Commissioning of Lay Ministries
First Sunday of Advent: 29th November, 2009
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
The early Christians had a far more vivid expectation of the Return of Our Lord Jesus Christ than most of us have today. They knew perfectly well that they were living in an age of transition — between the two comings of Jesus, his first and his second coming. They believed that Jesus who had appeared and had now disappeared, would one day reappear upon the stage of world history.
The early Christians looked, if you like, in two directions — before them and behind them. Back to the first coming of Jesus which we recall in the Christmas celebrations and forward to his Second Coming, as the next four weeks of Advent do.
There are two opposite errors that are commonly made by Christians today about the Advent message of the Second or ultimate Coming of Jesus.
1. Some Christians are too dogmatic about it.
This is not usually the mistake of Anglican Christians! But many fundamentalist evangelists believe that the Bible was written to give inside esoteric information as to when and where the second coming will occur. They devise flowcharts of the sequence of events that will herald Jesus' return, often accompanied by pictures of many-headed beasts.
Some people are fascinated by what they perceive to be the signs of the end and they spend their time pouring over apocalyptic passages in Daniel or Revelation to calculate the time of the end. In America there have been a series of novels and films entitled 'Left behind' — all about those who will be left behind at the rapture when Jesus returns on clouds of glory.
These people are far too dogmatic. They fail to take account of our Lord's words — 'About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' (Matt 24:36).
But it's not just a case of overlooking one verse. Apocalyptic fundamentalist preachers fail to take account of the kind of literary genre or style of the Biblical books that refer to the future in what must necessarily be, since it hasn't yet occurred — symbolic language, not to be literally visualized but to be carefully interpreted for the truth it conveys.
2. Others are plainly embarrassed by it and even ashamed of it.
This is more likely to be the Anglican error. We say each Sunday in our creed that we believe 'he (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead'. But many of us hope he won't!
And yet, even if there are many things we don't know about the Second Coming and about which we must be agnostic, we must also recognize, as I have said, that the first Christians, had a vivid expectation of the Lord's return. One of the prayers of the early Christians was maranatha, an Aramaic word meaning — 'come Lord Jesus' — 'come and put the wrongs of our world right'.
For them, judgement was eagerly awaited because it meant justice. In the future to which God is taking the world and the church; right will finally triumph over wrong. This is not a message to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. It is a message of great comfort. Of all people, the Christian's attitude to the future, no matter what it may hold, is to be that of 'happy-hopers'! 'Peace, perfect peace — the future all unknown. Jesus we know and he is on the throne'.
So we must be neither dogmatic nor embarrassed by the message of Advent. What then should our attitude be towards the second coming of Jesus?
In a word, we are to be vigilant: 'Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. ... therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour' .
In the original Greek language of the NT, the command to be awake and alert is the word gregoreite, from which we get the English boy's name: Gregory. And it is interesting to notice how many of the early Popes were called Pope Gregory. The idea of being watchful and alert was absolutely crucial to early Christianity.
In our culture 'waiting' is not a very attractive prospect. On the whole, we are not very good at waiting. We want things and we want them now.
The story is told of a board erected in front of a city church for Advent which displayed the words in bold print: 'Where will you be when the Lord returns?' and some frustrated commuter had scribbled graffiti underneath which read, 'still standing here waiting for the number 37 Bus'!.
'Waiting' in our culture is regarded as being negative and passive and unexciting.
But what kind of 'waiting' does the four weeks of Advent call us to?
Advent penitential purple calls us to a time of quietness; a time of prayerful reflection and discernment; a time to do a bit of self-examination; a time to view what we do, not simply in the light of our own limited horizons but in the light of eternity; a time to ask ourselves whether Jesus has really made the full impact on our life and service that he might make.
It is therefore entirely appropriate that on this first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, we have a commissioning service for the laity of this parish. Clergy participate in an ordination service in which they make solemn promises and are commissioned to take up responsibilities in the church. But in many parishes there is nothing comparable for the laity — as if the laity are to be thought of as having no ministry.
But according to the New Testament, if you are a baptized Christian, you are already a minister. You may not have your collar back the front but that is immaterial. You may be surprised, alarmed, pleased, or enraged by this knowledge. Nevertheless, in New Testament terms, you are a minister of Christ.
Indeed, I think we can see that in many respects the laity are in a position to engage in witnessing to our Lord's love far more effectively than the clergy, because 'the laity is the dispersion of the church', 'immersed in the world', 'penetrating more deeply into secular society than the average clergyperson ever has a chance to do.
Indeed, it is the ordained person's specific role to serve the laity, one might even say that our role is that of 'servicing' the laity, equipping them for their ministry in the world. There was a joke that went around amongst the Roman Catholic bishops during the 2nd Vatican Council that contained more than a grain of truth. It went, 'the bishops are the servants of the clergy, the clergy are the servants of the laity, and the laity are kings with a servant problem!'
Although lay ministry has been talked about endlessly in the church for the last 50 years, still there are parishes that need to perform a complete mental somersault.
Sadly, one occasionally hears of priests and bishops, full of their own importance and pomposity, who think that it is their job to boss the inferior brand of Christian who belongs to the laity. And on the other hand, there appear to be some diffident laity who are happy simply to occupy the pews — to 'turn up; pay up and shut up!'
May we at St Peter's always guard against these two extremes of clericalism and of anticlericalism, of a domineering ministry on the one hand and a dispensable one on the other.
It is right and proper that in the short Lay Commissioning Service this morning we pray for all those who regularly undertake the innumerable good and necessary practical tasks in this parish and that we pray also for all whose work and witness is not so much church-based as based in the work-a-day world.
As we again take up the privilege of serving our Lord in this parish and beyond this parish, may we by our Advent 'waiting', prayerfully discern and distinguish between what is central in our life and what is peripheral; what is merely pressing and what is really important; what is our responsibility and what can be left to others.
But whatever it is that we feel called of God to do, may we all, in the words of St Paul: 'be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that, in the Lord, our labour is not in vain' (1 Cor. 15:58).