Ordination to the Diaconate

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

 

 

 

 


 

Mission and the Unity of the Church

Mission and the Unity of the Church

By

The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

 

“Mission” is often proposed as a source of unity for our divided church. I put “mission” in quotation marks because it is a word that is used as though everyone knows what it means. In the vernacular of The Episcopal Church, mission, with very rare exceptions, means something the church does in the community to address problems of human need. A soup kitchen is mission. A homeless shelter is mission. Advocacy on behalf of migrant workers is mission. The millennium development goals adopted by the United Nations are put forward as banners of mission around which the church can unite both in the United States and across the Anglican Communion.

 

There is a tremendous amount of theology that is being finessed here and the use of the term “mission” by leaders in The Episcopal Church in this way is equivocal at best and its use with traditional Christians who are likely to understand mission in terms of bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ appears at times willfully misleading. It is quite correct that the church is called to serve the world and especially the needs of the poor, the sick and the oppressed. A church which never backed up its proclamation with practical acts of love would be a contradiction and a countersign to the Gospel. (“Gospel” is another word that is used with great finesse and equivocation as though everyone knows what it means.) But our good works, no matter how noble and how helpful, can never be the center of unity in the church and they can never be the center of unity for a badly divided human race. New divisions are bound to come about the right objectives and the right means, about who distributes the goods and who is entitled to receive them, about which missions are the most important ones, about who is shouldering their fair share in the work of mission and who is riding on the shoulders of others. For the entirety of my more than thirty years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church “mission” in this sense of good works, and with the subtext of “deeds not creeds,” has been the central organizing principle and it has ushered in a period of deep division and a diminishing ability to come together to address a needy world. This center has not held, and will not hold.

 

The human race is rent with division. As we enter the 21st century the divisions of race and clan and tribe are more murderous and threatening than ever before. These divisions are entirely capable of defeating any effort at development that the concerted effort of the nations of the world might make, not to mention the efforts of a mainline American church which has been in a decades-long decline.

 

The human race is divided because of sin, an enthrallment to evil, a fundamental break with God made from the human side which cannot be repaired from the human side. Unity and reconciliation are not something that can be produced by any human program of development. Unity and reconciliation are created by the costly and sacrificial work of God. The break between God and the human race must be solved from God’s side and this is what he has done in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Proclaiming and witnessing the new life with God and the new life with each other that is possible in Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. Of course it includes acts of love but it is not a program of development. It is an invitation to come to the one place of possible unity for both the church and the world, the level ground at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ where faith grasps the costly mercy of God and the new light of the resurrection begins to dawn and true charity begins to flow. To try to speak of “mission” and “reconciliation” apart from God’s saving deed in the cross of Christ is to sever the consequences from the cause and to vainly fabricate a source of unity apart from the one God has actually provided. So much popular preaching and teaching in the Episcopal Church now emphasizes the ministry of Galilee at the expense of the teaching of the cross and the resurrection. You cannot have the inclusive table fellowship of Galilee without embracing the sacrifice on Calvary. A church that cannot confidently call its own, no less the unbelieving world, to rally to the One who is the way, the truth and the life, is doomed to fruitless divisions and has no hope, no new reality to offer a world that is perishing from division.

 

To proclaim Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” does not mean that there is no truth or beauty in the world’s great religions and philosophies. It does not mean that we can confidently assign all believers in other creeds to certain damnation, though we can offer them no assurance of salvation apart from the One to whom we have been elected witnesses. It does mean that the church proclaims to the world, in word and deed, and by a life in which men and women of different tribes and races are actually reconciled with each other because they are reconciled with God by the sacrifice of the saviour, that there is an actual dependable point of reconciliation, with God and each other, made not by our hands but by the outstretched hands of the saviour upon the cross. The unity and future of the church and the human race, here and hereafter is vouchsafed in this one saving deed of God. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” John 12:32.

My 9/11 Memories

My 9/11 Memories

I was the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut when the planes slammed into the towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. It was an extraordinary day, blue sky, bright sun, perfect Fall weather. I was chairing an early morning board meeting for the local pastoral counseling center. I didn’t have a cell phone but some of the other clergy on the board did. When the first call came in we thought it was a light plane that had crashed into the first tower and it wasn’t clear that it was an attack. As the calls kept coming the horror became clear.

