A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Aidan Everett Smith to the Sacred Order of Deacons in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Catskill, NY by the Rector, The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, March 28, 2015
We have come here today to witness and participate in the celebration of the sacrament of holy orders.
So what is the sacrament? Sacrament is the Latin word; mysterion, the Greek word. The sacrament is a sign, a holy mystery. It is a sign that really and truly participates in the reality to which it points. And the reality to which it points is Christ. In a sacrament there is a real and true presence of Christ, a sacramental presence. Christ is really and truly present in the mystery of the water baptism, in the bread and the wine, when the man and the woman make promises to each other and to God in the face of the congregation, when a penitent makes a confession and the priest utters the words of Christ’s forgiveness, and there is a real and sacramental presence of Christ in this mystery of holy order.
God is bigger than the sacrament, infinitely more, utterly above and beyond. But in and with and through the sacrament Christ is, as Martin Luther says, havable. In the sacrament we can lay hold of Him. He is present and active to accomplish His purposes – to complete the work the Father has given Him to do, to bring many sons and daughters to glory and perfect all things in Himself and offer them to the Father in the power of the Spirit in a cosmic act of Eucharist.
Christ will be present here today in a unique way through this sacrament of holy order. There are three forms of this sacrament of ordering, of ordination: bishop, priest, and deacon. Today the church is gathered here to receive from Christ Himself, present through the Holy Spirit, working in and through the prayers of the whole church, laying His hands on the ordinand through the hands of the Bishop—a new deacon. There is a unique presence of Christ to the person being ordained. Christ is present granting the grace, power and authority for the ordinand to accomplish the work to which they are being called. Christ is also present in and through the ordinand gifting the church with the gift of holy order. The holy order of the church is today being strengthened and amplified so that the work of Christ may go forward both in the church and in the world. In this ordination it is also clear that a share of the order in the church is being placed in the hands of a new generation.
So what is the gift of Holy Order? In what way is it a participation in Christ and an effectual sign of His presence in and through His Church? All the sacraments are about salvation, about God fixing us, healing us, blessing us, making us whole and holy and not only us but also about God healing and making new the whole creation, the whole cosmos. Doesn’t St. Paul say, in Chapter 8 of Romans that the whole creation is groaning in travail like a woman in childbirth waiting for the appearing of sons of God? God’s purpose in Jesus Christ the Lord is to remake the human race as the first stage of remaking and renewing the whole creation.
In the beginning the Father brought out of nothingness the good creation. He spoke it into existence through a Word of eternal Love–the Word who is the eternal Son of God and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ the Lord. It is the will of God that the whole cosmos should be a harmony of love—such that the whole creation is a song of praise and adoration to the Father, each and every creature rightly related to each and every other creature, all bound together by the Holy Spirit of Love through whom the Father and the Son delight themselves in each other.
At the pinnacle of this creation, at the top of this creation of love God creates the man and the woman. They are to know God’s love and to return it freely and to delight in and care for the good creation and lead creation’s praises to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit.
Out of the chaos of nothingness God has created a cosmos. The cosmos is the ordered creation that has been spoken into existence through the eternal Word of God’s love. The cosmos is a hierarchy, a holy order of love. The creation, the cosmos is itself a sacrament of the Creator. The creation does not contain God. We are not pantheists but the creation does participate in the divine order of God’s love, in God’s holy order, in God’s hierarchy.
Since God’s holy order is a holy order of love, there must be freedom. Where there is freedom there is the possibility of rebellion. The Bible points in a mysterious way to a rebellion that precedes the rebellion of Adam and Eve. A rebellion against God’s loving order has already taken place. The poet Milton imagines that Satan says, “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” and so the hierarchy of God’s love is rejected. The man and the woman reject God’s order and they become profoundly disordered. They have a disordered relationship with God and with each other and with the rest of the creation. The question of salvation is a question of hierarchy, of holy order and how holy order is to be restored.
Hierarchy has become a suspect word in our time. But it is a perfectly good church word. It means literally holy order, hieros arche, holy order. The sacrament we come to celebrate today is the sacrament of hierarchy, of holy order and one of the things that is happening is that someone is being made a member of the hierarchy of the church. The hierarchy of the church exists by God’s providence so that there may be in the church and through the church in the world, a sacramental presence, a real presence of the havable Christ reordering us, recreating us, delivering us from chaos into cosmos and from disorder into holy order.
Here is what is happening in this ordination. The crucified and risen Lord comes to the apostles in the upper room where they are hiding after the crucifixion, appears and shows them his hands and his side. He breathes on them and into them and says, “my Peace – my shalom – I give you.” And what is the shalom of the Lord but the holy order of the Father’s love perfected in the future which the Son has just won for them at the price of the cross– that future as the prophet Isaiah says where there shall be no more disease, no more hurting or killing, where the lion and Lamb will lie down together – where death itself is vanquished, where the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea and where God is all in all. This shalom – this Holy, right ordering Spirit, he breathes into them and then says to them, “as the Father has sent me even so send I you.”
