16 September 2012
‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your deacon’
Sunday 16 September 2012,
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,
3.30 p.m., The Ordination of Deacons
Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 119: 33-38; Romans 12: 1-12; Mark 10: 35-45.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I have childhood memories of summer games of football and cricket, played not on proper pitches and grounds, but in fields, on streets and on beaches.
Totally disorganised, I know not how the word went out so that we all gathered in the one place. And two boys, how they were selected I know not, picking their teams, one-by-one.
Sometimes, one of these two “captains” might be silly enough to pick his close friend or his brother first. Usually, the best players got picked first, one-by-one, for each side.
And somehow, I think, I always ended up in the middle, slightly smug about the fact that I had been picked, and pitying the ones who were left, still hopping up and down, drawing attention to themselves, pointing at themselves, and shouting louder each time: “Me, me, pick me.”
No-one wanted to be left last. Certainly, no-one wanted to be left out.
Everyone envied the captains and their role. We all wanted to be picked first’; no-one wanted to be last.
And I can just imagine James and John growing up as two boys, always hopping up and down, pointing and pleading, “Me, me, Jesus, pick me first.”
But reality always dawned as soon as those games began. It mattered not whether I was picked first, in the middle or last. It mattered not if I scored highly or batted well individually. It mattered most if I was a good team player. It mattered that I was willing to share my skills, and it helped a long way when I was happy to see others take the glory because it was good for the team.
It matters not whether Edna and Rob are in the first, middle or last group from their student cohort to be ordained deacons this year. It matters only if, as deacons, they are going to be good team players.
Today, the Church gives thanks for the variety of gifts and ministries that God has bestowed, not just on Rob and Edna, but on the whole Church.
Edna and Rob have gifts, and gifts that we have recognised quite clearly in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute over the past few years. And they have wonderful gifts.
But this afternoon, we are not some sort of the Church of Ireland’s Got Talent Show. This afternoon is about acknowledged those gifts, but also acknowledging, as Saint Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading, that “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”
In a year’s time, Rob and Edna, hopefully, will be ordained priests, and while we all share in the priesthood of all believers, they will come to embody that priesthood, so that they represent the people through Christ to God and represent God through Christ to the people.
But this afternoon we should remind ourselves too that the gifts and ministry that Edna and Rob are being ordained to are gifts and ministries that pertain to the whole Church.
At the heart of, the very meaning of, diaconal ministry is service. And the Church is here not for ourselves, and our comfortable existence, but to serve the world, to serve Christ, and to invite the world into the Kingdom of God.
We are reminded in the first few pages of our service sheet this afternoon, in words from the Ordinal, that the Church of Ireland “maintains the historic threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.”
But, while we are good at maintaining the ministry of bishops and priests, I often wonder whether we pay only lip-service to maintaining the ministry of deacons.
Eventually, next year, and hopefully Rob and Edna are going to be ordained priests. There is no guarantee that next year we will have deacons in this diocese. And if we do, there is no guarantee they are going to be here the next year.
Would we miss them?
We see deacons as serving in a one-year transitional ministry, on the pathway to priesthood, perhaps even eventually to the episcopate.
And it is good that those who serve the Church as bishops and priests are reminded on days like this that they were first ordained as deacons and that they remain deacons … that the diaconal ministry, the ministry of service, is at the heart of the ministry of the Church.
In a sermon almost 400 years ago on Whit Sunday 1622, the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes says all three orders of ministry depend on this one ministry of diakonia, through which they truly become a “ministry or service; and that on foot, and through the dust; for so is the nature of the word.”*
But why does it appear that all but a few deacons go on to be priests? After all, all priests do not expect to become bishops – even though I hope to see many of my students becoming bishops during my own lifetime.
But the ministry of deacons has an integrity of its own in the Church, and needs to be recovered to its fullness in the Church of Ireland.
We have been challenged to do this by our partner Churches in the Porvoo Communion, and we will be reminded of that challenge again and again in the coming weeks and months.
At a recent conference in Edinburgh, organised by the Episcopal Church in Scotland, I was surprised to realise that at times there is a fuller theology of diaconal ministry in churches that do not make the claim we make to maintaining the historic threefold ministry.
For example, even if they do not use the same terminology or theological language, there is a distinctive diaconal ministry in both the Methodist Church in Britain and the United Reformed Church.
I am confident Edna and Rob are going to make very good priests, along with all their colleagues being ordained deacon in these weeks. But that does not take away from the need, the obligation, of the Church of Ireland to re-examine with fresh eyes how we understand the diaconate.
We cannot continue having a “one-style-fits-all” approach to ministry. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy … ministry … teaching … exhortation … generosity … [diligent leadership] … compassion … cheerfulness” (see Romans 12: 6-8).
And the word Saint Paul uses here in verse 7 for ministry is διακονία, the ministry of the διάκονος, the one who serves like those who wait on tables, the ministry of those who help meet the needs of and remind us of those who are neglected and needy by either collecting or distributing charity and making sure they are fed.
In a bruised and broken world, the poor and the marginalised and the broken call out in their need to God. And God hears the cry of the poor. This is God’s primal and covenantal response to humanity: God hears the cry of the poor (see Exodus 2: 24-25; 3: 7-8; Isaiah 11: 4; 42: 6-7; 61: 1; Luke 4: 18-19).
But does the Church hear the cry of the poor?
And if we do, how do provide training, commissioning, affirmation and resources for those who feel a calling to be the Church’s serving response to the needs of a bruised and broken world?
Rob and Edna have wearied of being reminded by me that the word liturgy (Λειτουργία) is the work for and of the people. But in its truest sense this is not the work of nice people, good people, people like us, but in its crudest use in Greek the work of the many, the service of riff-raff, even the beggars.
I was reminded in Crete a few weeks ago that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα.
In other words, the liturgy of the Church only becomes a true service when we also serve the oppressed, when we become God’s ears that hear the cry of the poor, and act on that, when through the Church Christ hears that cry of the bruised and broken.
Deacons are to encourage us all, archbishops, bishops, priests, laity, to take stock again. We are challenged by diaconal ministry to move from merely acting out the liturgy to making the church a sacrament, a taste, a sign, a token of the promise of, a thirsting for the Kingdom of God.
And to do this great task, as the ambitious pair, James and John, are reminded in our Gospel reading, we must be deacons first in ministry, servants and slaves. We could translate the Greek original of verse 43 (ἀλλ' ὃς ἂν θέλῃ μέγας γενέσθαι ἐν ὑμῖν, ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος) as: “and whoever wishes to become great among you must be your deacon.”
We all need to be involved in encouraging the Church to explore once again, to rediscover, to reclaim an authentic ministry of διακονία, so that Edna and Rob and those who follow them embody that ministry but do not monopolise it, empower and encourage it, but help us to explore it to its full potentials and possibilities.
To be a great Church we must be a Servant Church, a deacon Church, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [the] many” (Mark 10: 45).
And so, may all we think, say and do be in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
*Lancelot Andrewes, Ninety-six Sermons (Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Oxford: JH Parker, 1841-1854), vol 3, pp 378-401.
Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Ordination of Deacons in Christ Church Cathedral on 16 September 2012.
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