I returned to the church which was normally kept open during daylight hours and sat in the sanctuary and prayed. At one point a woman pastor associated with the local council of churches came in and asked if I would go with a group of clergy to the Swiss Bank. The Swiss Bank had at that time the largest trading floor in the world located in Stamford and they were sending out a call for help from the local clergy because they had lost so many colleagues in the World Trade Center. I decided that I needed to stay at the church at least until our scheduled noonday prayers. We did have a larger than normal attendance for noon prayers, perhaps ten people mostly from the parish. I read the Great Litany. Later in the day when my associate was available to be present in the church, I did go down to Swiss Bank and was given an office where I saw people who wanted to speak with a counselor.

On the Friday after 9/11 President Bush put out a request that people attend church at noon on that day. Our staff quickly put together a service. There was standing room only. Most of the people were from surrounding office buildings. We had never seen them before, and saw only a few of them after. Great Litany again, hymns including America the Beautiful and the National Anthem. I gave a very brief homily on the way in which the events of 9/11 had revealed both the evil and the goodness of which the human heart is capable and of the way in which God’s strategy for dealing with hatred and evil is the love of Jesus on the cross.

It seems to me that only shortly after 9/11 I responded to a call from Episcopal Church headquarters for volunteer chaplains for Ground Zero. In the course of the anniversary celebrations I checked my calendar and it was October 9, almost a month after. I reported to 815 2nd Ave in the city at 12:30 pm to the office of the Suffragan for the Armed Forces and received a very simple badge as a credential. I still have it. It has no picture or even my name but says simply that the bearer is on the staff of the Episcopal Church Center and gives a telephone number to call to verify the identity of the bearer. After receiving my credential I reported to St. Paul’s Chapel and was paired with another priest and was told to simply walk around the site and offer encouragement to the police, fireman and rescue workers. There were several security checks on the way into the site. At one point after we were inside the perimeter of the site we were stopped by a National Guard Air Force colonel. He looked at our badges and said come with me. I thought he was going to throw us out but he took us to a plywood shack. After disappearing into a back room he came out with two hard hats and two respirators and said, “God Bless you for being here, be safe.”

The pile was still smoking and we were told that there were fires burning deep underground. It was absolute devastation and destruction. They had been working on the site for a month and you couldn’t tell it by looking. The eerie white dust still covered everything and there was an unforgettable smell which was clearly a mix of burning plastic and human flesh. Wherever I go as a priest in clericals there are always some people who are glad to see you and some who are diffident and cool. I met no one at ground zero who was not visibly relieved to see the clergy. You could tell the Roman Catholics, they asked for a blessing. Virtually everyone wanted to talk and many asked for prayer. Often the talk was just chit chat, just a craving for a reassuring conversation and human contact. At other times people asked the big questions, “What did it all mean?”

I was surprised by what I didn’t meet. I didn’t meet a lot of anger. The overwhelming mood was sober and somber. To be there was to be stunned into near speechlessness by the enormity of what human beings are capable of both for good and ill.

I remember one very burly and muscular construction worker who was sitting on a five gallon bucket waiting for the huge front end loaders that were working to come and be greased. As we came into sight he looked up at us with a look that simply broke my heart. I can only describe it as an agony of soul that was completely visible in his visage. We stopped and prayed.

The protocol was that if human remains were found a chaplain would be requested to come up on the pile and pray and stand vigil while the body parts were being recovered. Twice in that shift we were waved up on the pile only to be waved off because it was a false alarm. I did see one body bag draped in a flag being removed from another part of the pile. At one point I was waiting with a group of New York City policemen while it was being determined if I should go up on the pile. One of the young policemen, a man with a stutter, turned to me and stuttered out, “You are a man of God, is this, is this, is this, the end of the world?” I said that the Bible word for the end of the world is apocalypse and that I didn’t think this was the apocalypse. I explained that apocalypse means the curtain goes up and you see who is who and what is what. This I did not think was the apocalypse, the final end but I did think it was an apocalyptic moment, a moment when we see how things really are, a moment when good is revealed as good and evil as evil and when it is clear that we cannot stand against evil either in hearts or the world around us without the saviour.

It took about two hours to walk around the perimeter of the site and at the end of a round we would go back to the chapel. The chapel was full of rescue workers taking a break. Most of the pews had people sleeping on them. There were pews roped off where massage therapists or crisis counselors or podiatrists or first aid workers were helping the exhausted volunteer fire and rescue and construction workers get ready to go back to their work. There was an appropriate hush in the chapel and there would be regular services of prayer at the altar. The majority of the chaplains at that time were Episcopal priests. It was the Episcopal Church’s finest hour in many ways, and I was proud of my church and felt privileged to have been there and been a witness for a brief moment.

