Today’s reading: Acts 20:17-38
Paul is now leaving Ephesus to continue his missionary work in the farther parts of the world. At this point, Ephesus has been his home base for some time. These are the people who have sheltered him, fed him and provisioned him for his trips. These are the people that have nursed his wounds. These are people he loves. As we look on to the tearful farewell between Paul and the community of Ephesus, he subtlety conveys to us some important information.
First, we are told Paul calls together the “presbyters”. This word is Greek for “elders” or “priests”. In other words, he is not speaking to everyone but to the leaders of the Church of Ephesus. That implies organization, hierarchy and tangible visible Church.
Second, Paul says to them:
Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
Notice, these people are to oversee the Church but they are not merely installed by men. The Holy Spirit himself has made them servant leaders over the Church. Remember when we saw about the ordination of deacons by the laying on of hands? The Holy Spirit himself came down and blessed that action. Remember the Council of Jerusalem and that the decision of the Apostles “seemed good the Holy Spirit”. Remember when the people spoke out against Moses and God said, “With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” Paul’s statement today is similar. The authority of the leaders comes directly from the Holy Spirit.
However, Paul knows what will inevitably happen. He warns them that from INSIDE their own numbers “wolves” will arise that will draw the faithful away from the Church and to themselves. This is a very specific warning! Some people pray and grow holy and become humble, but others pray become confident and proud. The great irony is that the proud misinterpret the feeling of God’s love and God’s closeness to them as a mandate for leadership. This is again the first sin, the sin that precedes all sins, the sin of pride. However, the Bible is filled with example after example of God calling the reluctant leader.
Notice Paul tells us specifically what these “wolves” will do. They will “speak perverse things”. How can we know what these perverse things are? Fundamentally, I think that we can only know in three ways. First, we can read the Scripture. Is the thing being said specifically advocated or specifically prohibited in the Scripture? That is the first step, but as we have seen, the interpretation of the scripture can lead to an endless debate on its meaning and boundaries. What then?
Second, we have tradition, which Paul specifically tells us we must abide by. This tradition can be known to us by the reading the writings of the early Church fathers, those men who learned from the Apostles, and who are the first scholarly Church leaders. How did they interpret the newly written Gospels? How did they practice the faith? Fortunately, we have many of these people who left us various writings. By studying their writings, we can have confidence in whether an interpretation of a passage of scripture is correct or “perverse”. For example, how do we know the correct interpretation of the passages, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” and the passage, “do this in memory of me”. In part, we can know the right interpretation by looking to how the first Christians interpreted it. Justin Martyr in AD 150 wrote:
“And this food is called among us Εχαριστα [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.”
Finally, recall the Council of Jerusalem. In that council, we saw that the Apostles assembled together had authority to interpret the scripture (and decide whether the Old Testament laws about circumcision applied to Christian converts). In today’s reading Paul is reminding the presbyters that they have the duty to oversee the Church and that this authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Thus, we see Paul telling us the authority is passed on and shared with the next generation. Nothing is today’s passages says that the presbyters are Apostles, yet it clearly says, that they were made overseers by the Holy Spirit. Thus, God’s properly appointed and confirmed leaders have some measure of authority to interpret the scripture and this continues even after the Apostles have left the scene. This authority is fully present when the Church assembles in counsel and they are doing as Jesus instructed, “go tell it to the Church”.
These three things: Scripture, Tradition and Authority function like a stool to support the Church. Not surprisingly the Triune God selected this Trinitarian formula.
Tomorrow: Acts 21:1-16