AMDG: Sermon at the Ordination to the Diaconate of Pamela Morgan, in Little Rock, Arkansas: 22nd February 2001.
Let me begin by saying how honoured I am to be with you on this wonderful occasion, and how grateful I am to Pamela for inviting me to share with you all as she commits herself to this new stage in her life and ministry.
Since this is an occasion of commitment, I should like, if I may, to reflect with you for a few moments on that very subject: on Christian commitment – both what it is, and what it is not. Part of my reason for this is that we seem to be hearing a great deal these days from a certain style of preacher about the need for Christian commitment, and church’s lack of it. Indeed, sometimes I wonder what it all means. To judge by some of this preaching, it almost seems that I’m to understand there are two sorts of Christians – ordinary Christians and committed Christians, and we need to make sure we’re the right sort.
But how are we to know we’re the right sort? Will it be evident from the set of our jaws, or the slightly glazed look in our eyes? What is the difference between ordinary Christians and committed Christians?
Now there is one level, of course, on which the question can be answered very simply. If we mean that there’s a difference between committed Christians and people who merely play at religion – who, for example, toy with the possibility of joining the church without ever actually getting baptised or confirmed, or who like on some occasions to enjoy what people used to call “the consolations” of religion yet jeer at religion when with they’re with their sophisticated atheist friends, or else reject the authority of religion when its demands inconvenience them – if, in other words, if we mean that committed Christians can’t be people who try simultaneously to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds – why then, I think we must agree. What’s more, I think we must say that people who do try to live in such a way are playing a very dangerous game indeed, with themselves if with no one else. And one day, in some way, the dangers will very likely catch up with them. But surely all that is so self-evident as to be hardly worth saying? Surely the preachers who call for “committed” Christians must be saying something slightly less obvious than that?
Yes, I think they are. I think what they are actually doing is offering a subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) criticism of the church simply for being what it is: a company of sinners – redeemed sinners, of course, but sinners nonetheless. I seldom hear such preachers quoting Luther – that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator – “at once justified and a sinner” – and I often hear them quoting (it must be confessed, somewhat out of context) what John the Seer said about the church in Laodicea being “lukewarm, neither cold nor hot,” and then applying it to the rather feeble, run-of-the-mill church as we ourselves know it – and needless to say, that means the Episcopal church in particular. “This church, too, is lukewarm,” they say. “It is, after all, so full of hypocrites. So full of people who don’t live up to their profession! So full of squabbles even about what Christian profession means, or how to live!” You know the sort of thing, and doubtless you’ve heard it a thousand times, as I have. Sometimes they will even say, “What we need is a spot of persecution. That would soon sort out the real Christians, the committed Christians, from the others.”
There is a sense, of course, in which all that they say is completely true, and has been true from the twelve disciples onwards, every one of whom betrayed Jesus and fled, when the chips were down; and who were squabbling among themselves about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus from the very beginning. Read Mark ten, thirty-five to forty-five, or the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, or the Letters of Paul to the Galatians or the Corinthians, if you don’t believe me.
What is not true, however, is the conclusion that some of these preachers want us to draw from all this, which is, first, that “committed” Christians ought therefore to go off and form some nobler, holier, more truly committed group than such an average, run-of-the-mill church as ours; and second, that what is demanded from us if we are to be “committed” Christians is a commitment to Christ that is perfect, irrevocable, and complete.
To all that I have a response of my own, which is that both those conclusions involve monstrous self-deception.
First – what is this group to be like, that will have ideals so much nobler than that of the run of the mill church? I am reminded of the young man in the gospels who came full of vision to Jesus, asking what he should do to find salvation. Simply, kindly, Jesus reminded him of the commandments, which, of course, everyone knew. “Oh, that old stuff! How boring! I’ve done all those since I was so high!” said the young man – and Jesus looking on him loved him. And what else can you do with someone who has the gall to claim that he’s mastered all the commandments except love him?
So then, what of this ordinary, run-of-the-mill Episcopal Church to which we all belong? What does it offer, and to what end? It offers the Word of Jesus to our hearts and it offers the Body and Blood of Jesus to our mouths, to the end that we may go and be Jesus among the people with whom we find ourselves. Quite simple, really – and will anyone who has managed it please see me after the service. If you have managed all that, then we can talk about finer, nobler, holier groups to which you might choose to belong.
What then of the second claim – that what we need is real commitment, a commitment from which we will never go back, never deviate?
I reply, quite simply, that for us, all of us, such a commitment is impossible, and to imagine we had made it would therefore simply be a piece of self-deception.
Why is it impossible? It is impossible because you cannot cross a bridge before you have reached it and you cannot fight a battle before your enemy has taken the field.
You promise chastity, and you mean it. Good. But you have not by making that promise dealt with the temptation you will face when you and some other real person fall mutually and truly in love, yet for some good reason cannot marry.
You promise honesty, and you mean it. Good. But you have not by making that promise dealt with the temptation that you will have when you have the opportunity to make some extra money that, to tell the truth, you could really do with, but by a means that will involve something just slightly underhand.
You promise fidelity to Christ, and you mean it. Good. But that will spare you none of the actual fear and doubt that will come to you if someone holds a gun to your head and says, “Deny Christ or die!”
