a sermon at the Ordination of Deacons in Durham Cathedral, June 27 2010
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr. N.T. Wright
The point of having Deacons is so that the world may see the love of God in action.
That is the essential message I draw from today’s gospel reading, which forms the conclusion of the incomparable passage we call John 13–17, the ‘Farewell Discourses’ of Jesus himself after supper on the night he was betrayed. The ordinands and I have been working through these chapters together over the last few days on our Retreat. This is where we find the secret, inner heart of Jesus’ own vocation and ministry, the vocation which unveiled the love and glory of God before a hostile world and which was about to take him to the cross, where the world poured out its hatred upon the Son of God and God poured out his love upon the world. And as we remind ourselves of that larger context within St John’s gospel, we realise that revealing the love of God in action in the world is neither cosy nor easy. And because, none the less, the point of having Deacons is to reveal God’s love in action in the world, we urgently need – you, to be ordained, urgently need – to take to heart, to ponder, to pray through, what that love is all about, why it is so utterly costly, and why it is none the less utterly glorious.
The classic symbol of the love of God is of course the cross itself, and to that we shall return. But there is another. When I was ordained deacon, thirty-five years ago, my aunt, who is a nun in Fairacres convent in Oxford, sent me a card with a circle on it. The circle is explained by some words of John Donne: God’s love is like a circle; and a circle is endless. Whom God loves, he loves to the end; and his end is, not that he should cease to love them; no: his end is, to love them still. Donne is echoing the words with which John opens the Farewell Discourses, words we were looking at last Tuesday night: Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the uttermost. He loved them eis telos, ‘to the end’: there was nothing that love could do for them that love did not do for them. And, as we saw, that was expressed graphically as he took off his outer clothes, wrapped a towel around himself, and – to their surprise and alarm – washed his disciples’ feet. Then, putting on his clothes again, he told them they had to do the same. That is the message upon which all Christian ministry is founded: to enact and embody the love of God. That is what being a Deacon is all about. It isn’t a kind of ‘probationary year’, though no doubt it has that function by accident as it were. It is about taking time to inhabit the basic role of all ministry: that we are to be, before all else, living embodiments of God’s surprising and alarming love, God’s utter self-giving love, the love that goes on, like a circle, without end.
And as the great prayer in John 17 comes to its close, we see another circle, the circle of the whole discourse: because here, at the end of the prayer, we find the same theme once more. ‘Righteous Father,’ Jesus prays, ‘the world does not know you; but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ There you have it: the entire discourse, all five chapters, encircled within the ongoing and eternal theme of the love of the Father for the Son. And the point of having Deacons is so that the world may see and know this love in action. The footwashing never stops. I suggested on Tuesday night that these five chapters might become for you a special place of retreat to which you can return again and again in the years that lie ahead, to refresh and re-orient yourselves as to who you are and what you’re here for. And now, as we come to the end of these five chapters, we discover that it isn’t an end. It sends us back to the beginning. This is a lesson we never stop learning.
And that’s important, because the message is indeed surprising and alarming. Jesus speaks, in prayer, words we probably don’t want to hear. They sound, to us, detached and arrogant, holier-than-thou, self-righteous. ‘I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.’ Did we really hear that aright? Can Jesus have really meant that? Here it comes again: ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.’ What is that about? Isn’t that a recipe for a young curate to set off walking down the High Street with his or her shiny new dog-collar on, nose in the air, feeling utterly superior to the poor benighted people all around? Isn’t the point of an incarnational ministry that we are firmly in the world, sharing its life and its sorrows?