Nearly a month later I led a clergy retreat for the Diocese of Albany. I remember getting ready to start my talk and looking down at my feet. Though I had cleaned my shoes when I came back from Ground Zero there was still some of that eerie white dust clinging to them.

There is a great deal of evil in the world. Many events in even contemporary history are more horrific than what happened in New York on September 11, 2001. But this was the closest I had gotten to the black nothingness of evil. This was where it touched me in an unforgettable way. I arrived at Ground Zero already convinced that the cross of Jesus Christ was the hope of the world and left, how to say it, taken beyond conviction, to a place where any thought that there was any other possible antidote to the venom of the serpent that had bitten us than the crucified and risen Lord breathing his life into us, was made impossible.

Leander S. Harding, 9/12/2011

Anchored in Hope

Anchored in Hope

A Sermon Preached in Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, Maine, on July 17, 2011

By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

 

I was sitting in the chapel this week saying my prayers and working on my sermon when counselors and children from the program at the Kennebunk Beach Improvement Association across the street came by to see the flowers and plants in the memorial garden. I invited them into the church and they had many questions. I was asked to explain some of the things we have here. Two things I explained were the anchor emblazoned on the front of the altar and the Christus Rex above the altar—the crucified and risen Lord, our high priest and king who reigns over the world he has saved.

 

    The anchor is a symbol of one of the three supernatural Christian virtues, faith, hope and love. Typically the cross is the symbol for faith; a heart, sometimes on fire, is the symbol for love; and the anchor is the symbol of hope. Amidst the storms of life, we do not lose hope. Our hope is anchored in the Lord both here and hereafter.

 

    Hope requires belief in promises and belief in promises requires belief in a story that is true. For the promise is that the story will end well and the Christian conviction is that we know the end of the story and at the end His Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Sin and evil and death have their time, appear at times to have the upper hand, but they are doomed. We are living in the middle of the story, in the middle of the suffering that St. Paul talks about in today’s reading from Romans. It is a suffering that comes not only from living in a world where we must deal with the consequences of sin, not only the sin and wickedness of other people, but our own sin and wickedness, and also the mystery of evil which is super-personal, that which the Bible calls the evil one and the enemy of our souls. We suffer from the consequences of evil but we also suffer from our longing for what should be and what we know on the basis of our Bible- formed hope will be.

 

    The promise of the Bible is that both we and the heavens and the earth will be made new. Death, both physical death and the spiritual death which is our alienation and our hostility with God and with each other and with God’s good creations will be overcome. Death will have no more dominion over us. It will be a new humanity in a new heaven and new earth. Like the saviour and through Him by His living in us and our living in Him we will have resurrection bodies—a mystery which St. Paul talks about in the First Letter to the Corinthians. It means at least this, bodies able to perfectly express love for God and for each other and all that God has made. The earth as beautiful as it is will be new. Death and violence and cancer will no longer be natural. It will be a new Eden and we will be at home and caught up in wonder, love and praise.

 

    In the Gospel today there is a parable of the final judgment. It is part of the Christian story and part of the good news of the Gospel that there is a final judgment. There is evil in the world and evil in us — we are living in the time of redemption — the time for God’s saving and sacrificial love to do its work. Evil will not be tolerated forever. It will be finally and completely rooted out in the final judgment.

 

    The good news is that, to borrow a phrase from another parable, the judge is our friend and has given Himself to be judged in our place. He is not only the judge, he is also our mediator and advocate. As St. John says, “If any man sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and He is the satisfaction for our sins and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.” It is our advocate, mediator and friend who is the unseen Lord of all and who comes to establish His rule on earth as in heaven.

 

    This is in very brief outline is the Christian Story—the true story of the world—the true story of God’s dealings with his creatures. It is a story full of promises and hope. It is promised that sins will be forgiven, that evil will be conquered, that hearts and minds and wills and relationships will be remade. It is even promised that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation, and creation itself longs for this day.

 

    We believe the story and the promises because they have been revealed to us. The author of the play Himself has appeared on stage to tell us the true meaning of the drama in which we find ourselves. We believe the promises and therefore live in hope also because we have received what St. Paul calls in Greek, an arabon. It is a commercial term and it means earnest money, a down payment, a first installment of the promises of God.

 

    This down payment is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Last week I talked about how in the New Testament it is not body and spirit that are opposites but flesh and spirit. Flesh is the entire human person, body and spirit, in rebellion, turned away from God. Spirit is the entire human person turned toward God in repentance, worship and obedience by the sacrificial love of the saviour. When we turn to Christ and lay hold by faith of the costly love and mercy that He extends to us, He gives us His Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of freedom, a spirit to assist us to overcome the sin which pulls us down. The Holy Spirit is not a spirit of fear but of adoption, a spirit that lets us join with Jesus in His prayer and say, “Our Father.” The Holy Spirit bears witness that we are children of God and heirs with Jesus Christ of all the promises of God. In this world where the wheat and weeds grow together we have the first fruits of the life of the world to come—God’s down payment testimony of the things to come.

 

    There is a pre-eminent place where we experience the first fruits of the Spirit who brings in God’s future and that is in the Holy Eucharist. Here we meet the crucified and risen Lord who reigns over us as our King and welcomes us to the one and same feast of the Kingdom which is coming, who pronounces our sins forgiven, who shows us His hands and His side and breathes into us His peace and His life, as He did to the Apostles in that upper room after the resurrection. Here bread and wine and the things of this world are transfigured in the light of the world to come. Here at least for a moment at peace with God and each other, worshiping God in the beauty of holiness, lost in wonder, awe and praise, things are very nearly as they should and will be. It is the currency of heaven, the true tender and a real installment if not the final settling of accounts. We can come away with faith renewed in the promises of God anchored in the hope of the Gospel.

 

    Now to bet on this story—to live on it and into it as the one thing needful in life is very counter-cultural. To borrow a phrase from the theologian Robert Jenson, we live in a world that has lost its story. For a long time our culture has attempted to have a story without an author. Having lost the author you finally lose the story and without the possibility of a true story, a plot that gives meaning to life, promises become impossible and so we should not be surprised at the trust that is broken on every side.

 

    The hopelessness and despair into which our culture has fallen as it has become overwhelmed by skepticism and disbelief is brilliantly captured in the play by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot.” The play consists of the dialogue between two characters. The whole point of the play is that nothing happens, there is no story and no plot and therefore no hope. There are just pitiful, absurd characters who mistakenly think that anything could actually happen.

 

    Dear brothers and sisters, let us not live as though we were characters in a play without a plot. We know better than this. For to us has been revealed the story of God’s dealing with His creatures and to us has been revealed the promises of God and to us has been given the first fruits of the Spirit. Let us not live according to the flesh, turned away from God, but according to the spirit which has been given to us at such great price. Let us live as children of the victorious King who has conquered on our behalf, who reigns in love, whose promises are true and who will come to judge the living and the dead, and of His Kingdom there will be no end. Amen.

 

    

Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

This is an article that I published in the recent Trinity Journal devoted to the work of Lesslie Newbigin. This copy of the journal has three previously unpublished lectures by Newbigin. Copies of the Trinity Journal and subscriptions can be had by contacting the Trinity School for Ministry Bookstore.

 

Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

By Leander S. Harding

 

 

Lesslie Newbigin is one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century. Newbigin is well known and highly regarded for his analysis of pluralism and secularism and for his creative representation of the Gospel in the face of the challenge of modernity and post-modernity. He is less well known today for his missionary and ecumenical writing. He was especially passionate about the cause of church unity as would befit the Reformed pastor who goes on to be one of the organizers and first bishops of the united Church of South India.

For Newbigin church unity and mission were simply two sides of the same coin. Christ had come to reconcile human beings to each other by reconciling them to the Father. This the savior has done at the cost of the cross. The death and resurrection of the Lord were for Newbigin the unique and actual place where true reconciliation was to be found. The church was to be a community of reconciliation, a place where people heretofore estranged by race, clan, caste and class could actually experience the new way of human being won by the cross of Christ, a place where the Spirit of the risen Lord was triumphant over the divisions of sin. For Newbigin a divided church was a countersign of the Gospel, especially in those missionary contexts like India where Christians were a tiny minority. There is therefore as Newbigin said repeatedly, the closest possible connection between the unity of the church and the mission of the church. In his exquisite and compact ecclesiology, The Household of God, he said that our contentment with the divisions of the church was due to the simple fact that we did not believe that the church of God was what the New Testament taught that it was: the indivisible body of Christ.

Newbigin was one of the original figures in the World Council of Churches and labored for many years in both the missionary and faith and order departments and was personally responsible for integrating the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches. Sadly, he lived to see the missionary emphasis of the Council diluted to the vanishing point in the work of the WCC.

