Today we celebrate… - what do we celebrate? - the kingship of Christ. Yes, we also are gathered to celebrate the ordination of Andrew as priest, because Christ is King. In our OT reading Isaiah glimpsed the kingship of God – glimpsed the throne, overwhelming glory, angels, the lot, in a vision. ‘Yet my eyes have seen the King’. Must have wondered if his eyes needed testing afterwards. The gospel depicts much the same scene: Christ is seated on a throne, in glory, with angels around him. Yet King Uzziah has died and everyone is grieving; yet (we may presume from Matthew) there are hungry people, homeless people, plenty of tragedy. How come Christ is King? A case of those with eyes to see, to see through the outward circumstances, to see past the immediate circumstances (king dying, whatever) to glimpse the ultimate reality which is at the core of everything. Friends, Christ reigns. Despite our economic crisis; despite war in Iraq and escalating violence in Congo; …. Christ reigns. In fact history would suggest it is just these circumstances that may bring us to glimpse it. That the universe is not rolling uncontrollably in its orbit – but has been put in place, and continues to be sustained by Jesus, the creator, the word-made-flesh, the king who will return in glory.
It was the glimpse of glory – coupled with the transforming experience of forgiveness – that propelled Isaiah into ministry. To hear God’s call (presumably going on all the time – but this time he had the ears to hear) and to volunteer, he knew not for what.
And it is, so far as I know, the glimpse of God and the call of God – that has brought Andrew here. Goodness, it’s taken plenty of discernment – how many dioceses and bishops and seminaries, Andrew? – and plenty of patience on the part of those walking with Andrew and waiting. That walk has included time at Ground Zero soon after 9-11; and a few years in carpentry in Arizona. (you take following Jesus very literally, don’t you?). Can we still proclaim Christ is King having spent time amidst the dust and death and devastation of Ground Zero? Certainly it is no facile gospel that comes out of that experience. Christ has died – sure. Christ is risen – perhaps, though he sure isn’t very evident around here some of the time. But will Christ will come again? Either you give up hope: or you’re absolutely longing for it, judgment, glory and all.
Andrew is answering that question here today, with his life. Your example helps us to ‘get’ the kingship of Christ. Not because you put on fine robes and parody a king. (that would be, rather, pomposity – something that your brother and sister worked hard to deliver you from in the past; and I suspect Esme is already in training for that important work in the future). Your priesthood will help us understand the kingship of Christ when you are willing to engage with the pain of our world without hiding from it, when you are able to catch the eye of a hungry person who comes here for soup and recognize Christ -witnessing to the silver lining behind every cloud, holding firm to the hope that is set before you, demonstrating by your whole being that nothing – not homelessness or hunger, not divorce or death or twin-tower destruction – shakes the truth that lies in God: that Christ is risen and Christ will come again in glory. The meaninglessness and mess is ultimately out-narrated. You work for that day because you are one who has glimpsed the real world behind our current experience. Like Isaiah.
Isaiah is often read at an ordination, because of the parallels: you have determined a call You have glimpsed God, the fullness of God’s majesty and holiness – even if only the fringe of the hem of the robe. That concentration of godliness we assume to be terrifying – so terrifying, in fact, that we expect to die.
You have known your own weakness: that amounts not just to acknowledging your humanity and vulnerability, not just your Ground Zero hopelessness, but your sinfulness. For any of us our spiritual formation – our spiritual transformation – begins at that point of brokenness and dependence. We deserve to die; yet the grace of God is such that we not only don’t die, we are swept up into his purposes. We are invited to be part of his body. And we are called into God’s service. All of us.
God’s call = an invitation to Isaiah to hear the song of the angels. And join it. Literally, in fact, in your role as priest – to join in leading it among God’s people. At the sanctus at every Eucharistic celebration)
Following that call begins with sins forgiven, with the giddy freedom of knowing God holds nothing against you. So does yours. Prior to forgiveness, God’s holiness is terrifying. After forgiveness, God’s glory is contagious. And today the church is giving you the authority to mediate God’s forgiveness, to absolve sin, to be God’s seraph to God’s people. Being the seraphim, bringing forgiveness to others. Dangerous, vulnerable, vital. The building shaking
Now Isaiah didn’t have that privilege. The authority the church is investing in you today to forgive sins does not stem from the church itself: it begins with Christ. You can forgive the sins of others only because J died, and forgave you.
That means there is nothing about you can or should ever prevent you from forgiving others. Did you hear that? (Donatism). No matter how dreadful a mistake you make as a person, as a priest, it cannot and must not prevent you from offering God’s forgiveness as priest to others.
Because you do it in and through God, not anything of your own. Your ministry is not about you: it is about God.
That is the other cure for pomposity.
The role you played for your father years ago – taking him down a peg or two (reminding him you were the one with the rights to call him Fr Ernie). Hope Esme will play the same role for you. (Good job you’re not king, Dad, I hear her saying in the future)
You are being ordained at a time when the church is not just divided but dividing further, against a background of mainline decline, in a country heading for a serious depression. You’re crazy! Your job is not to reinstate the power of a former era; to pine for a time when the church exercised more power and influence in society; to imitate Christ’s kingship literally (that was the mistake of Israel’s kings). You are to be the seraph who commutes between the throne of heaven and the mess of a broken world; you are to be the donkey that carries the Christ the king, whether people recognize the king or not.
But by the way, Isaiah’s calling was pretty hellish. To tell people they were losers and heading for exile. We love to read the story of this call at ordinations but we always stop at verse 8. He’s volunteered but he hasn’t a clue what’s in store. I wonder if that’s how Andrew feels…
What will keep Andrew going?
Answer: the kingship of Christ.
Ultimately, nothing depends on you. Sure, the young adult program may not have its meetings…
Andrew: your priesthood qualifies you to preside at the eucharist, to lift others to the throne of God in glory. And to lead us as we join in the song of the angels around the heavenly throne:
Holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty
Heaven and earth are full of his glory: Hosanna in the highest!
Preached by the Rev. Dr. Jo Baily Wells at the Ordination of Andrew Ashcroft to the Priesthood
23 November 2008
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia