This is how one should regard us,
as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
[1 Corinthians 4:4]
We speak of this season of Advent being one full of expectation and hope.
I think we have a general sense of what that means. There are certain things that we look forward to – probably a holiday from work for some of you, a time with loved ones, no doubt some feasting! – if you are a child it might include hoping for a gift. But there is something in the air. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but we hope for it.
From a religious point of view, we hope to grasp better, beyond the simple story, the profundity of God’s coming in the flesh to dwell among us. The expectation we feel has surely has an element of desiring a closer union with God and expecting that when we observe the feast of Christmas we will attain something of this deeper union.
Like the Cross of Jesus, which we hold before our eyes, never quite understanding the fullness of the love it reveals or the encouragement or the guide it can become to our life, so it is with the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
These things are mysteries – something is known, something is unknown.
The creation of our souls and bodies in God’s image, our fall from paradise, the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and the promised coming again of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness offered, the pouring out of His Spirit, his building up of His Church on earth and the promises of glory – all these are elements of our faith that we profess in the Creeds. But by knowing something about them, we don’t by any means exhaust their meaning, they only begin to point us to the depths of the knowledge of God and of our souls that will come about in time. We acknowledge continually that we know don’t know it all, we only know a tiny bit.
And much of the tiny bit that we do know about our faith, is not something we could have figured out, but it had to be revealed to us from above. In that sense, others will not know this knowledge unless we share it with them.
We apprehend more and more of our faith as we walk on the journey in trust. Faith leads to understanding.
Isaiah speaks of that journey of faith [Isaiah 35:1-10], as a transformation that happens in us. He describes our soul as a desert, as dry land, watered and then flowers appearing. And he describes it as a movement in the soul:a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness, the unclean shall not pass over it, it shall belong to those who walk on the way. Only when we walk according to the way that has been revealed will we find our destination, only when we walk on that way will we find safety from beasts both within and without. It is a walking to Zion, that is, into the Kingdom of Heaven, ultimately beyond this world. None of us know that world yet, we have intimations of it, but it is not plain to our eyes. We start with some knowledge and we trust in what we don’t see but are promised.
Thomas Aquinas says that faith is this peculiar mix of knowing and unknowing – it contains “an element of perfection and an element of imperfection. The perfection [is there] in the firmness of assent, the imperfection in the fact that no vision operates – with the result that the believer is troubled by a lingering “mental unrest”.” [Joseph Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 50]
I was thinking about how this description of faith is quite like marriage – you make a firm assent to be with one person for life, as Daniëlle and I will do, God willing, in a few weeks – and yet there is an element of unknowing what will come about. We are told beautiful things, and we see examples around us of beautiful marriages. So you make the firm promise, and yet without the full knowledge of what will be. And there is some mental unrest in that. And that very unrest makes one diligent to seek to make the marriage good. And of course the heart is moved and consoled by love. Daniëlle and I will read what others have written (we’re reading a good book now), we will be inspired by examples of others, and we will seek advice from those who are further along on that path if/when we stumble.
The life of faith is like this – the mental unrest between the certainty and uncertainty keeps us diligent in the path to make sure we are going in the right direction. But we only come to know the life of faith as we assent to it, and seek to live it – and you do this because you’ve seen enough and you are perhaps tired with finding dead ends by your own means. In the same way you can’t know the life of marriage before being married – you can’t know the life of faith without choosing it, and then you see more and more and experience the blessings.
- last week we looked at the gift of the Bible to lead us and to encourage us in that uncertain life.But we also know the Bible is not an easy book – it continually raises questions, we are told about a life that we cannot quite yet see: it has poetry alluding to higher things that cannot easily be spoken of – things that are unclear or even don’t make sense to the immature or carnal mind; there are parables that hint and work in our minds – they speak about that other kingdom, the allusive kingdom of heaven. Because of these difficulties and our own immaturity, the Bible on its own is insufficient.
- This is why we also need human guides in our walk of faith in Jesus Christ
Our readings are about this gift of ministers in our preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time and in preparing ourselves for his present coming to our souls by grace.
In today’s Epistle [1 Corinthians 4:1-5], Paul says that he is a servant or minister of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God.
What was it to be a steward?
In the ancient world a person who ran the affairs or estate of a wealthy man or a king was a steward. And we can imagine the most important qualification in a steward, besides general competence, is that the person be faithful – someone trustworthy not to be stealing some of that wealth or who lacks diligence in the oversight of the wealth that is placed in his hands.
What is it to be a steward of the mysteries of God?
The mysteries of God, as we’ve sen, are a certain revelation about who God is, about God’s involvement in time, and what it means to be human. It is about the Kingdom of God. How do I enter it? How does God minister his graces? The Sacraments, are a part of the mysteries of God.
A steward needs to be faithful with truly sharing certain knowledge. But to share what are the mysteries, the steward needs to be walking on the way called the Way of Holiness– there is no other way to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and so be able to share that insight with others.
Each one of us knows something of that way, something of the mysteries of God, and the mysteries are given to each one of us to share with the world.
In the Gospel [St Matthew 11:2-10] there is an account of a faithful steward of the mysteries of God: John the Baptist. He is an example for all of us.
There are a few things we learn about this faithful steward:
Jesus asks the people what it is they went out to find in John the Baptist –
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
- a faithful steward does not get easily blown this way and that by the times he is living in – there was a steadiness in teaching – and those who are searching for the kingdom of God recognize that, they are looking for steadfastness
What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.
- a faithful steward is not interested in this worldly success because the kingdom of heaven is not of this world
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’
- John’s message was one of repentance and holiness of life as a prerequisite to see and to know the kingdom of heaven, as Isaiah said, as the prophets all say – there is no shortcut. This is the way we prepare our hearts to receive Christ.
And from the circumstances of John in the Gospel – we learn that he was in prison because of his call to Herod to repent for living with his brother’s wife – we learn that what we have to say will not always be of received gratefully. To be a faithful steward will involve suffering.
One other thing – in prison John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one they should look for or should we look for another? [There are different interpretations of this: did John actually have doubts (as most modern interpreters suggest) or was he simply pointing his disciples to Jesus as he knew his time was coming to a close (as most ancient interpreters suggest)?]
- Here we see the ongoing humility of John the Baptist who has these two elements still – certainty combined with uncertainty – an asking continually the advice of other ministers, in his case the chief minister and steward of the mysteries of God – Jesus Christ himself. He was no doubt strengthened by that knowledge as he awaited his death in prison.
A steward of the mysteries of God must be faithful: that includes, being steadfast, not worldly, a preacher of repentance and faith to prepare for Christ, and humility – always ready to seek the advice of others.
Today, as every Sunday, we are called to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. As we follow that call we become ministers and stewards of the mysteries of God to others.
Let us prepare ourselves now through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Through this Sacrament we come to know more and more the perfect pardon of God and he will give us new life – our parched souls are promised a blossoming of new life and joy.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing!”