Yes, that is the point. But there is no point in a doctor coming to live with her patients and catch their diseases without having the medicine to deal with them. There is no point in a music teacher coming to a class of tuneless children and merely joining in their cacophony. There is no point in a shepherd lying down alongside the sheep when he should be leading them to fresh water and then urging them into the sheepfold because there’s a wolf on the prowl. When Jesus says that his followers don’t ‘belong to the world’, the phrase he uses literally means ‘they are not from the world’: they do not take their origin and identity from the world. Oh, the world will do its best to pigeon-hole you, to put you into one of its own categories: you are ‘religious functionaries’, part of ‘the God business’, whatever. But you don’t fit the world’s categories, nor must you. The salt must not lose its savour. What is true of every Christian, every baptised and believing man, woman and child, is publicly and authoritatively true of you from this day on. Your primary identity is that you are publicly authorized embodiments of the love of God. That is the point of being a Deacon.
And, surprising though it may seem, the world really doesn’t want this love, this public embodiment. It presents a dangerous challenge. Look at the reaction when Christians working in the hospice movement and elsewhere speak out against the current push towards legalising euthanasia. That generates real fury, the fury of a world in love with death. Look at the reaction when Christians stand up for our responsibility to those who come to this country seeking shelter from persecution. The very phrase ‘asylum-seeker’ is enough to send some people into a sneering, cynical, angry mood; and I am proud of those who in this diocese have been embodying the love of God for these deeply vulnerable folk. Look at what happens when Christians seek to embody God’s love by urging governments to remit the ridiculous and unpayable debts of third-world countries (though, my goodness, they moved fast enough when it was the bloated banks themselves that suddenly found themselves facing the same problem). You may not, in your early days in ministry, be dealing with large issues like that. The time will come. But you are to acquire the diaconal habits of heart and mind, of soul and body, through your local, small-scale, intimate work of embodying God’s love. You are to be formed as Deacons, because the point of Deacons is to embody God’s love before the world, and that formation is what you need for a lifetime of courageous gospel ministry.
Courageous: because the world will do its best to squeeze you into its own mould, as one translation of Romans 12.2 puts it. Do not be conformed to this world; don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould; but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, says St Paul. Or, back here in John 17: ‘I am not asking you to take them out of the world’ – well, of course, not! What use would that be? We are not escapists. No: Jesus continues, ‘I ask you to protect them from the evil one.’ Ah. There’s the rub. The world is not neutral territory. There are forces of chaos and destruction out there. They wear smiling faces and use correct language, but actually they are in league with the powers of the world, and with death their chief weapon. That is why we urgently need, and you as new Deacons urgently need, the prayer of the next verse: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’ From all round, the world will whisper to you that you shouldn’t be so extreme; it will murmur in your ear that you can’t really believe all that stuff; it will sometimes shout at you and bully you and threaten you with ridicule or worse unless you toe the line with whatever new political correctness comes along. And you must learn to go back again and again to John 17, and to Jesus’ prayer for you: sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. Keep the compass pointing straight, however many different magnetic fields you have to walk through. The only point of being a Deacon is because of Jesus; because in him we have seen, and through him we are caught up within, the public embodiment of the love of God.
And of course none of this is for your own sake, so that you can feel pleased and proud of being a good Deacon. The whole point of love is that it looks away from itself; that is why the early Christians discovered humility as a virtue at the same time as they discovered the depths and heights of God’s love in the cross of Jesus. Jesus himself prayed not only for his disciples, but for those who would believe on him through their word – which of course includes you and me, twenty centuries or sixty generations later. And it is for that whole company, the first disciples and the great number of those who have believed in Jesus through their word, that Jesus says ‘for their sake I sanctify myself’ – I consecrate myself, I set myself apart from the world’s ways for the sake of God’s way – ‘for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’ It is precisely one of the lies of this world to set love against holiness, as though holiness is a rather stuffy, second-rate thing which can always be trumped by the demands of love. Not so. That which calls itself ‘love’, but which resists the call of holiness and truth, is a dangerous parody. When the patient’s life is in danger, the surgeon uses the sharpest knife, not out of hatred but out of love. When we are lost in the mist, the guide’s job is to lead us to safety, not to take us on the most comfortable path. Those who are called to be the public and visible embodiment of the love of God must know, and must remind themselves daily, that holiness and truth make a triangle with love, supporting it like guy-ropes on either side, and themselves infused with its inexhaustible richness. The model for love, after all, is the cross; and it is the love revealed publicly on the cross that goes on, round the circle, for ever and ever.
