“The Front Lines” (May 16, 2015; The Ordination of Peter Nathaniel Johnston to the Sacred Order of Deacons–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”—II Corinthians 4.5[1]

To the Right Reverend Jacob Owensby, Reverend Father in God, Bishop of the Church in Western Louisiana; the Reverend Joseph Daly, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, and the Reverend Dr. Duane Peterson, Associate Rector; all my brother and sister clergy; the Ordinand and his family; all the Christian faithful gathered, greetings in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

On an October evening in 2011, my New York mentor, Father Andrew Mead, then Rector of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), invited myself and a member of the parish staff to the Saint Thomas Rectory on Park Avenue for a chili dinner (being that his wife, Nancy, was out of town and he wanted to have some company to hang out with). While my fellow invitee drove his car through the maddening Manhattan traffic, Father Mead and I walked the several blocks that lay between Saint Thomas Church and the Rectory, giving us an opportunity to talk, mentor to mentee. As we began walking, Father Mead asked me a Commission on Ministry-type question: “Brandt, what is it that you feel called to do as a Priest?” I had a mapped-out vocational plan: “After finishing my required two-year curacy in Alabama, I’m going to go back to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American religious history, then, hopefully, teach at a seminary or in a college/university theology or religious studies department.” “What about the parish?” Father Mead inquired. “It’s not that I have anything against parish ministry,” I said defensively, “but I just feel this strong call to live out my vocation as a Scholar-Priest.” “But many great Scholar-Priests also serve in parishes, Brandt,” replied Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It keeps you grounded and in touch with reality, with what’s going on with the people in the pews. It’s important that you be on the front lines with your fellow Priests. Never forget the front lines!”

This was the first of several “Meadiums” that I would learn from my now elder colleague and, needless to say, it was an important one. In a nutshell, what Father Mead was telling me was that “it’s not about you!” Although I failed to then realize it, looking back on that walk now almost four years ago, I admit and acknowledge that, subconsciously, I was trying to make it about me. The lecture room and the halls of academia were great loves of mine and it was there that I wanted to make my mark. I wanted to make scholarly contributions to the studies of African-American, American religious, and Anglo-Catholic history. I wanted to be a theologian and scholar on the same level as the Chadwick Brothers[2] and John Hope Franklin[3] and one of the leading Priest-Scholars of my time. But even though Father Mead did not dismiss the contributions of ordained academics to the Church’s life and witness, what he was making me realize was that many of them, like the Chadwick Brothers, Charles Gore[4], Austin Farrer[5], and Michael Ramsey[6], in addition to their academic vocations, were also deeply involved in parish and pastoral ministry. They did not hide behind the comforts and safety of a lecture stand; they were on the front lines preaching about Jesus and Him crucified, died, buried, and risen. For them, it was all about Jesus; everything they wrote, taught, and published all came from a deep love for Jesus, lived out by active ministry amongst and for God’s people and without that, all that they did would not have been as impactful as it was. The crucial lesson that I learned from Father Mead that October night was that if I enter into ordination with it being about me and not about Jesus, just to be well known and not willing to engage in the real work of ministry, then I will be setting myself up for failure. “…Do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”[7] It was a lesson that I needed to learn and thanks be to God that I did.

This past Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released a report that stated that although Christianity still dominates American religious identity by 70%, a large number of people have been exiting the doors of Christian denominations and doing away with Christianity altogether. It was also reported that while 86% of Americans say they grew up as Christians, nearly one out of five of them said that they weren’t anymore.[8] One of the reasons I believe this is is due to an “it’s about me” perception that is oftentimes conveyed within certain expressions of the larger Church. It is a perception that has led to many thinking of the Church as being too political, intolerant of those wrestling with deep spiritual issues and doubt, more wrapped up around the personality and prestige of the senior pastor, and just a once-a-week “stage show.” What these non-active and former Christians want is an authentic proclamation of the Gospel, to hear about Jesus and know that He is someone who truly cares and when met with this off-putting perception, it causes them to think, “Well, if this is what being a Christian is about, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” The Church—the universal Body of Christ—is called to confess the faith of Christ crucified, died, buried, and risen, bearing witness to Him in all the places it is. “And whatever you do,” Paul says, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”[9]

At the time of the writing of his second letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul was finding himself having to deal with the “it’s about me” perception. Some in Corinth were charging Paul with being haughty, puffed up on his own ego, and only concerned about his own personal gain. Having these charges made against him poised a potential hindrance to the spread of the Gospel and, in typical Pauline fashion, Paul wastes no time in setting the record straight. First off, it should be remembered that Paul was always honest and forthcoming about the life he lived prior to his conversion: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness.”[10] From the get go, Paul owned his past, that he was, at one time, “a persecutor of the [C]hurch, as to righteousness under the law blameless.”[11] But what Paul also made clear was that he had been humbled, that because of Jesus he “…renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways…refuse[d] to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word…”[12] Paul answered the Corinthian charges by making it absolutely clear that what he was preaching was not himself, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul did not and could not preach himself, for it is only Jesus, God Incarnate, who can redeem and renew. He was a preacher who looked to Christ for help and was on the front lines for Him since his conversion. For Paul, it was all about Jesus and knowing that the Gospel he was preaching was Jesus’ Gospel and not his. Like Jesus, all that Paul did in ministry to God’s people was done “…not to be served but to serve…”[13]

Just as it was important for the Apostles and other Christian expositors during the New Testament times, it is equally important, in this day and age, that those within the Church called to ordained ministry remember that it is Jesus whom they are charged to preach and not themselves. “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”[14]   The ordained vocation was not instituted for the purpose of allowing one to show themselves off, making it all about them, but, rather, for the revealing of the glory of Jesus Christ, being on the front lines for Him and proclaiming His Gospel. Everything that the Church’s clergy—Deacons, Priests, and Bishops—do should be done with the aim “…to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by…word and example, to those whom [they] live, and work, and worship.”[15] For the ministry of the ordained to be successful, they must be all in, totally committed to Jesus. When they are all in for Jesus, the people will take notice. When the people take notice, their hearts will become more open to the Gospel, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them to Jesus, the very Splendor of Truth. But, again, the only way that any of this can happen is for the ordained leadership of the Church to remember this crucial point: “It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus!”

This morning, as a faithful gathering of Christians, we have gathered together to offer to God our thanks and prayers for Peter, who will momentarily make the transition from being a layman to a duly ordained clergyman of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. After having been nourished by the riches of Christ’s grace and strengthened to glorify Christ in his own life as a member of the flock, Peter is, today, being called forth by God and with the affirmation of the people from the flock to offer ministry to and be a leader of the flock. As Peter becomes ontologically changed by the invocation of the Holy Ghost, it is important that he remember that it is not about him but about Jesus so that the gifts that he brings to the ordained vocation can be effectively used to equip God’s people for the work of ministry and for the reception of the Gospel by those who seek and want to be found by God. From this day forward, together with our Bishop and all the clergy, Peter will be on the front lines for Jesus, preaching not himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, being a servant to the people for the sake and greater glory of Jesus.

Peter, my friend, you have oftentimes heard me refer to you as “the little brother that I never had.” So out of the deep respect that I have for you and in these last remaining moments of your lay life, I would like to offer four pieces of big brotherly advice:

