Friday, October 1, 2021

The Authority of the Servant Christ

September 29, 2021 – The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
The Ordination of a Deacon

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.

It took a hard-fought fight to get us here. God wants us to be here. God has gathered us here together. And, anytime God’s people gather together in God’s name, there is power among them—a holy force of righteousness that radiates throughout the assembly and out into the world. The forces of evil that seek to undermine God’s goodness in the world are always fighting to keep us apart, and God’s angels are fighting back in order to give us safe passage—in order to allow us to come together and receive those edifying, life-giving experiences of God’s grace that we need so very much.

In a plane of existence beyond what we can see—absolutely real yet surprisingly close to us—a spiritual battle is taking place. Angels are protecting God’s people from the demons who want to deceive them, cause them to stumble, and lead them astray. For most of human history, those battles took place up in heaven, where archangels would lead companies of angelic principalities and rulers into war against the forces of darkness. According to the angelology of post-exilic Judaism, upon which the Christian faith is built, whatever happened up in the heavenly realm became manifest here on the earth. If God’s celestial armies beat back the armies of God’s enemies up there, then down here the terrestrial soldiers who fought for God’s people would win their fight against the Assyrians or Egyptians or whomever they were locked in battle against. The affairs of individuals, tribes, and even entire nations were understood to be a reflection of a great unseen spiritual war taking place beyond our sight.

But, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything changed. As we read in Revelation 12, when Jesus won the ultimate victory over evil and death, there was no place left for the ancient serpent and his angels in heaven. The great dragon who had been defeated was thrown down, sent to the earth where he could unleash his wrath. We often think that the Book of Revelation is written about future events that will take place at the end of the world, but most of the strange insights it offers are about life here and now, in that time in between Christ’s victory and the consummation of God’s reign at the end of time. We, the saints of God who live in that in-between time, are beset on all sides by the forces of wickedness, but thanks be to God that St. Michael and all the angels are fighting for us.

In ways we cannot see and cannot know, it took a hard-fought spiritual battle to bring us together tonight. And the victory we claim is nothing less than “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God.” But, because that is our victory, because, as the loud heavenly voice proclaims, we have conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb,” the nature of the fight to which we pledge ourselves requires of us something of inestimable cost. If we are to conqueror with Christ, then we must die with Christ. Our testimony, given with our lips and with our lives, must reveal the cruciform nature of Christ’s victory. If the Lamb has defeated the great Satan by the shedding of his blood, we who follow the Lamb must give our lives as well. That is the only way real victory can be won—by the giving up of ourselves for Christ’s sake. And one of the principal ways that we see that other-worldly, counterintuitive victory-through-death manifest in our lives is in the ministry of deacons. No wonder I don’t like deacons very much.

One of the first things I said to Kathy when I arrived in Fayetteville more than three years ago was how much I don’t like deacons. I said that not to dissuade her from continuing her formation as one called to this sacred ministry but to let her know how hard it would be to see this journey to its end and embrace the strange and challenging ministry that awaited her. People in positions of authority, especially those in the church, whose power reflects the powers of the world—things like wealth, position, access, and voice—are always challenged by deacons. When deacons carry out their “special ministry of servanthood,” serving particularly “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” they inevitably confront those whose power and privilege have widened the gap between the church and the needs of the world. They expose the hypocrisy of Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are not quite willing to follow him as far as he would lead. They remind us that we can only stand victorious with Jesus and all the angels if we, too, lay down our life.

Appropriately, therefore, deacons serve in the church with almost no real authority. They go and work wherever the bishop tells them to. They are not paid for their ministry. While bishops are told to guard the faith and priests are told to take their share in the councils of the church, deacons are told to assist the other clergy. In the liturgy, their most visible roles are to read the gospel and set the table, which the congregation tends to interpret as servant’s work. But that service, as Christ himself has shown us, is impregnated with incredible power. The one whose duty it is to serve is given the responsibility of revealing to us the nature of Christ in our midst. By their words and actions—both within the liturgy and beyond the walls of the church—deacons teach the rest of us that we can only serve Christ when we serve the helpless among us. They say without compunction to those whose ministry begins at the altar that the church is too focused on itself and not enough on the world. And that is a challenging word that all of us need to hear.

All Christians, the ordinal reminds us, are called to follow Jesus by serving God through the power of the Spirit. Deacons remind us that we serve God by serving the least among us in Christ’s name. “Who is greater,” Jesus asks us, “the one at the table or the one who serves?” Of course it is the one at the table, he admits. We all know where the one in charge is to be found. But Christ did not come into the world to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The life he gives to us and the victory over sin and death that he wins for us are not attained through force or through the securing of or protection of power. Christ’s victory for us is won through the cross—through the total and complete emptying of himself for the sake of the world. If we are going to be a part of that victory, we, too, must be emptied, and those who accept the call to serve as deacons help us know how.

Kathy, for many years, you have embraced the holy work of caring for the least among us—those whose needs are overlooked and whose voices are usually ignored. Now, you are accepting the call to bring that work into the very heart of the Christian community not only to invite the church to join in that work but also to challenge us to be shaped by it until we are conformed to the image of the servant Christ. As you may have noticed throughout this arduous process, the church tends to resist that. At diaconal ordinations, we often say that the work of the new deacon is largely a continuation of what has come before, but that is only halfway right. The other half—the ministry of bringing the authority of the servant Christ back into the church—is much more difficult but no less important. And that is why we seek the Holy Spirit and pray that it will come upon you with grace and power to equip you for this work. For when you carry out your ministry, it is not you who will do it but Christ working through you. And, when you help us see that, when you help us recognize how Christ is truly at work among us, you help us follow Jesus.

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