It is a pleasure, and indeed a great blessing for me, to be with all of you this night as we celebrate this auspicious occasion, marking fifty years of the ministry of the Reverend Protopresbyter John Asimacopoulos.

Fifty years a priest of God! One-half century of ministry! It is almost past reckoning what has taken place during this time. More than two-and-a-half thousand Sunday liturgies. Countless weekday feasts. Hundreds upon hundreds of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And yet the impact of a priest’s ministry is accounted, not in the sheer number of services performed, but rather in the human touch, the profound connection, the pastoral bond that is established in each encounter, whether it be in the church, in the pastor’s office, in parishioner’s homes and businesses, even casual encounters on the street, appointments with grace, as it were, in which you have shown yourself an icon of Christ before the world.

As I consider the meaning and content of the priestly ministry, I am reminded of the Gospel that is read on the feast of a saintly hierarch of the Church, in which our Lord says, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” Indeed, this has always been the definitive mark of priestly ministry: that a person should be willing to sacrifice himself, to lay down his very life on behalf of the flock that God has entrusted to him. Indeed, if we speak of a priest as a spiritual leader or an authoritative figure, we must also hasten to add that the only true exercise of leadership and authority in the church is this: to give up one’s life, to sacrifice oneself after the pattern of Christ’s sacrifice. When Jesus, after the Resurrection, says to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, “Feed my sheep,” entrusting his own pastoral ministry to Peter, the apostles, and their successors in the apostolic ministry, what he is really saying is this: “Be willing to give your life for them, as I also gave my life.”

It is very important to add that when we speak of the people of God, we do not speak of them as a herd directed mindlessly and blindly by their shepherds. We speak rather of the lokika probata, the “reason-endowed sheep” of God’s holy flock, who must be guided with utmost gentleness and respect for their dignity. St. John Chrysostom reminds us that although “shepherds have full power to compel the sheep to submit if they do not accept of their own accord,” this is not the case for the shepherd of souls. Rather, he says, “You cannot treat human beings with the same authority as a shepherd treats the sheep, for the decision to receive treatment does not lie with the one who administers the medicine, but actually with the patient.” Fr. John, throughout your ministry you have exemplified precisely this spirit of gentle and humble service, of leadership through the way of sacrifice, of an authority exercised by laying down your life. You have truly fed Christ’s flock with sincerity and gentleness, and I am certain that it is for this reason that so many have gathered tonight to pay tribute to you.

As I consider the meaning of pastoral ministry, I am reminded of another of our Lord’s sayings, the parable of the Sower. In this parable, Jesus speaks of the seeds that fall into fertile soil and produce a one-hundredfold return. Indeed, the planting of seeds seems to me to be a profound image of priestly ministry. By your labors, your sacrifices, your teaching both by word and by example, your steadfastness in intercessory prayer, and your diligent concern for the people of God entrusted to your pastoral care, you have planted seeds that will continue to grow and bear fruit for generations to come. The lives you have touched will touch other lives in turn; the seeds you have planted will produce even more seeds, becoming a vast harvest of righteousness in the Kingdom of God. Who can measure the impact of one person who has dedicated his life to others? Who can chart the effects of fifty years spent ministering to the sick, visiting the prisoners, caring for the downcast, uplifting the fallen? You have changed and are changing the world through the lives of the people to whom you have ministered.

In Psalm 89, the psalmist cries out, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands-O prosper the work of our hands!” As we consider you ministry over the past 50 years, over 20 of which have been spent right here in San Jose at St. Nicholas Church, we may ask the question, “What are the works of your hands, that we pray the Lord to prosper? What will represent the enduring monument, the true testament of your ministry?” Surely by this we must mean something more than merely the structures that have been built during your tenure, beautiful though they are, including this magnificent community center in which we gather this evening. Although these are an eloquent testimony to your ministry, they are not truly the works of your hands that we pray the Lord to prosper. In time, like all human structures, these too will disappear, torn down, we may hope, to make room for new structures when they cease to be adequate for the needs of the people of God. When we consider what are the works of your hands, I think we must turn to something more enduring, more eternal in nature. If we look out at the faces of those who have come here tonight to honor you, truly I would say, here, here are the works of your hands! Every person who has been baptized, every person who has received the blessing of your hands, every person whose life has been touched by your ministry, every eternal soul that bears the impress of your service-all this is your handiwork. And unlike buildings and programs, this work of your hands will continue to prosper, continue to grow, continue to bear fruit for generations to come.

I must also take a moment to offer a word of thanks and congratulations to Presvytera Maria. If it is true that the priest is called to offer himself of behalf of the people of God, perhaps it may be said that the Presvytera must do so doubly; she offers herself in service to God and the church, yet does so quietly, behind the scenes as it were, often without recognition or acknowledgement. If tonight we celebrate fifty years of Fr. John’s priestly ministry, then we equally celebrate fifty years of your service as a Presvytera, a spiritual mother of the community, and a true example of Christian love and commitment. Presvytera Maria, tonight we honor you not only for sharing your husband with us, but for all you have done in your own right to serve the Lord by his side these past fifty years.

Given our need for good priests, Fr. John, perhaps I may be allowed to dare to offer the following wish: na ta ekatosteseis! Although I speak in jest, we may be allowed to wish that we could have you as a priest for yet another fifty years. And yet I am certain that through the many young men whom you have sent to the seminary, through the many assistant priests you have trained, your presence will continue to be felt in this Metropolis for the next fifty years, and far, far beyond.

Fifty years a priest of God! May God continue to richly bless you, Presvytera Maria, your family, and the entire St. Nicholas community, granting that the seeds you have planted may indeed bear fruit one-hundred fold in his heavenly Kingdom.

Delivered at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, CA