In the sacrament of order the Lord gives the gift of his spirit which makes apostles. He puts forth his crucified and glorified hands in, with and through the hands of the Bishop and gives to the ordinand a share in the apostolic vocation which is to create a people in, with and through whom God will establish his holy order of love. A people completely surrendered and subject to Jesus Christ, living under his hierarchy. A people living under the rule of love and by the law of love and oriented, ordered, taking their bearing, fixing their aim toward the perfection of all things in the love of God himself– Jesus Christ the Lord.
The crucified and risen Lord searches out these frightened and discouraged men utterly sunk in darkness and chaos, and by the gift of his spirit – which is the spirit of the resurrection and which comes at the price of the cross – he re-creates them. He brings them out of chaos and places them in holy order that they might by their life of witness and worship be a sacrament of the new life, the new creation, the new cosmos which he brings up out of the grave– the kingdom which will come on earth as it is in heaven – the kingdom – the holy order of law.
The gathered apostles are a sacrament of the cosmos renewed and re-created in love by the sacrifice the Savior. This community which is born in the encounter with the crucified and risen Lord is a sacrament of Christ himself, victorious over the chaos of sin and evil and death, breathing into the world new life – the holy order of shalom. The church cannot contain Christ. He is too big. But he is really and truly present in the church. He is havable here. He is havable in and through the words of the scripture, and in and through the bread and wine, and in and through the fellowship and service in his name, and he is havable in and through those who are the successors of the apostles who by the power of the Holy Spirit have received the gift of holy order and therefore the vocation to be a sacrament within the church of the crucified and risen Lord breathing his shalom into men and women – restoring them to the holy order for which they were made – so that the church can fulfill itself as the body of Christ – his sacrament in the world of the first fruits of the kingdom of love – the life of the new cosmos – the new creation.
Bishops have the fullness of this gift. Priests and deacons have a share in the bishop’s ministry. They assist him in different ways. The priest is sacramental sign of Christ the priest, the pastor and the teacher. The deacon is an icon and sacramental sign of Christ the servant, who came not to be served but to serve.
The church is a great democracy. It is a great democracy of sinners and a great democracy of the redeemed. The ground at the foot of the cross is flat and before the holiness of the sacrificial love of the Savior, we are all alike lost, all alike saved. In this sense the church is the most egalitarian organization that can be imagined.
But the church is also thoroughly hierarchical. It is an upside down hierarchy where he who would be first of all must be least of all. It is a very strict hierarchy. It is a hierarchy of love and sacrifice.
The Bishop and those who share in his ministry, the priests and the deacons, have by the gift of holy order, authority. They are to be a sacrament of Christ’s rule in his church, of Christ’s very own power and authority. And what might be the character of that authority? It is the character of sacrificial love which bears in itself the gift of new life – a life rightly ordered to God and to our brothers and sisters and to the new order of God’s new creation which is both come and coming.
The clergy must nourish this gift of order by returning again and again to the witness of the Apostles and to the apostolic encounter with the crucified and risen Lord where we know ourselves as sinners redeemed at great cost and as people delivered out of the chaos of a disordered life and into the holy order of God’s love. The clergy must give no other witness than the witness of the Apostles and convey intact their teaching and practice that the prayer which the saviour says over them might come true, “Even as the Father sends me, send I you.”
The clergy will fail, poor and frail human beings are bound to fail. Yet even when they do, in, with and through the sacrament of holy order there is a real presence of Christ in his church showing his people his hands and his side breathing into them new life. After all, the promises of God are irrevocable. Such promises are given in the sacrament of order.
Now Aidan in a few moments this congregation will join the prayers of Angels and archangels bidding the Holy Spirit to come upon you by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands – to the end that you might have the gift, calling and authority to be one of those through whom the crucified and risen Lord is really and truly present to his people – showing them the wounds of his love now glorified by the power of the spirit that he’s breathing into them – the spirit of God’s shalom. You are to be part of the holy order of the church so that the church – the whole people of God – can be the sacrament of Christ’s holy order in the world – so that many people shall be brought out of chaos and death to cosmos and the eternal life of God’s love.
Your seminary degree is well-earned. You have studied diligently. The sacrament of holy order which you are about to receive is unearned and undeserved and is yours by the providence of God and by his absolutely gratuitous mercy. It is a particular form and an intensification of the crucified and risen Lord reaching out to you – showing you the wounds of his love and breathing new life into you, bringing you out of chaos into cosmos and giving you a part, a share in His world changing work. He first did this in your baptism – He renews it in every Eucharist. Here He is touching you in, with, and through the hands of the Bishop, breathing into you His holy order, His shalom – so that your servanthood will take this special form and bear much fruit – so that Jesus Christ may be havable in the world in with and through his people. Christ is here today. The Spirit is here today. Breathe deeply. Amen