  1. Always remember your Diaconal vows. Today, you are being ordained as a Deacon, the order of ministry particularly charged to be of service to the poor, the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Although your primary vocation will soon be as a Priest, I encourage you to never forget nor disregard your Diaconal vows, for you will find some overlap between the duties assigned to each respective order. As a Deacon, you will today promise “to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”[16] At the time of your ordination as a Priest, you will promise “to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”[17] As a Deacon, you will be particularly charged to serve the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely, but as a Priest, you will be called to serve the people among whom you work, which will include the particulars mentioned in the Bishop’s Diaconal charge. Furthermore, at their consecrations, Bishops promise “…to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ,”[18] which encompasses all of the particulars served by the Diaconate and all of the people among whom you work of the Priesthood. So I encourage you to always remember and value your Diaconal vows, appreciating the fact that the Diaconate is the one order in which all the Church’s clergy share, aspects of which can be found in the other two. Although your primary vocation will soon be as a Priest and you may, possibly, even become a Bishop one day, always remember that at the core of your sacramental ministry, you are and will forever remain a Deacon.
  1. As my preaching professor at General Seminary told me, I say to you, “Keep your Jesus count high!” As a lover of the Church’s great hymns, you may be familiar with this mid-19th century hymn by Frederick Whitfield: “There is a Name I love to hear, I love to sing it’s worth; it sounds like music in my ear, the sweetest Name on Earth. O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.”[19] Jesus—Yeshua, “God Saves”—truly the sweetest Name ever to hear. This is who those non-active and former Christians are searching for, who the active Christian community seeks to proclaim, and who is calling you to service in the ordained vocation. Therefore, never be ashamed to speak the Name of Jesus. Preach boldly about Jesus, proclaiming to your people His Good News. To paraphrase Paul, “Be a fool for Christ!”[20] Your preaching will be the most striking and public of all your clerical functions[21] and will play a crucial role in how one perceives Jesus, whether it is actually worth it to pick up their cross and follow Him. Therefore, always remain faithful to the Message. Proclaim the Gospel with boldness and joy. In the pulpit here at the Church of the Ascension, at daily chapel, Eucharist, and in your classroom out at Ascension Episcopal School—Sugar Mill Pond Campus, at all the places you go and in all the things you do, keep your Jesus count high! Preach Jesus!
  1. Love your people. To quote Lifeway Christian Resources President and CEO Thom Rainer, “If we know that our pastor loves us, everything else falls into place. If he doesn’t, nothing else matters.”[22] Remember what John says, “…Whoever loves God must love others also.”[23] Love your people and Jesus will do the rest.
  1. And, most importantly, always remember that it is not about you! Not only will you be entering a new vocation within the Church, but with that will come a new style—“the Reverend.” Coming from the Latin reverendus, meaning “honored” or “esteemed,” it is an honorific that conveys the respect and esteem that the Christian faithful have for you and upon which the community “orders” you to function among them as an ordained leader. From this day forward, may every time you see “the Reverend” before your name and are addressed with a title of the ordained vocation remind you of the trust that the people of God have in you and of the sacred responsibility that will be placed upon you this day. May it remind you that you are on the front lines for Jesus and that as God’s people look to you as a leader among them, may you, in turn, give to them that which you have received, that Christ Jesus died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day.[24] “…Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[25] Don’t ever make it about you. Do it all for Jesus!

As you begin this new adventure, may you abide in peace, loving and serving the Lord!

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] All Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] William Owen (May 20, 1916) and Henry (June 23, 1920-June 17, 2008), both highly distinguished Church of England Priests and ecclesiastical historical scholars.

[3] (January 2, 1915-March 25, 2009); author of From Slavery to Freedom (first published in 1947 and regularly updated), the authoritative scholarly text on African-American history.

[4] (January 22, 1853-January 17, 1932); early 20th century Church of England Bishop and leading theologian on the Doctrine of the Incarnation.

[5] (October 1, 1904-December 29, 1968); Church of England Priest and theologian credited with bringing to Christian theology the notion of “double agency,” the idea that one’s actions are their own, but are also the work of God, though perfectly hidden.

[6] (November 14, 1904-April 23, 1988); Church of England Bishop who served as the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974 and was a leading Anglo-Catholic theologian.

[7] Proverbs 3.5b-6

[8] Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Christians Drop, ‘Nones’ Soar In New Religion Portrait,” USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/05/12/christians-drop-nones-soar-in-new-religion-portrait/27159533/), accessed May 13, 2015.

[9] Colossians 3.17

[10] Acts 22.4-5

[11] Philippians 3.6

[12] II Corinthians 4.2

[13] Mark 10.45

[14] Ephesians 4.11-13

[15] “Ordination of a Deacon,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 543.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “The Ordination of a Priest,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 531.

[18] “The Ordination of a Bishop,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 517.

[19] “O How I Love Jesus,” 19th century American melody, written by Frederick Whitfield (1855).

[20] I Corinthians 4.10

[21] Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching (Second Edition) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 11.

[22] Rainer, Thom S. “Ten Things Church Members Desire In a Pastor” (http://thomrainer.com/2013/01/14/ten-things-church-members-desire-in-a-pastor/), accessed May 15, 2015.

[23] I John 4.21 (Good News Translation)

[24] I Corinthians 15.3-4

[25] Ephesians 4.1-3

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