And because of all of this, the centre of Jesus’ prayer is that his followers would be one. The call and task of Christian unity is not an optional extra, a secondary pursuit for one Thursday evening each month. To be sure, we need to re-learn the ecumenical challenge. We haven’t always gone about it the right way, and we need to come back to the Lord, and to this prayer, in penitence afresh. But what’s the point of being the public embodiment of God’s love if half the time we are pulling away from, and separating ourselves from, others who follow the same Lord? Again, to begin with you may not be much involved in larger-scale ecumenical activities. But once more your Diaconate – which, like the love it embodies, never comes to an end – is the time for learning the habits of heart that make for unity, for unity within the Bible study group, for unity within the PCC, for unity between the two or three rather different churches in the parish,. That’s probably quite enough to be going on with. You will experience the challenge, the frustration, and not least the cost of working for that unity. Learn those lessons well.Because, again like love itself, unity doesn’t mean a shrug of the shoulders, a ‘who-cares’ fellowship where as long as we drink coffee together nothing else much matters. The unity for which Jesus prayed, the unity for which you must work, the unity of which St Paul spoke in our Epistle (which, by the way, would be another excellent passage for you to pray through in these early days of your ministry) – this unity is nothing less than the unity between Jesus himself and the Father, that extraordinary unity into which, to our own surprise and alarm, we are invited to come and make our home. ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
In and through all of this, the public diaconal embodiment of God’s love is above all the revelation of his glory. God’s glory, which Jesus’ contemporaries were longing to see re-appear in the Temple, had re-appeared in Jesus; and one of the main themes of the whole Farewell Discourses is the promise that this glory will be seen, too, in Jesus’ followers. ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ The world needs to see who God is: neither a big bully in the sky, nor the sum total of all the impulses and instincts in the world, but the Father who sent the Son to be the footwasher, the healer, the truth-speaker, the life-giver, the one whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of the world precisely because it doesn’t use the world’s normal methods of power and death but because it uses God’s methods of service and life.
All this may seem grandiose and a bit remote when you’re walking down the street tomorrow morning, when you’re doing a primary school assembly or visiting an old people’s home, when you’re planning a baptism or doing a funeral ministry. But of course the whole point of love is that it relishes the small and local, this new baby,this grieving spouse, this class of unruly children, these old people with beautiful but fading memories. The little tasks are themselves the very stuff of that public manifestation of God’s love in action. Just as Jesus’ strange, brief action of washing his disciples’ feet still resonates out powerfully into our lives and our world, who knows what resonances will be set up by the one act of kindness, the one gentle, healing word, the quiet prayer, the quick shopping trip for someone suddenly housebound, the greetings card to show you remembered, those little diaconal touches which reveal God’s love in action in the world. And come back, day by day and year by year, to this prayer of Jesus, the prayer in which you will make yourself at home and find yourself at home, and yet at home in a wonderfully challenging way because this is a home from which you will again and again be sent out, protected by the Father’s power in a dangerous world but revealing the Father’s glory to a dark and confused world.
And to all of you I would say this. You have come here today to support and encourage these our brothers and sisters. Thank you again for that. Now, please, pray for them. Make the prayer of Jesus your own prayer for them in the coming days. Pray for them as they start learning these heart-habits through which they will serve you and the world around. Pray for them in their early days; and pray for the people they will become, by God’s grace, in the years ahead. We need Deacons who, still as Deacons, will be leaders in God’s church in ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years time. They will only be that insofar as they learn, right away, what it means to show the world God’s love in action. Pray for them, as Jesus prayed for all of us, that the love with which the Father loved the Son may be in them, and he in them. That is how his glory will be revealed. That is how the world will know his nature and his name.