The new testament picture of the ‘disciple’ (one who follows and learns) is influential in shaping the spirituality of priesthood as conforming to the lifestyle of the model of Christ. Yet it is the role of the apostle that has shaped so much Christian understanding of the priest’s ministry to others.
The disciples were called to be with Jesus and to represent him to others, something the gospels show in the sending out of disciples during Jesus’ own life (Mk 6:7). But the definitive sending that constitutes apostolate comes after the resurrection. The distinction lies in the meaning of disciples as ‘those who follow’ and apostles as ‘those who are sent’ on mission.
Paul ‘the apostle’
All the gospels join the two roles, disciple and apostle, in the commissioning of Jesus’ followers. Every resurrection appearance of Jesus is a commissioning occasion for the Twelve (or Eleven) disciples of the ministry; they receive the post-resurrection apostolic command (Mt 28:19; Lk 24:47-48; Jn 20:21), but little appears about their apostolate. The paradigm shifts to an apostolic figure who was not a disciple during Jesus’ ministry – Paul, ‘the Apostle’.
No one else in the new testament is more frequently called an apostle. Paul would certainly have considered himself a disciple or follower of Jesus, but the fact that he was not one of the Twelve indicates that the roles were separate. One could hardly be an apostle without having the ideals of a disciple, but one might have a disciple’s ideals without engaging in the vigorous activity of the apostle, in much the same way as a very spiritual priest may still be an ineffective minister of the gospel to others.
Apostle and servant
The key to discipleship is the close following of Jesus, but this might not be the primary attraction to priestly life. The key word is service, probably the more spontaneous aspect to the modern aspirant.
But, even in this, we have to be careful not to read into the scriptures a modern set of values. Paul certainly sees himself as a servant, but with an emphasis not on service to others but to Jesus Christ. In the openings to each of his letters he alternates between calling himself an apostle of Jesus and a servant of Jesus showing how he understood the service of his apostolate. Of course, the service that he renders to Jesus involves service to others, but Christ is both the origin and the goal of his apostolic service.
Paul is an apostle because he has been sent by the risen Christ. In the Jewish understanding the one sent represents and carries the sender’s authority and even the presence of the sender.
Paul presents Jesus to humanity, not only through his preaching (‘We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Christ’s sake’ 2 Cor 4:5), but also by his life (‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ Gal 2:20).
Surely the boldest of Paul’s statements is his invitation: ‘Christ Jesus has made me his own – brothers and sisters, be imitators of me’ (Phil 3:12,17).
The goal of all apostolic service is to bring people to Jesus: ‘I have made myself a servant of all to win as many as possible to Christ’ (1 Cor 9:19). The servant of Jesus in Paul’s thinking is a bridge through whom we come to believe (1 Cor 3:5).
From Paul to the priest
Apostolic service has its origin and goal in Jesus Christ. How much service Paul rendered to others in Jesus Christ!
Today, when we speak of priestly service to others, beyond the sacrificial and sacramental spheres, we tend to think of preaching, of counselling, of consoling, of visiting, of social or economic help and even simply of friendship. It is always an interesting question as to how many priests we can call our friends, who combine the human and the holy in a manner that catches something of the Christ they strive to follow.
The priest apostle today
Paul’s dedicated service included all that. He emerges from the pages of the new testament as a warm and concerned figure, working in a team, loved by many, prepared to challenge false thinking, energetic in raising funds for the poor and needy, using the condition of the poor in Jerusalem to bind congregations into an awareness of the larger church in Jesus Christ, deeply distressed by anything that threatened community and angry at those who wanted to retreat into false securities. But his service was still broader and included aspects that we tend not to see in terms of service.
To deepen our reflection on the priesthood in the light of the new testament background there are some thought-provoking and less obvious services that we could reflect on next month, coming from the example of the apostle Paul – the service of ordinary work, the service of collecting money, of prayer, suffering, the service of correction.
The church was built on the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). Whatever their number and identity in the early church, it is they who laid the foundations and built the solid walls within which faith in the risen Christ was first nourished and transmitted.
This task remains central today as any parish can attest.
Reference: Raymond E Brown: Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections.