Luke's report of our Great Commission (see also Matthew 28:16-20 ) was one of my morning readings today. It reminded me of my Letter of Institution as priest here. Most priests have these or similar words addressed to them by a bishop:
By your words, and in your life, proclaim the Gospel. Love and serve Christ's people. Nourish them, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.
- Proclaim the Gospel. Lately, it has been fashionable to proclaim "justice" or maybe even "Jesus," but not "Gospel." The Diocese of South Dakota took the word Gospel out of its vision statement and replaced it with Jesus. Why is this a problem? Because revisionists reduce Jesus to a mythological character, and bend him this way and that to symbolize their political positions or emotional binges. But the Bible and our charge as ordained ministers is to proclaim his Good News - the real Jesus and the message he made real in his earthly ministry. His Good News is spelled out specifically and one cannot read the Bible honestly without encountering it: his cross was "necessary" and it's result is "remission of sin." By our words and in our lives, that message must be preached. Priests who witness to something less than or other than Christ's death for the forgiveness of sin have betrayed their Lord and their ordinations.
- Love and serve Christ's people. Too many of us have become navel gazers. Too many speak a psychological language of personal entitlement and self-satisfaction. Too many expect congregations to susidize us while we spend time and effort on hobbies, esoteric studies, and political activism; in many cases our endeavors are irrelevant or even hostile to Christianity and the spiritual well being of Christians. The people belong to Christ, and he is trusting us to "nourish" them in worship (Glorify God in this life) and Gospel hope (the life to come). We betray Christ and our ordinations when we ignore this responsibility.
- Strengthen them to glorify God. God's people need strength, because the world, the flesh and the devil will attack those who follow Christ. The world, the flesh and the devil "glorify" themselves, setting up idols, instead of giving glory to God. Christ has set us apart to strengthen his people and turn them away from predatory, self-serving idols. Christ has blessed us to turn his people toward the glory of God who loves us and is for us. We weaken the people when we give informational lectures instead of Biblical sermons. We starve them when we serve cold worship. We deny God's glory when we call Jesus a bloodless "vehicle of the divine" and the Bible an inert "instrument of engagement," terms used by national Episcopal leaders. We betray Christ and our ordinations when we deny the power of the Holy Spirit and the glory of God.
- The life to come. Along with his suffering, it was "necessary" that Jesus Christ rise from the dead. He is not just a symbol of human pain, but the world's living hope. How we rob Christ and his people when our only witness is to pop-psychological platitudes and political position papers - and when we twist Biblical language to justify our passing fads. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has served barely one generation, and already there are national church discussions to replace it. We talk much but offer little of enduring worth. We betray Christ and our ordinations when we invest ourselves in things that are passing away.
How can priests fall so far from the Gospel and their high calling to serve it?
- Many people seek ordination with wrong motives. Some are abusive types who desire access to victims (the same thing goes on in medicine, financial services, counseling, teaching or any number of other fields). Others are people who don't know God and hope they'll find him by "being religious." Some are egotists who think that their political views or even their own personalities deserve to be saluted as "holy." Harsh to say, but "garbage in, garbage out."
- The Episcopal Church's "country club" background has caught up with us. The ordination process (and in this, lay people have much decisive power and therefore blame) is set up to welcome people who are socially decorous. An athiest with a PhD can be ordained in TEC; a laborer who knows the Gospel probably can't. People who are comfortable, in life and in their pews, will "hire" clergy to keep them comfortable (and this can be as true of "conservatives" as of progressives). Without the glory of God, we cast about for some other point of reference - American social consensus (and there isn't one to hold onto anymore), political correctness, Millenium Development Goals - something, anything that the club members can talk about with wine and cheese.
- The devil knows that corruption of leaders is the best way to damage the church. The Biblical warnings are abundant. The headlines scream it. Clergy are under constant spiritual attack, and a denomination like TEC works to disarm us and keep us flabby.
The demise of TEC is not the end of the world. God's plan will go forward and be fulfilled. As many will hear in church tomorrow, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). But there is great sadness and pain that many will suffer because of corrupt priests. And there will be many - priests, bishops, deacons and lay people - who will never pass through the "narrow door" and will be locked out of the Heavenly Banquet. And that ought to break the hearts of all of us who stand in pulpits and at altars, ordained to preach and celebrate the Gospel - because Christ died to save sinners .