A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Holy Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy (Wednesday, February 15, 2012).
What does it mean to be an Apostle?
What kind of person is an Apostle?
Being pious Orthodox we hold Apostles in high esteem. They are writers of gospels, and epistles. Their proclamation has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the universe. Their icons adorn the walls of the sanctuary. Apostles are important, and famous, and holy. And when people are regarded as important and famous and holy, we have a tendency to regard them as distant and exotic. Like famous artists or historical figures, like Bach and Beethoven, or Michelangelo, or Abraham Lincoln.
And at some level it is safer this way. Isn’t it?
If the apostles are unusual and extraordinary, then we really can’t be like them, which sort of lets us off the hook. Because being an apostle is hard work. An apostle does not get to sit around. Apostle means the one who is “sent out” If you are an apostle, Christ entrusts you with His teaching, he seals you with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he sends you out to preach the good news, in season and out of season, to any and all people, using whatever means available, so that some might be saved. Now that’s not an easy job description, not to mention many of the apostles suffered great persecution and died as martyrs. So it is perhaps rather comforting to say to ourselves,
“I try to be a good Christian, but I’m no apostle.”
But if the apostles are exotic and distant, then the Christ who they preached becomes exotic and distant. If the apostles’ work and ministry is something remote and inaccessible, then Christ who sent them becomes remote and inaccessible. Yet we know that that is not who Christ is. He is the Son of God, who took flesh and became man, he died a painful humiliating death on the Cross, he endured three days in the tomb, and he was raised from the dead. Christ did all of that, so that we might be reconciled to God, so that we might be united to God, so that in Christ we might never, ever be alone.
So what does it mean to be an apostle?
Who were the apostles?
We know that the apostle Paul violently persecuted the Church in his younger days. And Christ chose him to be an apostle. Today we hear about the Apostle Peter who famously denied Jesus three times, publicly abandoning Christ in his darkest hour, swearing that he did not know Jesus. Yet Christ forgave Peter, and sent him out as an apostle.
Today we celebrate the life of Onesimus, one of the Seventy Apostles. Onesimus was a slave in Phrygia, which is in modern day Turkey. At some point Onesimus did something to offend his master and fearing severe punishment, he fled to Rome but ended up in prison. In the Roman Empire, runaway slaves were dealt with extremely harshly. But in Rome, Onesimus met St. Paul who was also in prison. I suppose we could say that Onesimus was something of a captive audience, but in the course of their relationship Onesimus was baptized. St. Paul then wrote a letter to Onesimus’ master Philemon and in the gentlest terms, St. Paul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus in a spirit of Christian love, not as a runaway slave, but as a brother in Christ. This letter became part of the New Testament. It is said that Philemon not only received Onesimus in love, but sent him out to serve the in the Apostolic work of St. Paul and the others.
So what does it take to be an apostle?
An apostle can be a persecutor, a betrayer, and even a runaway slave. But ultimately, an apostle is a man, or a woman (we can’t forget Nina the enlightener of Georgia and equal to the apostles). An apostle is a man or woman who hears God’s call and goes to serve specific people. Christ never sends apostles to places; He sends them to serve people. Of course, in a formal sense, there are the 12 and the 70.
But in a real sense we are all apostles.
We have all heard the teaching of Christ, we have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and now Christ sends us out to do his work.
Where is he sending you?
It could be to a remote international mission field, or an old dying parish in New England, or a mission in the southwest. But none of us are going there today. Today Christ is sending us to our workplace, or to the classroom, or to our home, or to the hospital, or to the CVS, or to the grocery store. And in all of those places we will meet people with hopes and dreams and fears, and Christ sends us to them.
Today, like St. Onesimus, be an apostle to the people you meet. Bring them the love, and mercy and joy of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be an apostle, and it is a vocation for all of us.
Fr. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Associate Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of Field Education.