Scripture Readings: Philippians 3:4b-14
Living under The Word
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Very often, the names of Christian denominations describe something of how they are governed. Catholics have a worldwide church structure. Episcopalians have bishops involved in the workings of their church. The Church of Scotland, for historical reasons, does not mention in its title the word which describes our kind of church government. It is, however, a word historically used by churches around the world which were influenced by our way of doing things. That word is ‘Presbyterian’.
For the Church of Scotland is governed by councils of ‘presbyters’. That comes from a New Testament Greek word often translated as ‘elders’. It seems that the earliest local churches were governed by councils of older men, chosen for their insight and experience. It was an idea taken over from Judaism- from Old Testament examples, and from local Jewish communities in their day. The reformers in Scotland developed the idea, as a counterpoint to what they saw as the distinctly hierarchical way in which the church had developed until the Reformation. And so, following especially the ideas of John Calvin, as he had developed the reformed church in Geneva, we in Scotland ended up with a model in which elders served and led the church at all levels.
Today we celebrate the ordination to this distinctive and historic office of eldership of Rachel, Roberta and Margaret. The eldership today is not the same as the eldership of 16th century Scotland or Geneva, or of first century Mediterranean cities. For the Spirit has worked in the church to bring us new insights into the nature of the eldership. Perhaps the first thing we notice today is that neither Rachel, Roberta nor Margaret are old men. It has taken a long time for the church to hear the Spirit, and recognise that men do not have a monopoly on the skills needed for leadership and service. Perhaps this is a good way for us to mark International Women’s Day, which took place on Tuesday of this week, and to celebrate that the Spirit of God calls both women and men into the all the ministries of the Church.
And each of our new elders brings a range of accumulated experiences- for today Rachel, Roberta nor Margaret remind us that age is not the same as experience, and that wisdom can be found in people of diverse ages and backgrounds. God called Abraham to found a new people when he was 75. But he called Mary to be mother of the saviour when she was probably in her teens. Saint Peter, in the first sermon ever recorded of the Christian church, quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel as he speaks of the coming of the Spirit:
This is what I will do in the last days, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.
Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message;
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will have dreams.
Yes, even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will proclaim my message.
More than ever, we need a Church in which the Spirit is allowed to flow through both young and old. More than ever, the Church needs the vision of the young and the dreams of the old, the contributions of both men and women. So today is a day for us to celebrate, treasure and affirm the diversity of spiritual gifts which God is giving the Church today. Today we celebrate the eldership, and especially we celebrate the call which Rachel, Roberta and Margaret have heard, calling them to serve God’s church as elders.
When I think of elders, and their various gifts and experiences, I think of the elders I have had the privilege of sharing in ministry with in the churches I have been part of- and some who were elders in other congregations. I got to know Tom when we both did work together in the Presbytery of Glasgow, and it was always a delight to meet up with him at the General Assembly after I had come to Inverness. For he was good company, and had a fund of stories. I remember once, we had had a debate about Israel and Palestine at the Assembly, and Tom said that he felt very passionate about the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation.
For Tom, who had been a schoolteacher before he retired, had been ordained and elder and served on his Kirk Session. But after a few years, he had been asked to become the Presbytery Elder, and on the Presbytery of Glasgow, his abilities had been noticed, and he had become Convenor of the World Mission committee. Then he was appointed to the World Mission Council of the General Assembly. There was an upsurge in the conflict in Israel, and the British Churches were asked to send a small delegation, to report back on what was happening, and to show support especially for the Christians in the region. Tom was the Church of Scotland representative on the delegation.
He described to me, with great relish, how they were taken around Israel and the Palestinian territories, not as tourists, but meeting key people- government ministers, local church, community and religious leaders. Often they travelled in British Embassy cars, for the diplomatic number plates were essential to get through the road block manned by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers.
One day, when they got into a Palestinian area, they were met by representative of the Palestinian authority who told them that their plans for the day were changed. Since he was accompanied by heavily-armed security men, the delegation had to go with them. They were to come to a press conference, for it seemed that the Palestinians thought that having British church visitors would be good propaganda, and so Tom and is delegation found themselves in a cramped conference room, under hot TV lights and surrounded by armed men, telling the world of some of what they had seen. It was, he admitted, an unnerving experience. Yet he came away convinced that the Palestinian people were facing much injustice.
I said to Tom, ‘I bet you did not expect that that would happen to you when you told your minister you had agreed to serves as an elder?’ We had a good laugh together, and reflected that we none of us know where God will lead us when we are called to follow Christ.
We each of us follow Christ in different ways. And if we called to serve in the councils of the church- the Kirk Session, the Presbytery or the General Assembly- these are not to be places for us to pursue our own agendas, to show off, to build our careers (although no doubt that happens, for none of us are perfect). ‘This is not the way it is among you’.