A decisive turning point in the history of the WCC was the election of Konrad Raiser to the post of General Secretary in 1992. The original vision of the WCC was the visible unity of the churches for the sake of unified mission. The strategy was a balanced emphasis on faith and order leading to the visible unity of the churches and a life and work emphasis leading to a common witness of the churches in the social realm. Raiser led a shift in the emphasis of the WCC from an ecumenism of visible unity to an ecumenism of dialogue as an end in itself. The point of dialogue was no longer unity in the body of Christ but solidarity in the project of transforming society for justice and peace. This has been a disastrous turn for the WCC that has led to the organization’s growing and now almost complete irrelevance to the life of the churches, especially in the global South.

Raiser wrote an apologia for his vision, Ecumenism in Transition: A Paradigm Shift for the Ecumenical Movement?. Newbigin wrote a trenchant review with the title, “Ecumenical Amnesia” published in the January edition of The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1994. The review can be easily accessed at Newbigin.net. Reading the review seventeen years on is an eerie experience in prophecy come true. In this short article, Newbigin brings a lifetime of ecumenical thinking and leadership to bear on what is clearly to him a very misguided vision that will squander decades of ecumenical advance and missionary fruitfulness. Since Raiser’s vision is fundamentally the vision which has become dominant in the mainline churches such as The Episcopal Church and since the decline and fracturing of these churches parallels the story of the decline and fracturing of the World Council of Churches, it is well worth rereading Newbigin’s lucid commentary. I will give a few highlights here in the hope that readers will be drawn to the original article.

Raiser critiqued what he called the “Christocentric universalism” of the founding vision of the WCC. Willem Vister’t Hooft, one of the early leaders of the WCC, wrote a work with the title, The Lordship of Christ over the Church and the World.” The title symbolized for Raiser everything that was wrong with the old ecumenical paradigm. For Newbigin the title symbolized everything that was necessary. As a replacement for Christocentric universalism Raiser proposed an approach which he called “Trinitarian Conciliarity.” Raiser’s emphasis was on God’s will of justice and peace for the human race and the movement of the Spirit in the human struggle for liberation and freedom. The Spirit was also manifest in the sharing of life and experience in the quest for justice. Though called a Trinitarian approach Raiser’s new ecumenical theology in practice prioritized the first and third persons of the Trinity at the expense of the second. It was a move away from a Christocentric theology toward a more theocentric and to coin a word pnuemacentric theology. The emphasis on a generic theism that is Deism revisited with a theology of the Spirit that is hard to distinguish from the Zeitgeist is sadly familiar to those of us who have lived through the theological fads in the mainline churches at the tail end of the twentieth century.

Newbigin had himself asked for a more robust Trinitarian theology of mission. But in opposition to Raiser he cautioned, “But a Trinitarian perspective can be only an enlargement and development of a Christo-centric one and not an alternative set over against it, for the doctrine of the Trinity is the theological articulation of what it means to say that Jesus is the unique Word of God incarnate in world history.”

Another Raiser theme that is familiar to veterans of theological conflict in the mainline churches is the double move of an emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist that is oddly paired with a de-emphasis on the centrality of Christ in the doctrine of salvation. Of this move in Raiser Newbigin says:

At the heart of the church’s life is the Eucharist, as Raiser constantly and rightly insists. But what does it mean to share in the Eucharist? It is the memorial of Christ’s passion and his action in making me a participant in that passion so that I may be a participant in his victory? Surely the heart and mind of the one who receives the body and blood of Christ is overwhelmed by the sense of absolute obligation to Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) That overwhelming obligation to the one who gave himself for the sin of the world is surely at the heart of the being of the church. Raiser speaks often of the incarnation but not about the atonement. I miss this deep sense of that absolute sovereignty over my heart that Jesus has won, which makes it intolerable that I should be unable to share the Eucharist with everyone for whom Christ died. That is how I understand “Christo-centric universalism.”

 

Newbigin affirmed the need for a fully Trinitarian theology and agreed with Raiser that the Spirit that Jesus promised to his church is not the private property of the church and is sovereign to “range far beyond what the church knows and does—yet always proving to be the Spirit of the Father by leading men and women to acknowledge the Son. . . there can be no true understanding of Christian unity that fails to have at its center the mercy seat, that place where—at inconceivable cost—our sins have been forgiven and we are able to meet one another as forgiven sinners who must embrace one another because we have been embraced by the divine compassion in Jesus Christ.”

