Monday, July 4, 2011

Deacons, Priests and Ministers

A sermon for the Welcoming of Tony Forrest: Assistant Curate
3rd July 2011 - the Feast of St Thomas

John 20. 24-29

Back in 1983, the movie world was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. He was by that time decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense. It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

It was certainly something that Thomas the Apostle said.  "I will never believe that Jesus has risen from the dead...not until I put my finger in the holes made by the nails in his hands and in his side".  I imagine that he felt rather embarrassed when Jesus turned up in front of him and said, effectively, "Here you are then!  Stick your fingers here....and here".  Thomas, of course, didn't do what he had said he would do, with such bravado. Instead, he fell to his knees and uttered one of the most complete, yet pithy, statements about Jesus in the whole of the Bible:  "My Lord and My God".

Thomas is, of course, known as 'Doubting Thomas'...and yet, I'm not sure that we are being very fair to the poor man.  Just a few verses earlier in John's Gospel we read that the rest of the Disciples were just as unsure about what had happened to Jesus.  Mary Magdelene's first response to finding the empty tomb is to run back to the Disciples and tell them that someone had taken away Jesus' body.  Peter and John doubt what she has told them...and they run to the tomb to see for themselves.  Then, even after Mary has met the risen Lord, (having first mistaken him for the gardener) the Disciples don't seem very keen to believe her.  That same evening, they are locked away behind closed doors, afraid, unsure...all except Thomas who was evidently not with them at that point.  It takes an appearance of Jesus among them for them to finally 'rejoice'. (Jn20.20).  As with Thomas, a little later, Jesus shows them his wounds, and then, the text tells us, "the Disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord"

Thomas, then, was not the only doubter.  He was just the last one to have the opportunity of having his doubts dealt with by Jesus.  The story is, then, not so much about Thomas' doubt, but about Jesus' revelation of himself.  It is Jesus who graciously reveals himself to Thomas, and the other disciples.  It is Jesus who initiates and substantiates their faith.  Faith, as St Paul taught us, is a gift from is something that God himself gives us, not something we manufacture for ourselves.

The Story of Thomas points us to Jesus - who is, in the words of the Writer to the Hebrews "the author and perfecter of our faith". (Heb12.2).  It is God, through Jesus who created the world.  It is God, through His Spirit who Sustains our very existence.  It is God, through Jesus who continually redeems our lives and our world.  Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega....the A and the Z....the beginning and the end.  We are all capable of being doubters...just like the Disciples, who doubted, and denied and even betrayed their Lord.  But God is the Source...the Divine Spark...the energy which sustains us in all we do, all we believe.  It is God, in Jesus, who calls us to live for him; to give ourselves willingly and with faith to our "Lord and our God" - whatever our doubts.

Today, is a very special day for us, here in North End.  Over the last few months, God has been at work among us in some very special ways. He has been going before us, as he went before the Israelites in the desert.  He has been loving us, and serving us, even when we have doubted, like Thomas.  After many changes in staffing over the last year, God has been putting the pieces in place for a new Ministry Team to arise.  This time last year, our Ministry Team had been reduced quite substantially.  After Ruth, then  Di, and then Bev moved on to new pastures, we were left with only one full-time Priest...yours truly...supported only by the fantastic efforts of Margaret Freeman, dear Fr. Joseph - when he could spare the time from his studies, and our two ordinands, Kim and Damon.  For a while, we wondered what God was doing among us.  For a while, I found myself trying, ineffectively, to manage all three churches.

So we prayed.  We prayed for God to send us new Priests - new workers for the vineyard.  And just look how he responded!

First, Linda joined us - tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence that God was calling her to this parish, and to this ministry.  Then Jeff Harvey walked through our doors, wondering whether God might be calling him too.  He was....and Jeff has since been an absolute rock on which we have begun to build our pastoral ministry.  Two weeks ago we welcomed Fr Charles as our new Team Vicar - a new, full-time minister, called by Jesus to be a Shepherd to the people of St Nicholas, and to the whole parish.  Along the way, God has called others too.  I'm not going to embarrass folks by naming them...but we've seen God leading people to cross the threshold of our churches into all sorts of new and exciting ministries.  We've seen others who have returned to our churches after periods of being elsewhere in their lives.  We've seen existing church members taking up new ministries and new tasks...while others have continued faithfully in the calling God has already given them.  In the last year we've had six confirmations, a new Musical Director at St Mark's, new members of the PCC and DCCs, a new Parish Warden, and new volunteers in the Community Cafe.  We've appointed a new verger at St Mark's and we've grown yet another ordinand, in the shape of Barbara O'Sullivan.

