The Rev. Frank
When the Spirit Rested on Them—
Ira my friend, there is no mistaking that the focus is on you this afternoon. As the service began, you were presented by clergy and lay people alike who certified to our bishop that they believe you to be qualified to be a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church. They didn’t even qualify their use of the word qualified. These people have told Bishop Louttit that you are the real deal and are now ready to be a priest in the Church of God.
I trust Ira that you know better. I trust that you know that you don’t have all it takes to be a priest. In fact, I trust that all of us clergy here know that we do not have what it takes within us to be the deacons, priests and bishop God has called us to be.
But with that one qualifier, that none of us is up to the task of ministry, I had no problem answering the question “Is it your will that Ira be ordained a priest?” with a hearty “It is.” And answering “Will you uphold him in this ministry?” with a heartfelt “We will.” I noticed I was not alone in this.
And if you think this service up until now has been focused on you, just wait until the examination. All eyes and ears will be on you as you stand alone to answer Bishop Louttit’s question and affirm your call to the priesthood and commit yourself to take on a pattern of life that will nourish you in this ministry.
I remember how prior to my ordination, one of the folks who was going from Kingsland up to the service in Statesboro started referring to it as my graduation. After the service he referred to it as my coronation. The comments were made tongue-in-cheek, but there is a barb connected to the satire. All this focus on you Ira, can cause a congregation to miss the point of this evening entirely. And I am convinced that when looked at with Gospel eyes, tonight has precious little to do with Ira L. Jackson.
So trusting you won’t mind Ira, I would like to turn this ordination service inside out. Jesus was always turning things inside out and upside down. So let’s try looking at this service from a different angle. If it’s not about Ira, then what is Ira Jackson’s ordination to the priesthood about?
In our Gospel reading, Matthew relates how Jesus looked with compassion on the harassed and helpless crowds. Compassion. The word means to suffer with someone. Jesus saw how the people were like sheep without a shepherd and he had compassion. Sheep are such domesticated herd animals that with no shepherd, they don’t know where to find the green pastures or the still waters.
Jesus told his disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. We have jumped from sheep to fields of wheat white for the harvest, but in both cases what is needed is workers. God needs shepherds and workers to be Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world.
In this, Jesus does not start with the shepherd or with the harvest worker. Jesus begins with the sheep and with the wheat. Jesus begins with a lost and hurting world and then turns to find the people to reach out to bring a healing touch to those hurts. If we read through this too fast, we can reach the wrong conclusion. We could move from harassed and helpless sheep to the need for more shepherds so quickly that it would seem that Jesus is teaching about a professional group of pastors taking care of the needs of the congregation. In this view, one is either a pastor who ministers or one is the beneficiary of ministry. As comforting as this view of ministry may be, this is not a biblical model of ministry.
Every single one of Jesus disciples was expected to go out and minister to others in Jesus’ name. The fields were so white for the harvest, that Jesus was praying not for professional pastors, but for even more disciples. Every single Christ follower is a minister of the Gospel. That is a simple fact.
We are not gathered here to single out Ira Jackson as the sole minister in Grace Church, Sandersville or any other congregation. We are here to push Ira to the center for a particular ministry of blessing, absolving of sins and in the ministry of Word and Sacraments. This is ministry for which the church has ordained persons for centuries, but not in such a way as to make him or her to be the only minister in a church.
This is not to say that there was no idea of a pastor within the New Testament. Our reading from First Peter talks about elders in the church. The Greek word here is presbyteros, or presbyters. These are the pastors of churches. Peter addresses fellow pastors and exhorts them to tend the flock of God what is in their charge.
The role of the pastor then and now is to be an example to the flock. This is where we get the old term “parson” which meant a representative person. We also get the word “vicar” from one who serves vicariously for the bishop. So a priest whether in a mission or parish is representing Christ in such a way as to encourage the whole congregation to do the same.
Priests are, in the words of this ordination service, to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” And unlikely as it seems, by saints, we mean the whole congregation. Every single baptized Christian is a saint who is to be equipped for the work of ministry. And within that kingdom of priests who serve our God, some are called to be “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”
Why in the world would Jesus need such a vast operation—every single baptized Christian working in ministry while deacons serve as icons of service to others, taking the church to the world and bringing back the needs of the world to the church; while being built up, encouraged, equipped and so on by priests who are serving in the ministry of Word and Sacrament; and all of this taking place under the oversight of bishops, the chief pastors of a diocese—isn’t that a little much?
