St. Laurence the deacon
Can I ask who likes a good Sunday evening TV series?
I think we have variously enjoyed: The Onedin Line, Morse, The Night Manager, Poldark – of course - and years ago, when we were first married a series called Ballykissangel. Anyone remember it?
Well, over the next two Sundays we have an opportunity to embark on a small mini series of our own and the subject matter is aspects of mission and ministry or mission and evangelism. Today in episode one I would like us to consider the ministry of the deacon, or diaconal ministry; the ministry of the church which Mark is to be ordained into next Saturday. Next Sunday, when we celebrate Peter and Paul, our subject matter will be catholic and apostolic ministry.
I am immensely pleased that our patron, at this church, is Laurence; a true hero of the early church. Laurence was, of course, a deacon. He was never ordained priest, still less bishop. Laurence’s ministry was one of service, looking after what James described as the ‘widows and orphans in their distress.’ As a deacon Laurence would have spent considerable time with the poor and needy, possibly taking the sacrament to them and making sure that their physical needs were being met. Deacons, in this sense, remind us that the line between the sacred and the material is a thin line indeed. The deacon was supposed to be the embodiment of what Tobit describes as ‘righteousness.’
The deacon’s theological remit is to keep the legitimate claims of the poor and marginalised firmly lodged in the church’s consciousness, where this is to be done through their preaching and the way they order their lives. The deacon exists to make sure that the church’s priorities are properly ordered. This is an important task. The deacon exists to remind the church of the very real need that exists outside of her doors.
The liturgical role of the deacon is to ask the people of God – you and me – to go and seek out the marginalised, the abused, the hurting, the neglected and the poor and to then do something. This is why it is the deacon who at the end of the service mandates the congregation to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ What the deacon is imploring us to do, all of us, is to go into a deeply hurting world and be ‘as Christ,’ to those in need. Diaconal ministry isn’t just the responsibility of the deacon, it is instead a shared, collective, communal responsibility, that the deacon always keeps before us. So, there you go Mark!
St. Laurence is of course one of the church’s finest examples of diaconal ministry. Laurence was contemplative, compassionate and courageous (Bishop Steven’s diocesan values). Laurence’s spirituality was a lived spirituality. Laurence, like all good deacons, reminds us that authentic Christianity makes real demands on how we live our lives in the here and now. Laurence, the deacon, reminds us that mission, ministry, evangelism mandates us to do two things: first, to seek ‘to transform the unjust structures of society and to challenge violence of every kind,’ and secondly, ‘to respond to human need by loving service.’ Doing this will take courage, unlike Laurence it will probably not lead to us offering up our very lives, but it will mean risking ridicule, rejection and loss, for the deacon always invites us to become a poorer church.
I have specifically asked the PCC to reflect on what it might mean for us to be a more missional and evangelistic church, a more diaconal church, can I ask the whole church to do likewise?
Mark, on Saturday you are to be ordained deacon. Can I gently suggest that you reflect this week on the life and witness of St. Laurence, and can I ask that in the coming year you keep firmly before us, through word and deed, the importance of authentic diaconal ministry? Amen.
Have you ever been to an event, perhaps a party or major celebration, where something totally unanticipated has taken place, or where a surprise guest has turned up seemingly out of the blue? Of course the so called unanticipated event, or the surprise guest, is mostly entirely planned; part of the grand design.
Pentecost is a bit like this in many ways. Those who were gathered for worship almost certainly thought that they knew how their worship was going to pan out and they knew that they were there to worship God. They also knew something of the Jesus story and had already come to a strong belief that Jesus was the Messiah. They also knew that worshipping Jesus was a huge risk. The early church was not a place for the fainthearted. But despite the risk they were prepared to carry on meeting, singing spiritual songs and praying. The early church was a deeply courageous church. It was also an obedient church, for if you remember, the believers had been told to gather together and wait.
But, what they hadn’t anticipated was that their host, God, had other plans. They hadn’t anticipated that God wanted to refashion this motley bunch of believers into something solid and concrete; the Church. Nor had they anticipated, as they gathered on the day of Pentecost, that God’s plan was that salvation’s song was to be proclaimed to all people, in all places, and for all time. It is probably fair to say that as yet they hadn’t come to a real and full appreciation of the universality of the gospel; God’s plan, that through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit all people should hear for themselves the good news of Jesus Christ.
