Sermon: Ordination of Deacons
Robert Lawrance, Team Rector of Durham North (Team Ministry)
Preached on 28th June 2009
(Ordination of Deacons)
by Robert Lawrance
Enable us, O Father, to respond to the grace of your word with humility of heart and in the spirit of love; that our lives may be conformed more and more to the image of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When people give of themselves, other people come to life.
We gather today for a variety of reasons. Twelve candidates have come to be ordained as deacons. You represent a mixture of social backgrounds and Christian experience and it's been a privilege to have worked closely with ten of you. Matt and Vicki are new to our diocese - welcome to Durham! Some of you will be relieved to be here, others perhaps slightly surprised, and all feeling some degrees of anticipation (both the nervous and excited kind) as you find yourselves at this threshold. Families and friends have come to support you, they are those who have shared all the ups and downs of the journey. Others are perhaps more mystified and curious to know what this will be like. More distant acquaintances and work colleagues are also here, some of whom (I guess) will be feeling pretty neutral about the Christian faith and its claims, but nonetheless are delighted at your achievement. And then there are many other companions in the Body of Christ here - people from the churches from which you have come, and from the churches to which you will be sent. For most of you the latter group are yet strangers, but I trust that they will be a readymade community of friends who will seek to embrace you as you continue the exploration of your calling as ordained people. I can't resist singling out Liz, who as an Ordained Local Minister is returning to serve in the parishes of Durham North Team from which she comes - you will have the added task of establishing a new ministerial identity amongst us - welcome back! And of course there are a lot of ordained people here, companions in your vocational exploration, past and future colleagues, representatives of the hierarchy of our diocese, the chapter of this Cathedral and all those who have to be here because it is their job to do so - musicians, vergers, stewards and bedesmen. And some of you will be here by accident, visitors, pilgrims and tourists passing through... you are especially welcome. It is important to recognise the variety of people who gather here today, first because it reminds us of the very different expectations that we bring with us, but also because I am very taken with the observation by Rosalind Brown, a canon of this cathedral, who identifies the Deacon as the person at the threshold of the church - someone who welcomes people into church on a Sunday morning, and therefore needing to be sensitive to the diversity of souls in diverse states of life who come to our churches. This role as doorkeeper also reminds us that as deacons you embody the threshold between the church and the world. You are ordained to be men and women who will work in the community making Christ known.
Your ordination is a sacrament - an outer sign of an inner grace - I shall say more about grace in a moment, but for now the rest of us have come to witness your ordination, which means you are being ‘put in order'. Deacons form one of three orders in the church, along with Priests and Bishops. It sounds (and to some extent looks and feels) like a hierarchy, but this event is not a prize giving or a passing out parade, nor even the first step on the ladder; rather it is an act of submission, an offering, a self-giving which is recognised by us all in the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the commission to proclaim the gospel. It is an event which celebrates that God has so freely given of himself that we might live as people who can freely give of ourselves. And when people give of themselves, other people come to life. The word in the language of the New Testament for this kind of giving is charis, which is often translated as grace - therefore I want to propose that this service is a transaction of grace.
Now, transaction sounds like a deal, a contract, money being exchanged. We live in a society where money shapes our lives. We worry about money - the love of it is "a root of all kinds of evil" says scripture (I Tim 6:10), and yet (in the words of the principal of my theological college) "money is the sacrament of seriousness". They do say that you put your money where your mouth is (is that why our parishes struggle with finances?). Certainly we fret about the value of our investments, negative equity, the viability of pensions, and - if we have a thought for them - those whose daily scrabble is for living on a dollar a day. Money matters, and St Paul, in our second reading, writes to the Corinthians concerning charitable giving. He uses the language of human economics as a way of talking about the divine economy which turns human ways of living on its head: "for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). The word for ‘generous act' is that word charis - grace - which was also used earlier in the chapter to describe the generosity of the Corinthians in their charitable giving. But this language of poverty and riches is not just money in the bank, it's also about spiritual capital, the true worth of human life - "the one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little" (2 Cor 8:15). The abundance of life is available for all who have grasped that is in giving of yourself that you receive from God the fullness of life planted in you at your conception.
This is the transaction of grace, that where people give of themselves, other people come to life. It is represented supremely in the person and character of Jesus Christ, witnessed by Jairus the synagogue leader and his family and ourselves as we listened to that story in St Mark's Gospel. The daughter of a Jewish leader, 12 years old and on the threshold of her adult life, is cut down and (we are told by the crowd) dead. Jesus enters into this scene with characteristic low profile, sending people out of the room, coy about his power to subvert nature, and then ministering the child with gentle life-bearing words and then practical help - "give her something to eat". Here is the miracle, the remarkable life affirming activity of God who gives value to human life by giving up his divine nature and thereby transforming it. As the Wisdom of Solomon tells us, we were not created for death, and the good news of the Gospel is the power of life over death. This is a compelling truth in a world which seems (for example) bent on a long and protracted suicide through pollution. Some of us attended a meeting with the Climate Change Minister Ed Milliband here in Durham on Friday, and the question came up, how can we get whole populations to change the way they live in order to preserve the future? How are we to admit the possibility of hope in lives which are caught up in death? How can ways of living that corrode and destroy us be transformed? Reminders are never far away - let me give you a banal example. On motorways you know those stark statements on computerised light-boards: "Speed kills" - scary stuff, but true enough: certain ways of living lead to destruction. In France, a nation where philosophy is compulsory in schools and not RE, signs over the motorway translate as "is speed worth more than life?" Thus sensitised to the philosophy of computerised statements I noticed when I paid at the ticket machine in the Prince Bishops car park recently that "Change is possible"! It's a good message in a world that longs to hear about the audacity of hope: change is possible, doors can be walked through, thresholds can be crossed.
Which brings us back to deacons, keepers of the door through which we pass between the world and the church, the hospitallers, the ministers of the generosity of God, that transaction of grace in which we can all share. The bishop has already told us that deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known, after the pattern of Christ. He will soon tell us that "they proclaim the gospel as agents of God's purposes and love, serving the community in which they are set.... searching out the poor and the weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be visible." I am reminded of my namesake Lawrence, deacon in Rome, who in a time of persecution under the Emperor Valerian in 258 was asked to give up the treasures of the church. He spent three days distributing the jewels and money that he was responsible for (I guess he was an ‘arch' deacon...) and then he brought the sick and the poor, the crippled and the blind to the emperor. He was martyred for his pains... but he is an archetype of Christian love and it is this bias to the poor and the willingness to give of oneself which must shape our relationship with the world. That commission is not just for those ordained as deacons, for inasmuch that ordained people represent the ministry of the whole church; this is something we all share, after the example of Jesus: when we give of ourselves, other people come to life.
As we walk out of this building, whatever the diversity of thoughts, hopes and fears that we brought with us, whatever questions and concerns have been brought to this service, let us be aware that we are all at the threshold between the church and the world, and that wherever we find ourselves in the days, months and years to come the dialogue between faith and doubt, fear and trust, life and death, is constantly happening around us. With these deacons we all have it in us to be agents of God's gift of himself to us. As ambassadors of His kingdom of love we bear witness to the life bearing effect of self-giving, and as we witness the self-offering of these twelve people let us pray for them - and for us all - as we participate in this awesome transaction of grace and all that might flow from it...
....and so to God be the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, who with the Father and the Spirit is ever to be worshipped and adored through all the ages, world without end. Amen