Sermon: Sunday 28 June 2015
Ordination of Deacons
The Venerable David Newman, Archdeacon of Loughborough
2 Corinthians 4.1-12; Luke 22.24-30
I was listening to someone on the radio recently who was bemoaning the effect of the internet on pub conversation. Before the advent of smart phones, many a happy hour was spent debating who was the greatest this or that… Who had the fastest serve in men’s tennis, who scored most runs in one day cricket before the end of July, who held the lap record for grand prix at Silverstone, etc. I realise that those are rather male illustrations and perhaps someone will give me the female equivalents. What happens now, continued our disgruntled radio contributer, is that someone looks up the relevant statistic on their smart phone, and the conversation comes to an instant juddering halt. Hours of animated speculation are ruined. So ends a time honoured pastime. And it is time honoured, because it seems that they were doing it in Jesus’ day as well. Jesus discovers his friends arguing about which of them was the greatest disciple. And he too puts a halt to it. ‘You are not to be like that,’ he says. Rather… Well, let’s put it this way. Imagine we were having a discussion about who’s been the greatest Bishop of Leicester.
Bishop Tim – would you mind coming forward? And I need a volunteer too – Jonathan [Kerry, Diocesan Secretary]. You are looking at one of the top bishops. He has been the lead bishop in the House of Lords, he is like that with the queen – there’s a picture of them next door in St Martins House – he’s been on the Archbishop’s Council, he’s often on TV or the radio; he’s led the diocese here for 16 years, a great preacher, diplomat, visionary, pastor; he’s seen church growth, a new centre for administration and outreach, buried a king, travelled the length and breadth of the county encouraging the troops. Jonathan, Jesus would say to you if you want a good model of Christian life and ministry then become like +Tim. Is that right? It might be, but it’s not what Jesus actually said. He said something more like ‘+Tim, if you want a good model of Christian life and ministry, you must become like Jonathan.’ ‘The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one serves. I am among you as one who serves.’ Whatever outward symbols we put on to mark the importance of an office we never cease to be a servant or indeed a child before God.
This is the upside down nature of the kingdom of God, where power is service, vulnerability strength, maturity childlikeness, giving away your life is finding it. These are the paradoxes of Christian ministry, so graphically portrayed by the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Corinthians. Today as you are ordained a deacon, a servant of Christ; even if one day you become a bishop, you will never cease from being a deacon, never graduate beyond service, never lose the most important reality at the heart of our faith, that by the grace of Christ we are children of God. For Jesus himself if there was one strapline for his ministry which is what he hears right at the beginning of it and again just before the end, it is ‘You are my Son whom I love. With you I am well pleased.’ Nurture your child; practise your service before anything else.
For glory, success, and triumph are paradoxical realities in the kingdom of God. Paul begins his reflection on Christian ministry in our reading saying ‘we do not lose heart’. He actually says it twice in this chapter and that suggests to me that it was a real temptation. And as he writes we see why it was so. The gospel which had been so transformative for him, turning his life upside down and inside out, sometimes met incomprehension and indifference from others. It reminds me of the story of the man holding forth at speaker’s corner in Hyde Park. He stood up and poured scorn on Christian faith: ‘People tell me that there is a God above, but I can’t see it; people tell me there is a heaven and a hell, but I can’t see them…’ etc., and after winning some cheap applause he climbed down off his soapbox. Then another man tentatively worked his way through the crowd and up onto the soapbox. He began in similar fashion: ‘People tell me there is blue sky above but I can’t see it; people tell me there is green grass all around but I can’t see it… etc. You see, I’m blind.’ You will encounter many who cannot see the presence of God in life or his relevance to their lives. Sometimes you will be tempted to lose heart or adapt the message or step back from what you believe. Not so for Paul. For he had grasped that he was a servant; a servant of the gospel. As a servant he was called to faithfulness, not necessarily success. Rather he relied on the creative power of God. God is able to perform the miracle of a new creation in the chaos of the human heart just as he originally transformed the primeval chaos. So as servants of the gospel we do not lose heart.
Equally, Paul could have lost heart because the persistence of personal trouble and weakness could seem to call into question the presence of God in his life. We have heard the adjectives he uses about his situation – hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. Furthermore there is every suggestion that Paul’s opponents in Corinth were suggesting that his troubles cast doubts on his leadership. Surely life would look a bit easier if God was really with him. There could be some force to it. Paul though reframes the whole picture. Servants aren’t in it for their own ease and satisfaction, but for the good of those they serve. Death may be at work in us but life is at work in you, he says. We’re not crushed, or in despair, or abandoned or destroyed. Particular grace is revealed in weakness, compassion in the heart of suffering, life in the midst of death.
So in spite of encountering blindness to the gospel Paul continues to be its servant, because God uses his straightforward preaching to open people’s eyes to the wonder and glory of God in Jesus Christ. In spite of personal hardship he continues to serve the churches because God uses his suffering to reveal his power and grace in the lives of others.
These servant roles are vital for the church today. Alan Billings, in his book Making God Possible, suggests two priorities for ordained ministry today – to teach and tell the Christian story, and to be chaplains to the life of the nation. The former he says is vital when the nation is losing its collective memory of the Christian faith, and when unlike our history, the events of our times are not understood from a theological perspective. The latter is about continuing presence, being on other’s territory, paying attention to and caring for their deepest concerns, letting the spiritual questions emerge or not when people are ready. The apostle Paul would not disagree – servants of the gospel, servants of people. Like Paul, Alan Billings concludes.
By God’s grace, you can do it as you take on this servant ministry.
© The Venerable David Newman