Sermon: The Ordination of Alex Brown to the Diaconate, Wednesday 4 October 2017
All places are special, all places are holy in their own way, and in the sense that they are created by God, but it is fair to say that some have a more obvious sense of holiness than others. An example might be Lindisfarne, which we also call Holy Island, a little piece of land joined by a causeway to the Northumbrian Coast of England, the place of St Cuthbert that is deeply associated with the beginnings of northern English Christianity. Another example, of course, is the Isle of Man, and to those of you who are visiting the Island, and indeed to those of you who live here, I say again what I said on Saturday: that this is one of the most ancient dioceses of the British Isles, with a tradition that takes us from St Patrick through the astonishing period of the Norse Empire, the time of the Lewis chess pieces, the time of the Kingdom and the Chronicles of Mann, to the modern period and today. And another example is the town and the basilica of Assisi, the home of the saint whom we remember in the Church’s calendar today, the home of St Francis.
Francis died on this day (actually on the evening of the 3rd of October) in the year 1226. If that seems a long time ago, it is worth bearing two things in mind: that as Christians we already live beyond time as well as within it, and that the Church celebrates and commemorates its past as a means of finding inspiration and direction for the future. If we looked to the life of Francis, we would find many things that are utterly vital for our Mission in the world of today. Most of them were reflected in our readings just now. They would include: an absolute desire to be conformed to the likeness of Christ (so much so that towards the end he received the stigmata, the mark of the wounds of Christ); not just a willingness to embrace poverty, but the actual veneration of poverty; an understanding of all creation as being created by God and therefore infinitely precious; a profound commitment of service to the dispossessed and needy and suffering, in whom, as in the latter part of the 25th Chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, he saw the face of Christ; and a love of the Church and the Holy Eucharist as the visible sign of the continuing of God’s work in the world. There is more, but perhaps that might suffice for now. The task of establishing peace between Christians and Muslims was too big even for Francis, but he came closer to it than almost anyone else, and his legacy remained in the continuing devotion of the Franciscan order to the Holy Land. And if you visit the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, you will see all of this reflected. The word ‘Pax’, ‘Peace’, the Franciscan greeting to all people, is visible from above. The basilica itself is on three levels, and although, because of the hill, you enter on the top level, there is greater insight to be gained by beginning at the bottom and ascending upwards. In the crypt is the tomb of St Francis, a place that is very moving in its quiet darkness, as we recall how Francis died, reciting Psalm 142, just in his mid-forties, almost blind, on an earthen floor infested by rats, convinced that his life and mission had been a failure. Above the crypt is the Lower Church, still dark, its many altars reflecting the worship and the continuing devotion of the Church and the faithful people of God. And above the Lower Church is the Upper Church, with the famous frescoes by the artist Giotto, its spacious light-filled beauty reflecting the ultimate destination of the Christian in the radiant glory of God.
Francis was ordained deacon, and he remained a deacon throughout his life. We all do: it cannot be erased, and we remain deacons even if we are ordained to the subsequent ministries of priest or bishop. I am still a deacon, and the same is true of my colleagues who are priests in this diocese. But Francis, for all his love of the eucharist, did not feel called to the priesthood, precisely because the ministry of the deacon is rooted in service. The word means ‘servant’. And if I take that concept, as exemplified in the life and ministry of Francis, and combine it with that portion of scripture which is Acts 6: 1-6, where we read of the early Church commissioning its first deacons to assist with pastoral work (and, as it subsequently turns out, with preaching the Gospel), then I find something very similar to the Pioneer Ministry to which we are ordaining Alex.
Now, by this stage, Alex, you might be getting seriously alarmed. I have held before you the example of St Francis, and then those deacons of the earliest days of the Church, including St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But I offer these to you not as a template, not as a comparison, but as an inspiration, and to make the point that, for all that Pioneer Ministry is a modern name, it is rooted in the Christian tradition. The New Testament does not describe the Church; rather, it imagines it. It gives us the teaching of Jesus as The Way and the Truth and the Life, and the Acts of the Apostles is a description of how that teaching finds its initial outworking. Stephen, and those others who are among the first deacons, are charged at first with pastoral work of the most practical kind: distribution to the needy. But in the case of Stephen and Philip (the only two of whom we subsequently hear), that actually turns into preaching the Gospel. They are to proclaim the word of God by serving others, and that will develop into mission and evangelism in all sorts of ways. In our liturgy of the washing of feet, which follows shortly, we represent that ministry of the humility of service to which the whole Church is called, and we will hear the words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel which tells us to do precisely that. So as a Pioneer Minister, as Town Centre Missioner for Douglas, and as Deacon in the Parish of St George with All Saints, you will have a ministry that is rooted in service to all and, through that service, in directing people to Christ. You have a particular vocation, a particular responsibility, towards young people, who face a world that is often difficult and confusing and even baffling. And you have a vocation, quite simply, to love people, for it is only by loving that we will draw people to Christ. But not only that: as Francis surely understood, to want to draw people to Christ is to love them already. So we pray for you, for you and with you, as you embark upon this sacred ministry: a ministry that must be both pastoral and prophetic, and, if I may return to the point with which I began, a ministry that is deeply worthy of the tradition of this holy place.
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