On the Sunday after the feast of Ascension, we celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Normally, priests speak about the theological implications of this council: the Fathers had gathered to discuss a heresy called Arianism and to proclaim that Christ is “light of light, true God of true God.”
But, this year, I can’t help but see this celebration differently. This past week, we’ve witnessed the senseless death of a gentleman in Minneapolis at the hands of the authorities. The news also told us about a lady in N.Y.C. who made a false 9-1-1 call in an attempt to assert authority over a man who asked her to put her dog on a leash.
These incidents bring to mind all sorts of abuses of power: scandals by priests, by teachers, by politicians, by bosses, by governments, and so on. In each case, someone used their authority to abuse an unsuspecting victim.
In Minneapolis, people took to the streets to protest this most recent abuse. In most cases, protesting is morally responsible. The Civil Rights was a protest that brought about changes in our society for the better. However, this week, we watched in horror as those now empowered by the mob started to burn and pillage their own community. This too is an abuse of power.
Now, there are many good people in authoritative positions. There are countless police officers, clergymen, teachers, politicians, and many more who generously give of their time and go out of their way to help others, and God bless them.
But, this Sunday, as we hear about a council of authoritative teachers, the Fathers, we hear it in a new way, informed by the news of the past few days. Now, I think about power and how it’s used … in the church, in society, in private companies, in homes, in schools, in the public sphere. I think about how some people use their power to lift others up and how some use their power to tear others down.
But, despite the feast resonating with me differently this year, the epistle still seems as fresh as ever. Today, in Acts, we get a reminder that power comes with the responsibility to love.
Scripture: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36 (click here to read)
Today’s reading from Acts begins with Paul’s last journey to Jerusalem. From our perspective, we know that when he reaches Jerusalem, he’ll be arrested, put in jail, and, eventually, end up in Rome where he will be beheaded.
On his way, he stops in Miletus and summons the elders of Ephesus, which isn’t that far away. When they arrive, he gives them one last “sermon.” He tells them of his journeys and his struggles. He tells them about how he spread the Good News to both the Judeans and the Greeks. And then he gives them some advice.
“Watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Spirit, the Holy One, has set you as supervisors, to shepherd God’s assembly, which he purchased by his own blood. … And now I commend you to the Lord and to the word of his grace, which has the power to establish a house and bequeath the inheritance to all who have been made holy. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing; You yourselves know that these hands have provided for my needs and for those who are with me. I have revealed all to you: how, laboring in this very way, you must care for the infirm, and must remember the words of the Lord—that he said, ‘It is a blissful thing to give rather than to receive.’” (Acts 20:28-36)
The elders that Paul has called together are now the leaders of the community. Like a shepherd, they have authority over the flock. You can see why the church chose this passage to read on the Sunday we commemorate the Fathers.
But, did you notice *how* the shepherds are to care for the flock? They must first of all labor for others. They have the responsibility to care for the infirm. They must have a spirit of giving, for that is more blissful than receiving.
Those in authority cannot abuse those who look up to them. They can’t take advantage of them or enslave them. They shouldn’t use others to fulfill their own needs. Instead, leaders are to become servants by serving those under their care—what we call “servant leadership” in the corporate world today.
It’s ironic that these words come from the Apostle Paul. He had once abused his authority. He went around gathering Christians for execution. And, we know that he had a hand in the stoning Stephen the first martyr. But, Paul has now changed his tune. He has encountered the crucified Lord and he sees things in a whole new light. He now knows that he must lead the way Christ led.
As I read Paul’s last words to these elders, I can’t but help to think of Jesus’s last sermon to his own disciples, which we read on Holy Thursday evening. There he says,
“As the Father has loved me I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be made full. This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that he should lay down his soul for his friends.” (John 15:9-13)
Jesus tells his disciples that he has led by love, and he asks them to also lead in this way. We see no greater love than when Jesus goes to the cross to die for us. This is true servant leadership. This is the sort of leadership that brings joy, not destruction.
So, as we think about the events of this past week, as we think about the Fathers who gathered in Nicaea centuries ago, we recall this passage from Acts. It rings true today, just as it did 2,000 years ago. Taking advantage of one’s position is never OK. We should also seek to lead from love, looking after those we are called to care for.
Now, none of us, including myself, are perfect. But today we are reminded that authority is a thing of trust, a thing of love. My prayer is that as we grow and mature on our Christian walk, we become more Christlike in the way we lead and care for others.
Changing Your Mind
“I have revealed all to you: how, laboring in this very way, you must care for the infirm, and must remember the words of the Lord—that he said, ‘It is a blissful thing to give rather than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)