What must it have been like for that first group of believers to find themselves bound together as the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and speaking spontaneously in foreign tongues? It must have been truly shocking and not a little bit frightening. It must have taken them way out of their comfort zones. It must also have utterly reinforced the notion that the Jesus story is and should be everyone’s story. One of the most important messages of Pentecost is that we should never seek to domesticate our faith, hoarding it and protecting it. We must never seek to put boundaries around God. As we listen afresh to the story of Pentecost we might like to also reflect on the familiar words of the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitus, an anthem that appears right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel where Simeon proclaimed that his eyes had seen the ‘salvation’ which God had ‘prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.’ Pentecost is in some ways the fulfilment of Simeon’s vision.
We must seek always to remain open to God and to his ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal experience is open to us. We mustn’t leave Pentecost stuck in the pages of the bible. Remaining open to the Holy Spirit is, in fact, essential if we are serious about growing in both holiness and in number. In fact I would go further and say that, in the words of the gospel, devoid from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, all we can aspire to be is an ‘orphaned’ church; a church devoid of either inspiration or direction; a church which speaks only in local, domesticated and self-serving terms. On the day of Pentecost, God through the agency of the Holy Spirit, made it clear that He has a far grander, more expansive design, plan and ambition for the Church. The only real question, therefore, is do we?
If we truly desire to see the church growing in holiness and in number, reaching out to all people, in all places, we, like the early Church, will be blessed by the life-giving, life-changing, presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is still alive and active challenging, stretching, unsettling, affirming and glorifying the Church.
Come Holy Spirit, come, Amen.
Easter 7: Acts 16. 16-34 & John 17, 20 -end. Consequences of Prayer
Who likes playing board games? I am not particularly keen but some of my family members love playing board games; whenever I join in my role is to be habitually humiliated! There is a very popular game, I believe, called ‘Consequences.’ Have any of you ever played it? It’s based on the idea that all actions have consequences and, as we know, actions can very often lead to unintended consequences.
In today’s gospel reading we are privileged to witness something very special indeed: Jesus at prayer. Now several things strike me about the quality of Jesus prayer. The first, and perhaps most obvious is Jesus’ sense of intimacy and unity with the Father: ‘As you Father are in me and I am in you.’ We are of course invited into that self-same intimacy and unity. One of the things we might usefully reflect on this week is the quality of our own prayer life. Is it leading us progressively into a relationship characterised by intimacy? The second thing we might notice is that for Jesus prayer has consequences; intended consequences. Jesus’ own prayer is highly intentional, are our prayers intentional?
In the gospel reading the word ‘so’ is repeated four times. It’s almost as though the prayer is structured around a series of propositions, which are then followed by statements of consequence, for example:
‘As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me,’ followed immediately by ‘the glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may, as one as we are one’ and later in the passage with ‘I made your name known to them, and I will make it known so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
The prayer that we are privileged to witness was, of course, the prayer that Jesus made immediately prior to his betrayal and arrest, which makes it truly remarkable. In the hour of his deepest need Jesus' twofold instinct is to assert the quality of his relationship with the Father and, to pray for his apostles.
What we mustn’t to is the make the mistake of believing that this prayer was just for the apostles who had been with Jesus for the last few years, for the prayer begins with the words ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.’ This prayer is, in other words, for us too and all who are members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Jesus' final prayer is a universal prayer; one made for all people, in all places, for all time, and the intended consequences of his prayer are that we should know ourselves to be truly beloved by God and that we should have the confidence to step out in faith and keep on telling, or making ‘known’, the Jesus story.
Jesus' final prayer is deeply relational and inherently missional and evangelistic; it is a prayer made to the Father, which we are expected, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to make real in the here and now, just as Paul and Silas did in the account we have heard from the Acts of the Apostles and, like Paul and Silas, that might mean us having to accept a certain amount of ridicule and abuse for our faith. Jesus, you see, didn’t pray for our comfort, or that we might be universally accepted, acknowledged and affirmed by others.
He prayed instead that we might know and experience the love of God in our inner most being and that as a consequence, through our faith, others may know that Jesus is Lord. Jesus' deepest desire was that the consequence of his prayer should be that his name continues to be made ‘known’ by people like you and me. Jesus, you see, wasn’t interested in the privatisation of faith, but rather the sharing of faith.
At the beginning of this homily I suggested that we might like to reflect on the quality of our prayer life and our relationship with God, a relationship that is built primarily through prayer. This week can I also ask you to reflect on how you are helping to keep telling the Jesus story and making Jesus known to your friends and neighbours?
Let us pray: ‘Loving God draw us this day and every day into an ever deeper and more loving relationship with you. Through the work of your Holy Spirit inspire us to keep telling the Jesus story, so that others may know that you live, in Jesus Holy name we pray, Amen.’
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