The First Fruits of Achaia: Setting Ourselves for the Ministry of the Saints

Map of Corinthia, Sicyonia and Achaia in Ancient Greece (From Wikimedia Commons)
Map of Corinthia, Sicyonia and Achaia in Ancient Greece
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost / Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew, August 30, 2015
I Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Many times when we’re reading something, we come across a phrase or two in parentheses, and we might skip over that part because it’s not really that important. Today I would like us to focus on what in our translation of the reading from First Corinthians is a parenthetical aside. Of course, when Paul wrote it in Greek, he didn’t use parentheses. He didn’t use lower case letters or even spaces between words—at the time, no one did. So the parentheses is just a best guess on the part of our translator. But far from being an unimportant side comment, this is where I would like us to spend our time in this morning’s homily.

Of course, most of this passage is stuff we might be tempted to skip over. Why? It’s mostly just a series of greetings. He says some good things about certain people who helped him along the way, and he also passes on greetings to the Corinthian Christians from people they might know. But there’s something beautiful lurking in that part between the parentheses.

Here’s that part again: “since you know the house of Stephanas, that it is the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have set themselves for the ministry of the saints.”

Now this is not the first time that Paul mentions this “house of Stephanas.” Earlier in this epistle, in 1 Corinthians 1:16, he says that he had baptized the whole household of Stephanas. So this is a family Paul knows well, people whom he brought into the Church himself.

And here, he calls this family “the first fruits of Achaia.” Where is that? Achaia is in Greece, down in the southwest region, in the Peleponnesos. The capital these days is Patras, though in those days, the Romans had made Corinth the capital. And just as an interesting note, this is where the wine we use for Holy Communion comes from. So this household is the first to be converted to Christ in that region.

Paul doesn’t talk about this, but try to imagine what that would have been like. This family were the first Christians there. They were the first to be brought into the Church, the first to commit themselves to the worship and service of the one true God, in the midst of pagans. They did not have a Christian society to support them in any way. They probably didn’t know any other Christians when Paul converted them.

This context is important for what I’m about to say next. We have to remember that this household is, as Paul says, the “first fruits of Achaia.” They were not just new Church members, but they were the very first in their whole region.

How do we normally think of new church members? If that were me, how would I see myself? They didn’t have much of a Christian support system. They didn’t have a family tradition of being Christian. When they were baptized, that one family was literally the whole church in that region. Paul created a new congregation by baptizing Stephanas and his family.

Normally, we would think of people like this as needing a lot of help. We might not expect much of them. They’re new. They’re the only Christians out there. They’ve abandoned an ancient family heritage in paganism for this new religion of Jesus Christ. So we shouldn’t expect them to make any big contribution at this point, right?

Well, not Stephanas and his family. That was not them. Paul says that they “have set themselves for the ministry of the saints.” They have set themselves to give to the Church. They have set themselves to minister both to the saints and to those who are not yet saints.

And saints here does not mean what we usually mean by that word nowadays. There are no canonized saints yet. Paul is referring to Christians in general. In that sense, we are all “saints.” Saint is a word meaning “one who is set apart.” So Stephanas and his family had set themselves to do the work appropriate to those who have been set apart. And we can read this the other way, too—they are ministering to those who are also set apart. They are working both as saints and for saints.

Brand new church members—diving right into ministry. Making new saints. Contributing to the existing ones. Paul says to the Corinthians that one of the things that Stephanas did, along with men named Fortunatos and Achaicos, is that they “supplied” whatever was “lacking” on the part of the Corinthians, an act which “refreshed” Paul’s spirit as well as the spirit of the Corinthians. These three men probably provided for Paul so that he could minister to the Corinthians, even while the Corinthians themselves were lacking something in that department. And Paul told the Corinthians to recognize what these men had done.

So what should we take away from all this?

First, we should take note of what kind of new Christians Stephanas and his family were. They were not the kind that regarded the Church as existing to serve them. Paul was not their entertainer or their minder. He baptized them and taught them. And they saw it as their duty to care for him and also for the Corinthians.

They had “set themselves for the ministry of the saints.” They jumped right in and “set themselves for the ministry.” They did not see the Church as existing to provide them with something, but that the Church was there for them to serve.

Likewise, see how Paul treats them. He doesn’t coddle them. He holds them forth as examples to the Corinthians and even scolds the Corinthians a little because Stephanas and his family had to make up for what the Corinthians were lacking.

This is a very different model from how many people treat the Church today. Many people regard the Church as existing to serve them rather than as the place where they can serve. The Church’s leaders and workers need to keep them happy, and if they’re not happy, they will complain or gossip or make a scene or leave. The customer is always right. Some people think they’re doing God or the Church a favor by coming here.

One of the first pieces of advice I received when I became a pastor was that I need to keep people happy. But I reject that advice, not just because keeping everyone happy is pretty much impossible, but because keeping people happy is not the task of a priest. It is also not the task of the parish council, of the choir, of our church school, or of any of our ministries here at St. Paul’s.

Our task is to serve one another, and we serve one another not in the ways that are pleasing to you or me or anyone else, but in the ways that are pleasing to God. My task is to lead worship, to teach, to counsel, to minister the sacraments—in ways that are pleasing to God. Our choir’s task is to sing the services—in a way that is pleasing to God. Our teachers’ task is to teach the Orthodox faith—the Gospel, the Scriptures, the theology, the lives of the saints, and so on. They are not babysitters but instructors in Christian faith—in a way that is pleasing to God. The parish council’s task is to manage the property of the parish so that it can be used for ministry—in a way that is pleasing to God.

But ministry does not stop there. I could name all the other groups and ministries of our parish, and it would not stop there, either. So many Christians have a very broken understanding of ministry in the Church. Ministry is not something just certain Christians do. We are all ministers. There are no customers here. There is no one here “who is always right” except for our Lord Jesus Christ.

My vision for myself and my vision for you is that we would be like Stephanas and his family, that we would set ourselves for the ministry of the saints. And if there are fellow ministers around us who are lacking, we make up for whatever they lack, so that we might refresh each other.

People should look at St. Paul’s in Emmaus and say, “Now there is a parish where the people serve one another.” It is something of a cliche that in most churches, 10% of the people do 90% of the work. Well, that’s just wrong! We did not come here to be served but to serve. We come here to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), as Paul says elsewhere. No one else can work out your salvation for you. You have to do that for yourself. And the primary way that you do that is by doing what the house of Stephanas did: set yourself for the ministry of the saints.

To the Holy Trinity therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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