and studying of Sacred Scripture (Ac. 6:4) , or as St. Paul says elsewhere, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, . . . .” (Co. 3:16). The Flock, beloved, should not only expect that of their shepherd, but the Flock should insist on it by making it possible for their shepherd to be so devoted. Their very souls depend on the shepherd taking heed unto himself. He is their shepherd and spiritual father, not their hired employee. His is a divine call and vocation of the Holy Spirit, and not a career track.
Beloved, when our Lord ascended on high to sit at the Father’s right hand in Glory, He did not abandon His Bride; He did not leave her as a jilted bride, but He provided for her through His Apostles whom He thoroughly indoctrinated during His 40 day sojourn with them. He left His Church in their apostolic hands and they, in turn, did likewise by ordaining presbyters and shepherds to oversee the Church. This is what we find St. Paul doing today in our reading from Acts. He is ensuring the continuity of the Faith and the integrity of the Church.
The shepherd, beloved, is an underling of the Good and Holy Shepherd, Jesus Christ, the Bishop of our souls (Hb. 13:20; 1 Pe. 2:25). The shepherd’s duty is to the obedience of the Faith, to be a guardian of the Sacred Tradition, to defend the Flock at all costs against any and all intruders, and to feed the Flock the finest wheat, wine, and oil (Ps. 80 :16). Today, the Church commemorates and offers up her thanksgiving for the shepherds of the First Ecumenical Council, and all others who, like them and in continuity with them, rightly divide the Truth of God’s Word (2 Tm. 2:15; Divine Liturgy).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Ac. 20:16-18, 28-36