God is truly going before us...leading us as individuals, and as a parish, into all sorts of exciting new ventures...despite our doubts, despite our human failings, God is at work.

And I believe God is at work today.  For today we welcome a new minister into our midst.  Not just a new minister for the team, but a new minister full stop.  Tony has been ordained as a Deacon for less than 24 hours - and they don't come much newer than that!  In a few moments, I'm going to invite Tony to read us the legal declarations which he must make on taking up his appointment.  But before that, I thought is might be helpful to make sure we all understand what a deacon is!

Let's start with what a deacon is not!  A deacon is not a sort of 'baby priest' - or a priest in waiting....although there is something of that in Tony's situation, because we fully expect that he will be ordained as a priest in a year's time.  But actually, being a deacon, is at the heart of what it means to be a minister in the church today.  And its worth remembering that no priest ever stops being a deacon.  Even a Bishop is still a deacon...something that Bishop Christopher demonstrated very powerfully yesterday by washing the feet of the all the new deacons.

The word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or 'messenger'.  The first deacons were appointed by the Apostles, who found that during the early days of the church, when everyone was eating together, they were spending too much time in waiting at tables, and in general administration...they were neglecting their primary call to be the theologians, leaders and teachers of their community.

So a deacon is a servant....and in serving, the deacon represents the service to which every Christian is called.  In many ways, all of us in this parish have diaconal ministries.  We all serve one another, and the world around us, in many different ways.  Working in the cafe, cleaning and maintaining buildings, sitting on committees, singing, visiting the sick, serving at the Altar, teaching at Sunday School, administering the papers and finances of the parish...all of these are diaconal roles.  But Tony, and Linda, and Charles, and Margaret and I, have all been called to represent that diaconal role in  particular way.  We are called to model it as a way of life to which all Christians are called.  So when you see one of us with a hand down a U-bend, or lugging tables, or painting a wall, or making the coffee, or filling out the endless paperwork of the Anglican Church!...we're being deacons - called to a ministry of service, just like everyone here.

But as ordained deacons, we are also 'set aside' by the church for some particular ministries.  We have been given rather expensive training for particular specialist tasks...especially the tasks of preaching and teaching and  leading worship. Ordained Deacons are 'set apart' from some of the day to day servant-tasks of all the people - because communities need leaders, and teachers, and experts in that all that is said and done in our worship can be of the highest standard possible.  Ordained deacons also have a particular role in the worship of the church.  Deacons come from the people. They speak on behalf of the people, and to the people...calling the whole congregation to confession,  calling them to share peace, calling them to declare their faith, and encouraging them to go out at the end of the Mass to love and serve the Lord.

I hope that helps a bit - to understand something of what all of us up here in the fancy clothes are attempting to do with our lives as we respond to the call of God.  It's something we desperately need your prayers please pray for us, and especially for Tony, as he takes up this vital task.  Pray too for Linda and Jennifer, as they get used to seeing Tony in a clerical collar - and as they make the transition from East Meon to Portsmouth!

Tony's collar, by the way, like mine, is a important symbol.  It resembles the collar of a slave....a ring of steel round the neck.  It's a collar which is meant to remind all of us deacons that we are called to be servants of the servants of God.  You are the servants of God...that is your calling...but we are called to be your servants!  It's pretty mind-blowing, really!  We serve you by offering you leadership and teaching...teaching which we pray will be transformational for us all!

In a year, we pray that Tony will be made a priest, as well.  You'll be glad to know that I'm not going to explain the difference - or rather the additional calling - which being a priest adds to that of a deacon.  We'll cover that next year!

Now, before I ask Tony to read his declaration to the church, which will mark his formal acceptance by us as our new Assistant Curate, I'm going to offer Tony three symbols of the particular ministry he is called to exercise - as we all are.  I'm going to invite him to accept these symbols, and then to lay them upon the altar, as a sign of offering these ministries to God.

First a Bible:  Teach us, Tony, from these pages.  This book contains all that is necessary for us to obtain the salvation of our souls...and we don't know it well enough.  Teach us...for we need to know what it contains.

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

Secondly:  A Chalice.  Tony, you are called to serve this parish through worship.  During your ministry, you will administer the Holy Communion of Christ to the people of this parish whom you will hold in your heart through prayer.  In worship you will both call and lead the people to repentance, to faith, and to action for Christ.  

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

Finally:  An apron:  Tony, along with every member of the Body of Christ you are called to a ministry of service to other Christians, and to the wider world.  You are called to exemplify that ministry, so that we may all be challenged and encouraged by your example - learning from you the power of serving Christ in one another, and loving as he loves us.

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

{Tony then reads his Declaration to the Congregation, and is welcomed into the Ministry Team}

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