In a moment, we will hear, as part of the ordination ceremony, a ringing declaration that Jesus Christ is King and Head of the Church. That means that in everything, the Church, and every one of us who are part of the Church, are to seek to do be servants- servants of God’s people and servants of Christ. We are to try to be like the one who came to serve, and not to be served, as our Gospel reading today makes clear.
And so we have to learn humility. Saint Paul was a man who could be proud of his religious achievements: he was a top-rank religious leader, he knew his stuff and put it into action. But then he encounter Christ, and ‘For his sake I have thrown everything away’. Paul had to learn to be content to rely on Christ alone, and not on his own achievements. ‘All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I will myself be raised from death to life’.
And so the first item on the agenda for anyone of us is that we should want to know Christ. He is the one who calls us. He is the one who makes whatever we might achieve for him, possible. Without him, we fail. And so, Rachel, Roberta and Margaret, as you set out on this wonderful new phase of your Christian life, above all I urge you to seek to know Christ even better than you do.
How can you do that? When I got married, I was a theologian who was marrying a theologian. It was pretty obvious to all that Katharina and I would serve particular roles in the church. So our friend Jorg took the opportunity in his wedding sermon to remind us that we would be people who would have to be seen to live our lives, we he put it, ‘under the Word’- a phrase which struck home. Jorg was reminding us we had to know Christ, live our lives in the light of the Word made Flesh.
If you want to thrive as elders, Rachel, Roberta and Margaret, you have to know Christ, grow closer to him, and live under his Word. For Christians hear the Word of God in no other place than in Christ. And the first place you will meet Christ is in the words of Scripture. Read your Bible, and learn from it, and hear the Word of Christ as he addresses you, comforts you, challenges you.
But the Bible is a complicated book, and the world and the church are complicated, and as sometimes you will find it hard to hear the Word of Christ among the words of the Bible, and among the distractions of the world. So you also need prayer. Nurture your prayer life. Let the prayer you take part in in public worship be supplemented by a commitment to private prayer. Make space each day to not just to speak to God, but also, very importantly, to allow God to speak you. For the Word you need to hear often comes in stillness and silence- and unexpectedly. Make sure you take time to be still, to bathe in the presence of God, to allow the Word of Christ to speak to you.
And remember, also, that you are not alone in all this. Christ goes with you. So, too, does the rest of the Church, and especially your fellow-elders. It’s a strange paradox that in our age, we have come to believe so strongly that faith is a personal thing, that we forget that the witness of the Bible is that it is a communal experience. I truly believe that we cannot be Christians without the church. Yes, the church sometimes drives us mad, sometimes lets people down, sometimes seems to fail God. For the church consists of people, and people are, to use the technical theological term, sinners. Even when we strive to do better, we often fail.
Yet the ultimate revelation of God was not a book, nor an angel. God’s ultimate revelation of God’s self was in a human life, Jesus of Nazareth. And today, still, God uses people to bring the Good News to the world. Fallen, broken, imperfect people that we are, nevertheless, God has chosen us to be his hands and voice in the world.
In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about servanthood. But these profound words of Jesus don’t just drop out of the sky. They are his reaction to a murky situation. James and John thought the Kingdom was about power and prestige, and they wanted top status. Jesus has to remind them that discipleship is the way of the cross, taking part in his sufferings.
When the other disciples find out about James and John, and what they had sought, they are angry, resentful- and no wonder. But this kind of thing happened all the time among the disciple band- they misunderstood Jesus, they harboured grudges, they argued and fell out. And it has been the story of the Church ever since- controversy and argument, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
But for Jesus- and in the life of the church- those arguments, those resentments, those misunderstandings often become teaching moments. In today’s Gospel, after the arguments, he teaches the disciples about servanthood- if you want to be great, you have to be the servant of others, not lord it over them. If you want to be first, you need to be the slave of all. Even Christ came not be served, but to serve.
And so, Rachel, Roberta and Margaret, I urge you not to expect that being part of the Kirk Session- or other councils of the church- is going to be a bed of roses. There will be arguments, misunderstandings, resentments and misunderstandings. There always have been, there always will be, in the Church of God, until the end of the age. That is part of the pain, the cost, of discipleship- the hard way of the cross. Yet Christ will teach you through the struggles, for he leads us and walks alongside us today just as surely as he led that argumentative band of disciples two thousand years ago along the dusty roads of Palestine. And as St Paul knew, when we share in Christ’s suffering and death, we also know the power of his resurrection.
Lent is the time in the Christian year when we focus particularly on what it means to turn to God, to leave self behind, to take up the cross and follow Christ. Rachel, Roberta and Margaret, this Lent you are inspiring us with your faith, your hope, your willingness to follow the call of Christ in this particular ministry of the Church. And as you commit yourself in this service, so we will join you, as Kirk Session and congregation reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to each other. Rachel, Roberta and Margaret, may God bless you, all three, and through you, may God bless our congregation.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584