Ordination to the Diaconate
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
On June 2, 2012, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA,
We are here today for the joyous occasion of the ordination of deacons. Beyond and underneath that we are here today because we have died and are risen with Jesus Christ the Lord. In him have we found a new life with God and each other, being reconciled to the Father in one body through the cross of Christ.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church there are vestments, epimanikion, which are elaborate cuffs which start at the wrist and run up the arms. The purpose of these cuffs is to show that the hands of the priest or bishop who performs the sacramental rite of the church are not the hands of that person but the hands of Christ. Very shortly the Bishop will be the hands of Christ acting in and through His body the church, as the Lord ordains these three men to be deacons in his one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. In this one body the Holy Spirit pours out gifts for ministry and for the building of the church upon us all. To some is given the calling and gift of ordination.
A sacrament consists of two things: the promise of God and an effectual sign of that promise. When the appropriate and appointed sign is brought together with the proclamation of God’s promise, the God who fulfills his promises is present and active in our midst. In the case of ordination the sign is a person set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands for ordained service in the church. The promise that is being kept is the promise of the Lord that he would not desert us but would be with us always even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20) The vocation of the church is to be the body of Christ, Christ’s hands and feet and speech and touch in the world. The vocation of the clergy is to make Christ present to his people in such a way that the life of Christ is stirred up in them and that they constantly rediscover that they are alive only insofar as they live in Him and He lives in them.
The great Anglican theologian Austin Farrar said in an ordination sermon that the clergy are walking sacraments. The role of the clergy, the life to which they are irrevocably committed is to be effectual signs of Christ working in his church making his people his own and making them potent witnesses of the salvation he has come to bring.
It is tempting to think of ordination in terms drawn from the world around us. Someone studies the law and then passes the bar and therefore enters the legal profession. There comes a moment when they are authorized to practice law. Someone studies medicine and is granted their medical degree, then passes their boards and is therefore authorized to practice medicine. We can think of similar rites of passage in the world of business and in other professions and vocations. In this political season the image of the election is before us and we can be tempted to think of the candidate who is elected and then inaugurated into his or her office. Necessarily there are echoes of all these things in an ordination. The candidates have had to complete a course of study. They have been tried and examined. They will, after their ordination, be inaugurated into a particular office in the church by those with the authority to give them that office. If they go to a parish there may well be an element of election about it.
All this is meet and right. But these things are not the essence of holy orders. The holy orders of the church depend ultimately on the mysterious calling and grace of God. There is no question of anyone having a right to be ordained or deserving to be ordained. God calls the few for the sake of the salvation of the many. And the few that he calls have as their main qualification an understanding that they are nothing in themselves. Their main qualification is that they know themselves to be the recipients of a costly and undeserved forgiveness. I am always a little worried by the call which goes out every now and then to recruit for the church’s service the “best and the brightest”. To the extent that the persons being recruited understood themselves to be “the best and the brightest” would be precisely the extent to which they were disqualified for ordained service. God can use all sorts of people in the ordained ministry including the best and the brightest as long as they understand with St. Paul that they hold the treasure of this ministry in earthen vessels.
This is true of the whole church. We have been called out of the world and have been elected by God to be his witnesses and bring the word of his sacrificial love to all his lost children. We certainly have not been called because we are especially virtuous or especially religious or especially deserving in any way. Before Christ we recognize ourselves as people who have turned away from God, turned on each other, and turned in on ourselves. Before Christ we recognize ourselves as the undeserving enemies of God to whom he has come in the person of his Son and in the face of our hatred and rejection and murder to bring us the love of God. Before Christ we recognize ourselves as those who drive the Son of God out of the world and onto the cross. To recognize these things is to die and at the same time to be put in the place where it is possible to receive the abundant and eternal life that the Savior brings forth from the grave. We have been elected to be recipients of the undeserved love of God that we might be witnesses of this love to a world which is estranged from its creator and to continue the ministry of the Savior to reconcile all people to his Father, and as the old prayer book says, “ to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”
Within the one body of Christ which is an elect and ordained people there are those who are called out and ordained to the holy orders of the church. It is their calling to represent to the whole church in a special way its utter dependence upon the One who is its head. It is their calling to keep alive at the heart of the church the animating image of the Lord as prophet, priest and king, who came not to be served but to serve. The great Orthodox theologian and priest Alexander Schmemann famously said that the reason why a man is ordained a priest is not because some men are more holy than others but so that all men can be recalled to their vocation.
The Bishop is a living reminder to us that we are here because the word of God has come to us through his apostles, through the messengers whom he ordained and sent. The Bishop reminds us by his living witness as an ordained person that the whole body is dependent upon its one head and upon the death and resurrection of its Lord. The one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, loved to explain the mystery of the church by quoting II Corinthians 5:14, “One died for all therefore all died.” And through that death have we been born anew.
When I was ordained a deacon more than 31 years ago on a cold December night, the Bishop when he came to actually perform the ordination removed his cope and put on four sets of vestments. First the tunicle of the laity, then the deacon’s dalmatic, then the chasuble of the priest and then another chasuble representing the high priesthood of the episcopate. The purpose of the moment was to show that the Bishop had in himself the fullness of the apostolic ministry as the one who represents the Lord sending others in his stead. “As the Father has sent me I also send you.” (John 20:21)
According to the guidance of the Holy Spirit over time, the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, have delegated some aspects of their ministry to deacons and priests. Priests share with them in the administration of baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist and the pastoring of the flock of Christ. Deacons are given a special responsibility for the poor, the sick, and the lonely, and assist the bishop and the priests in the preaching of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments. The reason why some people are ordained to the diaconate is not because some people are more holy than others but so that the call to servanthood to the whole church can be kept alive at the heart of the church by an ordained icon of Jesus Christ who came not to be served but to serve. One is called so that many may be called.
