“To build a new world, you must offer God’s grace, God’s love, undeserved and unearned. You must be servants.”
Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-27
We’re gathered here today to celebrate the ordination of five faithful, hard-working Christians to the transitional diaconate. In many ways this service is very much about the ordinands. That is, it’s a sort of matriculation service; the marking of a transition from a time of intensive preparation to a time of what we hope will be a fruitful and satisfying service. For the ordinands and their families, today marks the realization of a long held hope, a deeply felt sense of vocation. We join them in their celebrating this accomplishment and giving thanks to God for God’s gracious care.
In other ways, though, this service isn’t much about the ordinands at all. Rather, it’s about the church, about how the church understands its life, why it calls people to ordained ministry, how it organizes itself so that we, all of us, may proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and to share the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. And it’s this second aspect that I’d like us to consider for a moment.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future of the church. And one of the matters that occupy my attention is what the ordained ministry might look like in the future. Clearly the long cherished norm of a full time resident priest is fading from the scene in many places. It’s being replaced by all sorts of other patterns that attempt to sustain our sacramental life and to preserve the partnership between lay and ordained which is the core of our governance. In some places there are now ministry teams or circuit riding priests. Some think we should go even further, replacing ordained ministry with the ministry of the baptized, including lay presidency of the Eucharist. Ordained ministry is being evaluated, like most things in contemporary life, in terms of its cost effectiveness.
The difficulty with such thinking in my view is that it misses the main point. Ordained ministry isn’t primarily about governance or administration or, even, sacramental life. It’s about apostolic teaching. It’s about conveying the faith once delivered to the saints. Our Anglican tradition places the highest value on well-formed, well-educated people who can teach us the faith.
You may recall from the Book of Acts that as the church grew, the Hellenists complained that the Hebrews were neglecting the Hellenists’ widows. And so the twelve called together the whole community saying, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” Those seven became the first deacons, called to serve the poor in the midst of the community, so that the apostles could devote themselves to teaching. The orders of the church exist so that the people may be taught, may understand, the Word of God.
And what do the orders teach? I’m not asking here what bishops, priests, and deacons teach when they hold a class. I’m asking what the orders themselves teach. And I think it’s this: the bishop, as chief pastor, is the icon of God’s care for the world. The bishop is responsible for caring for the flock, for all the people and all the clergy, and, more importantly, for all the world. The bishop is the chief spokesperson for the church to let the world know that it is beloved of God. The priest is the icon of God’s presence in the midst of the people. In the proclamation of the word, in the breaking of the bread, the priest reminds us that God is always present, always among us, in, with and under us, accomplishing God’s purpose. And the deacon is the icon of Christ’s service, helping us to connect our own empowerment as the body of Christ with the needs of a wounded world. In the deacon’s service we see the call of all Christians to serve the world. The orders of ministry, by their very existence, remind us that we, the baptized, are to embody all these things – the love of God, the presence of God, the service of Christ – in our homes, in our work, in our relationships – wherever we live and move and have our being.
So the church ordains to insure that the apostolic faith continues. Yet such ordination does not thereby elevate the ordained to a superior place in the life of the church – far from it. Ordination is something the baptized do for the health of the body.
Take a look at page 15 in your service booklet. You’ll note that the consecration of deacons begins with the people standing and the ordinands kneeling. So the active participants are the people. You’ll note too that the consecration begins by invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. And following that invocation, there is a long period of silent prayer asking the Spirit of God to descend powerfully on the ordinands. And out of the prayer of the people, the bishop, as the president of the gathering, lays hands on the ordinands. At the end, the people say in a loud voice, “Amen.” The power for ordination, the source of authority for the ordained, is the prayer of the people. The baptized select and empower the ordained so that the whole body may be strengthened in its knowledge of the glory of God.
Today we happen to be ordaining transitional deacons. Transitional deacons are an odd bunch, being neither fully deacons nor yet priests. The ministry of deacons is a full and equal order of the church, and the folks who are ordained today will spend but a short time as deacons and will spend most of that time learning to be priests. But the church in her wisdom decided not to ordain candidates for priesthood directly to priesthood, but to continue to require an experience of diaconate for those who would lead congregations. Some of that decision was undoubtedly rooted in the sentimentality of bishops who remember their own time as deacons fondly. But some of that decision was also rooted in the desire for the leaders of congregations to appreciate the fullness of the ministry to which we are all called – a ministry of love AND SERVICE in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to love Jesus in our heads or in our hearts. We have to love him with our arms as well.
Ultimately, it seems to me, this ordination service isn’t about either the ordinands or the church. It’s about God. Like Baptism, like Holy Eucharist, like God’s mission of reconciliation, it’s about the salvation of the world. It’s about how this community, this Body of Christ, prepares itself to take part in the redemption of the world.
What really matters today is the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. What really matters today is the ethnic violence which is shattering Kyrgyztan and so many nations across the globe. What really matters is plight of refugees and immigrants in every place, even here. What really matters is the endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Palestine. And if this service is not about those things, then nothing we do here today really matters.
What the world needs more than ever, what the world needs to recover from the oil spill, from religious and ethnic warfare, from global greed and recession, from poverty, famine and disaster, is the Word that we are charged in this service to carry. Our problems will not be solved by competition, by favoring one group over another, by pillaging and polluting this green earth for more and more products. Rather our hope is in the proclamation that this is God’s world, that God loves it – all of us and all the creatures, that God is in our midst right now, that God wants us to serve one another. It is this truth by which we commend ourselves. It is this knowledge that is the light we carry in our hearts. It is this Word that we are all called to teach to one another and everyone we meet.
My charge to each of you today, our charge to you as a community of faith, is that you claim the apostolic faith – that you teach it, that you share it, that you call us to it. Help us to remember that God has charged each of us to proclaim God’s love by word and deed wherever we are.
And may all of us who participate in this ordination, may you who are ordained and you who by your prayers call God’s spirit upon them, be deeply aware that it is the salvation of the world that we are all about. Our call is not to preserve the church. Our call is to be the church for the sake of the world – to love the world, to be signs of God’s presence, and to serve one another in the name of Christ. May it be so. Amen.