The fact is, we cannot commit ourselves totally and irrevocably to God merely by intending to do it or wanting to do it or saying that we will do it. Trusting God is something that has to be learned. And so long as we do not understand that, so long as we imagine that we can of our own will and strength be faithful to God, so long we show that we are not actually trusting God at all, we are simply trusting ourselves. We will not learn what dependence on God is except through having our self-dependence, our trust in ourselves, regularly, slowly, and painfully, broken. That is Christian orthodoxy, Catholic and Protestant, and any who do not understand it understand little about themselves and less about the gospel of Jesus Christ. True confession of failure, honestly and bravely made, whether silently in the depths of the heart or at formal confession in the presence of a priest – that is the mark of one who truly trusts in God. Our requests for penance, advice, and absolution – those are the real signs that we have given up relying upon ourselves. Those whose hearts are broken by the knowledge of their sins and the wonder of God’s forgiveness – those who are the ones who are committed Christians, and those are the ones whom Christ claims as his own. Think again of the twelve disciples. Every one of them failed Jesus when the chips were down. Yet Jesus used those twelve disciples anyway, as chosen instruments in the founding of his church.
So commitment to Christ is a very strange thing – for the fact is, we, sinners that we are, learn what such commitment means not by succeeding in it but by trying it and failing in it and then turning back to God anyway. Every failure that brings us to ask pardon of God brings us back to our Baptism, wherein we were committed to Christ in the light of Christ’s death, and so our Baptism points us to Calvary. The real truth about commitment to Christ is that we could not even begin to seek it were not that God in Christ is already committed to us and is seeking us, as a lamb slain for our sakes from before the foundation of the world.
So – what are we to say of this ordinary, run-of-the-mill Episcopal Church, so full of redeemed sinners, that is ours? Does it really know nothing of commitment? If you think that,then look a little closer. What, for example, of the present occasion? Tonight there stands before us and before God Pamela, a modest, gentle, wise woman, who is committing herself in a very special and public sense. Just listen to the particular commitments she is about to make, as the Prayer Book describes them.
She promises to be “faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of Holy Scripture,” she promises to “look for Christ in all others, being ready to help and serve those in need,” she promises “in all things” to seek “not her own glory but the glory of Christ.” And I dare say I know her well enough to know that she means those promises and intends to keep them, from the bottom of her heart.
Now if the order and discipline of Catholic Christianity means anything at all to you, if you have ever found yourself helped by the ministry of an ordained person, either in public worship or in private counsel, then you will know how useful it is for the church that God gives some, like Pam, to undertake these promises and this office.
But of the special commitments she makes tonight the same thing is true as we have already said of all Christians’ more general commitments: she will not be able fully to sustain them. When Saint Paul spoke of the apostolic ministry, he asked rhetorically, “Who is sufficient for these things?” And the answer he meant us to hear is obvious: “No one!” Paul was certainly well aware that he was not sufficient.
So it will be that Pam will never, after today, hear or read those promises in the Ordination Service without feeling a measure of guilt and failure. She will live for the rest of her life with the ever-increasing knowledge of chances to love and to be obedient that have gone forever.
What does this mean?
Does it mean that she ought not to make such commitments? Of course it doesn’t mean that! We’ve already said – we learn commitment to Christ by making it and failing in it and picking ourselves up and going back to Christ and trying again anyway – again, and again, and again.
So, what does it mean?
It means, first, that those of us who call ourselves “the church,” Pam’s fellow Christians, must be gentle with her, as we expect God to be gentle with us. Just because she has bravely undertaken these public commitments, do not demand of her that she always feel confident, faithful, bright, and loving. Do not require that she always be both happy and useful. Remember that she is still like you: struggling to be faithful, yet sometimes forgetting; trying to be obedient, yet not always knowing why, or even in what direction obedience lies. Remember that she like you is sometimes lonely and frightened and sad.
Secondly, it means thatwe who call ourselves Pam’s fellow Christians must try to minister to her and to nourish her with the same gospel with which she is undertaking to nourish us: for Christian ministry is not to be one way. As Saint Paul said, it is only by bearing each other’s burdens that we fulfil the Law, the Torah, of Christ. And here, suddenly, is the joy: for to minister to Pam from the gospel will be to remind her that in the last analysis the ministry she attempts is not hers at all, but Christ’s. It will be to remind her that it is, by God’s grace, Christ who is the good shepherd, and not she; and that Christ is her shepherd as much as yours. It will be to remind her that while of course we want her to take her commitments seriously, still she is not to take them too seriously or more seriously than the love of God. The fact is, God knows very well that our best commitments are mostly impossible for us for the moment. But God does not ask of us the impossible. Did we think for God’s sake that God expected us to be successful? No.It is the world, the flesh, and the devil – and, I might add, some schismatically minded preachers – who demand success. God only asks that we try to be faithful.
As for you, Pam, what all this means for you quite simple. You must say your prayers, try to be a useful and loving sort of deacon – and later, please God, a useful and loving sort of priest – and always try to admit (at least to God) when you’ve blown it. If you will just do those three things, you’ll be quite all right, and so will those round you. For Christ is the beautiful shepherd, and Christ will finally take the most bumbling efforts of us most incompetent sheepdogs and turn them to something glorious. And even though life lay upon us a cross, yet God who is our Father and our Mother, our Savior and our most gracious Sovereign, will in the end bring us all to the fellowship of blessed Mary and the company of angels and saints, and to a crown, not because we were all that deeply committed, as Christians or as deacons or as priests, but because God is committed to us, and God is faithful. And not our commitments but the faithfulness of God is the beginning and the end of the gospel. Amen.