For Raiser the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968 was a positive turning point in the life of the WCC which signaled “the expansion of the ecumenical perspective universally to all humanity.” Included in this turn was a turn away from faith and order work toward inter-religious dialogue understood according to pluralist and relativist principles and toward a prioritizing of the themes of social justice understood along Neo-Marxist lines at the expense of evangelization. Faith and order and life and work, the missions of evangelism and development become decoupled at Uppsala under the pressure of an ascendant secularism. Newbigin remembers the assembly with sadness, “the most painful experience of that assembly was the struggle of the section on mission to overcome the almost implacable resistance of the drafting group to include any reference whatever to the duty of the church to bring the Gospel to those who had not heard it.” This is the place where Newbigin identifies the ecumenical amnesia of Raiser’s approach. Newbigin recounts the history of the ecumenical movement as in the first place a movement for global evangelization. The watchword of 1910 Edinburgh conference that started it all was, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” It was Newbigin says, “a vision for all of humanity, or it was nothing. But this vital formative factor in the birth and rise of the ecumenical movement is wholly absent from Raiser’s vision.”

Instead of a vision of the world coming under the Lordship of Christ through the mission of the church Raiser held out a vision of solidarity with “men and women struggling to become what they were intended to be in the purpose of God.” Newbigin was critical of the substitution of solidarity for love. ” ‘Solidarity’ suggests a too naïve acceptance of all human struggle as being directed toward the will of God.” This romanticizing of all human struggle is a familiar theme in the pet projects of the mainline churches. One remembers the special fund of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in the late 1960s, some of which found its way into the coffers of the Black Panthers. Of all this Newbigin says:

But this whole vision is too much shaped by the ideology of 1960s with its faith in the secular, and in human power to solve problems. The thesis is heavily marked by a model not explicitly referred to but tending to dominate the WCC from Uppsala onward, a model that interprets all situations in terms of the oppressor and the oppressed and that tends to interpret the struggles of the oppressed as the instrument of redemption. This model owed not a little to Marxist thought, and the collapse of Marxism as a world power has created a new situation with which the WCC has to come to terms.

It is one of the most pressing tasks for the immediate future to rediscover a doctrine of redemption that sees the cross not as the banner of the oppressed against the oppressor but as the action of God that brings both judgment and redemption for all who will accept it, yet does not subvert the proper struggle for the measure of justice that is possible in a world of sinful human beings.

For Newbigin only a Christ-centered universalism that insisted on the Lordship of Christ over both the church and the world could challenge and reveal the unfaithfulness of all denominational divisions and at the same time the accommodation of the churches to the political status quo. In Raiser’s vision the evangelistic calling of the church had dropped out of sight, crowded off the agenda by an emphasis on dialogue as a way of life rather than as a path to truth and the conversion of the churches to visible unity, and by an emphasis on development conceived along almost exclusively secular lines. This Newbigin called an act of ecumenical amnesia that revealed, “the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the book.” For, “No one shaped by the experience of Asian and African religions could have written this.” And “the profound experience of the missionary movement over the past two or three centuries is ignored.”

Newbigin closes his review by noting that there are elements of truth in the vision of the 1960s that need to be captured and that he is not content with everything done under the name of evangelical. Nevertheless, “it is a very important fact that these bodies are the ones that are growing and showing increasing breadth of vision in their approach to the whole range of contemporary human problems, while the bodies that hold the doctrinal position represented in this book are largely in decline.” Then comes the final prophetic word in the piece. “A body that ceases to be concerned about communicating its faith to others is on the way to death. It would be heart-breaking if the WCC should in truth become, what some already claim to see in it, only the organ of those parts of the Christian church that are in decline.” And it is heart-breaking indeed.

The theology that became dominant in the WCC under Raiser’s leadership was a theology that was overawed by secular pluralism and relativism and embarrassed by the scandal of the Christian claim that world’s reconciliation is in Jesus Christ, the Lord. It was a theology that moved away from the centrality of Christ and toward deistic notions of God and toward a theology of the Spirit that described the Spirit leading people into new political movements and inter-religious spiritualities. The Spirit has a large job description in this theology. The only role the Spirit appears not to have is the role of leading people to confess Christ as Lord of both the church and the world. As this theology gained power over the imagination of the leaders of the WCC the organization became less and less credible as a place of actual reconciliation and ironically one of the least imaginative and effective agents of human development.

The lesson seems clear to me. If we cherish the unity of the church and the reconciliation of the human race, if we genuinely cherish the peace and justice of the world, we must put the cross of Christ and the mission of evangelization back at the center of the church’s faith and order and life and work.