Whenever we cast our eyes upon the deacon and especially when the deacon reads the gospel in the Eucharist, we are meant to think of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and saying “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has called me to preach good news to the poor”. (LK 4:18) Whenever we cast our eyes upon the deacon we are meant to see our Lord girding himself with a towel and washing the feet of his disciples on the night in which he is betrayed and given up to death. The deacon is a walking sacrament and a living icon of Christ the servant present in the midst of his people stirring them up to servanthood. Just here there is a temptation and that is to think about the servant Christ apart from his death and resurrection. The concern of Jesus Christ for the poor, his proclamation of liberty, his works of feeding and healing make sense to the world. His cross and resurrection which confound the wisdom of this world and judge the wickedness and sin of the human race and in just that moment open the way of resurrection, salvation and eternal life are nonsense to the world. In the words of St. Paul, the cross of Jesus Christ is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews but to us who are being saved it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor. 1:18)
There is a natural human temptation which is in no way new to have Jesus the prophet of justice and the worker of healing without his cross and resurrection. It is a desire to find righteousness for ourselves by finding righteous victims and having some of that righteousness rub off on us. It is an attempt to escape the judgment of the cross. In the 19th century this was called the religion of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It is a thinned out version of Christianity which reduces the mystery of the crucified and risen Savior to the teaching of a good man who encourages good works. In our own time we can recognize versions of the Christian faith which so focus on the mercy and fellowship of the Lord in Galilee that the cross of Calvary and the miraculous resurrection which follows drops out of sight.
The holy orders of the church are the gift of the crucified risen and ascended Lord to his church. The order of the diaconate is a special form of the presence of Jesus the servant in the midst of his servant people. But it must be always seen that the one who cast out the demons, who healed the sick, who fed the hungry and proclaimed good news to the poor was on his way to die that we might live. The deacon who will authentically carry the charism of the order will be a witness not only to the charitable deeds of Christ but also to his saving death and mighty resurrection. This is only possible as we know ourselves as people who have died and whose life is hid with God in Christ.
It is a vastly important part of our witness to Jesus Christ that the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed and the poor have good news preached to them. But if we do not bring Christ near to them in proclamation and in witness in such a way that they too can be reconciled to the Father in one body through the cross, then in the end we have left them still hungry, starving for the word of God, naked, still clothed in the rags of sin, and without the healing that really matters and compared with which all other healings are temporary, and that is the healing of the rift between the Father and his children which is the only hope for peace for this world and life in the world to come. If we have relieved only their this-worldly needs, we have not shared the good news of the new life with God and with each other which begins now and which the grave cannot hold. The ordained person proclaims this good news in teaching and preaching and in acts of service but also because they themselves have died with Christ and been born anew from above and it is evident as much by who they are as by what they say.
One of the really good things that have happened in the time that I have been ordained has been a growing appreciation for the sacramental sign of the diaconate in the church. A great deal has been done to restore the dignity of the order of deacons in the life of the church. Some have proposed to really go all the way and to give the diaconate its proper significance, the practice of ordaining persons to what is not very happily called the transitional diaconate should be discontinued. I say that “transitional diaconate” is an unhappy phrase because I do not regard my diaconate as a transition. I haven’t transited out of being a deacon. I’m still a deacon. And deep in the heart of my priesthood is buried, in the way that a deep foundation is buried, my ordination as a deacon.
Some argue for what are called per saltum ordinations. That means ordaining somebody in a jump. So those that are destined for ordination as priests would cease to be ordained as deacons. Even more radically that someone could be ordained from the lay order to the episcopate in a jump. I think this would be a mistake. I believe like the Bishop who ordained me that the greater orders contain the lesser ones within them. But the ladder goes up as well as down. I also think that in the upside down logic of the gospel that the lesser order of the diaconate is indispensable to the order of priest and the order of Bishop. The greater orders of priest and bishop contain within them like a beating heart the order of the diaconate. The priesthood and the episcopacy include increased responsibilities and increased authorities. The priest and the bishop do not have the luxury of caring only for the poor, the sick and lonely. They must care for the whole flock. They must carry the icon, not only of Christ the servant but more comprehensively and more clearly the icon of Christ the prophet, priest and king or ruler. But all of these roles if they are to be authentic and adequate to the Lord who bequeaths them to the church through the apostolic ministry, must be rooted and grounded in the spirit of Christ the servant. Priesthood and episcopacy which are not at the same time profoundly diaconal miss the inner secret of their charism.
The great Christian virtue is the virtue of humility. Christ humbled himself that we might be exalted. The authentic Christian minister is the one who has been humbled at the foot of the cross. That humility which leads to joy and gratitude and service is the foundation of the priesthood of all believers and of the special priesthood of the ordained. It is very meet and right that those who are being called ultimately to be priests and pastors should begin by being so clearly ordained to be icons of humble service.
My prayer for you as you come to be ordained is that you will completely surrender your selves to the grace of ordination and be truly and recognizably walking sacraments of Christ, able to stir up the life of Christ in the people you are called to serve. My prayer is that you will so obviously be people who are humbled by the cross of Christ that the death of Christ is at work through you and that you are so overwhelmed by the gratuitous love of Christ that the life of the resurrection is at work through you as well. For we carry about in ourselves the death of Jesus that the life of Jesus might be made known in us as well. (II Cor. 4:10)Amen