Well, it would be, if Jesus was concerned about the people who gather each week to worship at Grace Church in Sandersville. And this kingdom of priests who are made up of all Christians would even be far too much if Jesus only concern was those who are in all the Christian churches in the world each Sunday, or even each Christmas and Easter. But this would be a very narrow view of Jesus’ compassion for each and every person on this planet.
Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God is bigger, grander, more all encompassing than something like the present state of affairs. Jesus’ vision is that all of the harassed and helpless find green pastures. Jesus teaches clearly that there are folks wandering around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd. These poor people are trying to find peace in their lives through alcohol abuse, and abusing drugs both legal and illegal, as well as through unhealthy relationships, and lots of other things that will never bring rest to their weary souls. Jesus’ vision is that every one of these lost sheep is brought to still waters.
Bringing lost sheep home is why we are gathered this evening. We are here because The Good Shepherd is concerned about the flock and I don’t mean the flock that is already in the church. The Good Shepherd’s flock is the whole world and there are a lot of lost sheep out there.
We could wander out of this building and within easy walking distance of this altar we could find people this evening who are in need of the peace that can be found right now in this place. Yet so often those people trying to fill a God-sized whole in their hearts are convinced that the answer isn’t here. They need to see the peace of God in our lives first. Then they can come to find rest for their souls.
This is why we have to turn this ordination service inside out. Because God didn’t start with Ira and say, “Ira is such a great guy, I think he deserves being a priest.” Our triune God started with the needs of a lost and hurting world. And what that gaping wound of a world needed was another wounded healer.
Let’s be honest with one another, an octogenarian recovering from a mini stroke may not be the most able bodied Christian in this county. But God’s power has long been shown in powerlessness. God’s strength has for millennia been shown in weakness. What all those called by God through the ages have in common is that we are not up to the task.
What our Old Testament lesson makes plain is that those who were called to positions of leadership were not to rely on their own abilities. Those called by God to particular leadership in the Kingdom of God are not to rely on their own abilities. We are told that the Spirit rested on them and they were empowered to serve as called. When the Spirit rested on them, that inspiration gave them what they needed.
It is the spirit of our triune God who lets the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things that had grown old are being made new. Ira, you have experienced what it is like to be cast down in this life. You have also grown old. Yet this evening you are being raised up and made new, not because you earned it or deserved it, but because the harassed and helpless folks out in the spiritual darkness on this night, need to see the light of Christ shining through you and through those to whom you will minister.
This evening, Bishop Louttit will be joined by the clergy of the Diocese of Georgia in laying hands on Ira. Our bishop will pray for the Holy Spirit to fill Ira with grace and power and make him a priest in Christ’s church. It is that Spirit resting on him that will make the ministry of the priesthood possible. Because of the work of the Spirit, Ira will bless and absolve in God's Name and take up the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Spirit working in and through and even in spite of Ira, will make Christ present in such a way as to equip the saints for ministry.
And now Ira, please stand as I end this sermon with a charge to you.
Ira, when you and I first met to work on scripture as you prepared for ordination, neither of us knew what would lie between that day and this night. We could not have guessed at your recent mini stroke. But our Lord already knew. Jesus knew that you would stand tonight weaker in body than on that day. Yet in your weakness, you show visibly the truth that we carry the treasure of God “in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (II Corinthians 4:7).
Fortunately, the power you need is not your power. You are supported by your bishop and your fellow clergy and you are surrounded by your fellow baptized Christians who are also the ministers of this church. But it is not even the power of all of us working together that is needed. If we were to rely on our own power, the world would remain in darkness.
It is not your light or our light that needs to shine, but Christ’s light shining through us. We gather this evening because we your diocesan family have seen that light shining through you. We have seen that holy spark that comes from the Spirit of God alone. Despite your age and your recent health problems we are undeterred in out belief that our Lord has called us to ordain you as a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church. God’s power is being made perfect in your weakness.
Never forget that your ordination is not about you and your needs. What we do this night is about those lost sheep out there. Keep the flock in your care focused outward on the needs of the world. Harassed and helpless people are all around. Never forget that Christ’s compassion is for them. Turn the congregations where you minister inside out to see that the church is not here for its own sake, but for the sake of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Spirit will rest on you and on them to empower you for the work of equipping the saints to bring healing to a lost and hurting world.