Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear Con, dear John, and dear Ray
A few years ago I visited the Greek Island of Patmos where, in a cave still there today, St John the Divine received the visions he recorded in the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament. The Island is dominated by an impressive Orthodox monastery, founded in the year 1091 by Abbot Christodoulos, now a Saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. Christodoulos is a wonderful name. It means the slave of Christ.
Slavery has a terrible and shameful history. It unacceptably continues today. Neither slavery nor trafficking have any place in our world. The Church plays and important part in working to combat these evils and must continue to do so. But spiritual slavery in Christ, the slavery of service, is something completely different.
If we take the Lord Jesus at His word, and we do, then tonight you, Con, John and Ray, are willingly entering a blessed form of slavery. This could sound somewhat bizarre. But not for a disciple. And certainly not for a disciple about to be ordained a deacon. ‘Anyone who wants to be great among you,’ says the Lord ‘must be your servant. And anyone who wants to be first among you must be their slave.’ How on earth can this make any sense? Only if we accept that the Saviour of the world, the Son of Man, whom you are called to imitate in a new and definitive manner, ‘came not to be served but to serve,’ to be a slave ‘and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Tonight you are not forcibly shackled, but freely bound in love to Christ your Master and your Lord.
Each of your particular pathways to this moment has been an unfolding of God’s loving providence, together with your families and friends, and those who have accompanied and guided your journey. Your declaration that you are ‘present,’ before me and this congregation, and the testimony given about you, signals that you are ready to make a lifelong commitment to Christ, to His Church, and to His people. And your commitment is this: to be a servant. That sounds slightly more acceptable than a slave doesn’t it? But we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact that alongside diakonos – or servant – in St Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus, in the same breath, also uses the word doulos or slave. Your commitment is serious, permanent, and wholehearted. You are no longer to live for yourself, but for Him.
Our English word slave comes from Latin via Old French. It has a root that means to be held captive. Or, putting it in a slightly different way, to be captivated. This sheds a positive light. You, my sons, have become so captivated by Christ, so attracted by Him, that having followed Him as a disciple you now follow Him as a deacon. You have found in Christ the joyful meaning and purpose to life, so much so that you want to share His Gospel with others. Christ so enchants and enthrals you that you desire to live like Him in a radical manner, walking beside those you serve in charity, with complete selflessness, gentleness, and patience.
All ordained ministry must seek to be a source of unity and peace. To make this possible, it is Christ Himself who give us a share in His grace. Nothing about our common service through the Sacrament of Holy Orders should be authoritarian. We are not ordained to power, but to service. We are not ordained to control, but to enable. We are not ordained to greatness or entitlement, but to gifting our lives and not counting the cost. We must go wherever the Lord sends us, and serve whomever we find there, knowing that He is with us to protect us, to give us words to speak with confidence and compassion.
As a deacon of Jesus Christ, as His slave, His servant, you must lead a life worthy of your vocation. The sacred vestments with which you will be clothed are symbols and reminders of your new identity. They are the exterior signs of the interior reshaping which takes place through prayer and the laying on of hands. The stole you will wear across your chest, close to your heart, is the harness of your obedience and fidelity. The dalmatic you will wear, shaped like the cross, is the apron of your dedication and service. This is the uniform of those under the command of the Servant Saviour. Like Him, you must wash feet without hesitation. Like Him, you must wait on table with courtesy and perseverance. Like Him, you must humble yourself to find greatness in the Kingdom.
My brothers your diaconal ministry must be founded on your personal and intimate relationship with Christ which is nurtured through prayer. There is no substitute for time spent with the Lord. Without it, your ministry will suffer. Whatever you do for the Lord must be sourced in time spent with the Lord. You are to announce Christ’s presence, especially through the proclamation of the Gospel, through assisting the Bishop, and his priests, at the altar, and through a distinctive concern for the weakest and the poorest, whoever they may be. Your ministry is bound to, and dependent upon, mine as your Bishop, and to the bond of communion between us.
By your faith-filled preaching encourage people to invite the Lord Jesus into their lives, perhaps for the first time, or in a new and deepened way. Be prepared, at what might seem the most inconvenient times, to see and serve the Lord Jesus in every person and situation. With a servant’s heart you will meet Christ in places you never expected. If you persist in loving, long after anyone is looking, or there is any benefit to yourself, you will mature into the fullness of Christ Himself. Let your faith shine through everything you are, everything you say, and everything you do. As the Lord Jesus’ deacon you must also be His beacon. Captivated by Christ, you are to attract people to Christ, building up His body.
‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.’ These words of the Lord God to the Prophet Isaiah are words of Christ to you today. God in Christ knew and loved you before you were created. He has been with you through all the twists and turns of life thus far, and He will not stop now.
The Prophet Isaiah protested at the Lord’s call saying ‘But I am a child.’ My brothers you are not children anymore, even though, before God, we can all sometimes feel small and inexperienced. It’s no bad thing to be in the nursery of Christian discipleship. It stops us being proud and arrogant. It prevents us thinking we have nothing to learn. Trust that the Lord has called you through His Church and sends you out in the name of His Church. Have the certainty of faith and genuine humility. It is the Lord who stretches out His hand and lays it upon your head. It is the Lord who consecrates and appoints you, entrusting you with the care of His household.
Dear Con, John and Ray, this evening you take to yourself a new name, that of Christ’s slave, His servant, His deacon. You too are a Christodoulos, ordained for the sanctification of God’s people. As you continue to be captivated by Christ so, through the knowledge and witness of His love, may you captivate others for Him.
✠ John Wilson Archbishop of Southwark