Posted: Sunday 25th October 2020
The authority to serve
Proper 21 Year A 2020
A sermon preached by the Rector on the day after our curate Paul Gurnham’s Ordination as a Deacon. Gospel : Matt 21. 23-32
Through a peculiar, happy or Spirit led co-incidence one of the reflections we read at Morning prayer this week included the words with which I had planned to open this sermon. It is that Scripture is a gift. Scripture is a gift.
Earlier you heard Fr Paul affirm his allegiance to the faith revealed in Holy Scripture. To be ordained he had to accept one of the historic, and defining, documents of the Church of England, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Agreed in 1562, one of the articles states that Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation. No wonder then we can say that holy scripture is ‘a gift’. It’s why at ordination the newly ordained deacon is given a copy of the New Testament and when Paul is ordained priest next year he will be given a Bible; just as I was twenty years ago. Though this caused great amusement to one of my friends who asked “could you not ask the bishop if you could swap it for something else, as you already had one?”.
Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation, it tells us the story of a creator God and his relationship with humankind and his ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ for the hope and salvation of the world. Now why would you want to swap that for something by Richard Dawkins or a box of Ferrero Roche? The best gift in the world. Not that it hasn’t been abused or its message distorted to suit certain political agendas; not that bits of it aren’t a bit tedious or hard to understand, but it still has the power to speak to us and connect us to the magnetic character of Jesus Christ. But this is not just a book about him (as if that weren’t good enough) it’s a book about us, too. We find all life in the pages of scripture and we can recognise ourselves in there too: both in the diverse characters of the stories, and in the questions and comments put to others thousands of years ago that are also addressed to us today.
Two sentences addressed to others leapt out at me from today’s Gospel as being also addressed to us. Let’s remind ourselves of the scene: Jesus has been healing people in the temple and teaching, but the chief priests and the elders rather than rejoice that the blind regain their sight and the lame are walking again ask “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”. Now putting their apparent churlishness to one side, authority is important- if someone in the street tells you to do something isn’t your natural reaction to ask why this person has the right, the authority, to boss you around. One of the issues with the artist Banksy is that he paints on buildings without permission – he may be a clever and valuable artist, but he has no authority to paint on my wall, not without my permission (not that he’s tried to, by the way!). And no matter how much we all may be equal in the sight of God there needs to be some order to the life of the church, it’s why from the very beginning as Scripture attests, there were orders in the church of deacons and presbyters- priests and bishops.
So as Fr Paul, as a regular baptised member of the church, assumes the role of a deacon to serve this community we can ask ‘by whose authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’. To which he can answer: Sarah, by divine permission Lord Bishop of London. Which under normal circumstances many of us would have witnessed at the cathedral yesterday, if its usual two and a half thousand capacity hadn’t been reduced to thirty, to comply with the government’s authority to limit the numbers of people gathering for ‘life events’.
Now we all know how people can get carried away with authority. Give someone a title, a uniform, a badge or a peaked cap with ‘security’ printed on it and suddenly it, quite literally in the case of the cap, goes to their heads.
But this is where scripture is so often a gift. Here is Paul: resplendent in his new white alb, over the crispest, blackest, fresh -from-the-ecclesiastical-outfitters clergy shirt and bright white collar; set apart by the church, with a new title ‘reverend’ , at the start of a new ministry after his gruelling and learned studies at Wescott House in Cambridge and what does scripture say to him and us today?….. “truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”.
I said scripture was a gift.
Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation. We cannot receive it with pride that we’re worthy of it, but rather with humility because we need it. We cannot earn it and no matter how hard we may try we never deserve it, we can only receive it as a gift.
Authority, as I’ve mentioned, can be seductive, but that’s when it is confused with power. The authority to shine as lights in the world which we are all given at baptism, as Ellie was two weeks ago, and to preach and teach as Paul and other deacons were yesterday are not given as power but by permission. And whatever any of us do in church whatever our role, title or position both gives us authority but recognises we are under authority: parish clergy can only function with the permission of the bishop, to whom we are answerable and with whom we are all answerable to God.
The key to understanding this is to be found in our first reading: one of my favourite passages from St Paul. It’s also one of the most challenging of all- not because it’s hard to understand, like some of St Paul, but because it’s overwhelmingly demanding. “let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”…. Just let that phrase sit with you for a moment. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.
The passage goes on to explain the mindset of Christ we are called, baptised or ordained to share:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death- even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name….
That’s what it looks like to be given and to live under authority. It is because of Jesus’ total humility under God that God could then highly exalt him.
Jesus models for us the way to the kingdom of God, to that exalted place beside him and it is through genuine and costly humility: that’s why clergy must wear the trappings of their office both seriously and lightly. They should be a reminder that any authority we have is authority that is given by one whose authority we are under.
The paradox of the gospel is that the first shall be last and the last first. That to become great we must become servants. That even those who gave the right answer to the question Jesus put to them would enter the kingdom of heaven behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
So why become a Christian, let alone an ordained one in full time ministry? It seems from what I’ve been saying that the higher up the ladder you climb, the further you get from the top. Don’t we, in all sorts of ways, want to climb the ladder- not just materially or professionally but spiritually too? Well, the fact is that Jesus identified with those at the bottom of the ladder and those who couldn’t even get a foot on the bottom rung of the metaphorical ladder; and so to know our place, to be at the bottom of the ladder, is to be in the place of Jesus who came not to climb the ladder but to hold the ladder for others. If that’s the position taken by Jesus, if that’s where he is, isn’t that the place we should long to be, to find value, purpose and dignity in? In the place of the one who came to be served but to serve.
The role of servant is fundamental to the role of a deacon, right back to the Acts of the Apostles where the role of the first deacon, Stephen, was one of distributing alms to the widows and the needy. Even today that servant role, after the servant hood of Christ, is characteristic of a deacon who still wears their stole- which is a symbol of authority- diagonally over their shoulder and tied at the hip, just as a Roman slave would have worn his or her towel to wash the feet of those who came to their master’s table. Under authority and with authority to serve.
Today we rejoice that Paul has been made a deacon by one with authority to do so, under the authority of God. We pray for him in this new phase in his life and ministry, which seems like a funny progression from university graduate to Barrister, to theological student to…. servant, at the back of the queue behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
But the Christian way, which is to have the mindset of Christ is not for those looking for prestige or for the faint hearted, for it can end in crucifixion as it did for Christ and stoning as it did for Stephen. But it is the way of Christ, of life in all its fullness, of service to others, the way to the Father, the way of salvation. This is the pattern revealed in scripture- the gift placed in all our hands by one who says “come, follow me… I will be with you”.