The Spirit Who Empowers Us All to Be Bishops, Priests and Deacons

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Readings for Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 20:19-23

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on June 8, 2014.

Today is a special day not only because it is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church (the 1,981st birthday of the church –if my calculations are correct) but today is also special (at least for me) because it is the first year anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. Last year, on this day June 8th , I was ordained a transitional deacon and I am glad to be spending this anniversary here with you all at Church of the Redeemer. A year ago, moments before the bishop laid his hands on my head, I prostrated myself on the cathedral floor as hundreds of people sang the words “Veni Sancte Spiritus” which means “Come Holy Spirit.” And then the bishop of Los Angeles prayed “give your Holy Spirit to Daniel; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your church.” And then six months later, we did it all again, except the bishop replaced the word “deacon” with “priest.”

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Now I have a question. At Pentecost, we celebrate the profligate outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all of God’s people, empowering, consecrating and ordaining all of us. So then why do we have ordained ministers, if we are all ordained already? According to Scripture, we are all priests by virtue of our baptism. (1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev 1:5-6), so why then do we have people like Molly and myself designated as priests? And why do we make such a big deal out of “ordination”?

Ordained priests are intended to serve as icons (sacramental images) of the common priesthood of all believers. Ordained priests derive their priesthood from the priesthood of the whole people and represent that priesthood to itself.[1] In fact, the sacramental priesthood is secondary to the common (or fundamental) priesthood we all share by our participation in Pentecost through our baptism. Furthermore, all of the ordained clergy (deacons, priests, and bishops) are all icons of the deaconhood, the priesthood and the bishophood of all believers. We are all deacons when we serve as a bridge between the church and the world. We are all priests when we engage in reconciliation. And we are all bishops when we work for and embody the unity of God’s people.

In John’s version of Pentecost, we read about Jesus breathing the Spirit upon his disciples, bestowing upon them his peace, commissioning them out into the world and empowering them with the authority to forgive sins. In this short Gospel reading, I hear Jesus ordaining us all to be bishops, deacons and priests.

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When Jesus says, “Peace be with you” he is giving his disciples (including us) the peace which the world cannot give (John 14:27), the peace which flows between the Father and the Son, the peace which sweeps us into the unity of the Triune God, which the early church fathers described using the word perichoresis which means “circle dance.” When Jesus says “Peace be with you” he invites us into the divine circle dance so that we may experience the loving unity of the Godhead and embody that unity as God’s beloved community, as God’s church. Jesus’ final prayer before his Passion was that we might be one as he and the Father are one (which was the Gospel reading last week). This oneness is only possible by the power of the Spirit, which the Risen Christ breathes upon his disciples. By the power of the Spirit, we are emboldened to sow peace and concord in the midst of discord and division. In working towards this and embodying this peace, we are being bishops. And the sacramental role of the ordained bishop is to serve as an icon of our common role as bishops, as those who sow harmony and embody peace by the power of the Spirit, by the power of the Risen Christ who says to us, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus then says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” With these words, Jesus empowers us to be to the world what Jesus was to the world: to heal, to feed the poor, and to bring life, light and love. In John, Jesus certainly stresses the importance of loving one another within the community when he says, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (13:35).” However, Jesus refuses to stop there. The Spirit is given not only for us to love one another within the church but also to go out into the world and serve the last, the lost and the least. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” The Spirit empowers us to work for the benefit of those outside of the church, especially the sick, the poor and the needy. When we pursue this calling, we serve as a bridge between the church and the world and therefore we serve as deacons. The members of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group serve as deacons each month when they serve salad and cookies to the poor in San Rafael and support the Rev. Paul Gaffney in his street chaplaincy. The sacramental role of the ordained deacon is to serve as an icon of our common role as deacons, communicating the world’s needs to the church and pushing the church to care for its non-members (those for whose benefit we exist).

Finally, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now here it sounds like Jesus is giving us the power not only to forgive sins but also to withhold forgiveness: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now why would Jesus tell us to withhold forgiveness? In Matthew, Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” So why would Jesus give us the spiritual and Pentecostal power to withhold forgiveness?

My answer is that I don’t think he gives us that power at all. What we have here is a mistranslation and misinterpretation of the Greek text. The translation of the first clause (ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς) “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” is fairly accurate, but the translation of the second clause needs a closer look. The Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτίας which you may have noticed when I read the first clause in Greek. Now listen to the second clause in Greek: ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. Did you hear the word ἁμαρτίας? Sin? No, because it’s not there. It was added by the translator. [2] A literal translation of the Greek would be “Whomever you embrace they are embraced.”The direct object in the first clause is sin, which is forgiven. The direct object in the second clause is the person who is embraced. You may have heard the adage “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Here, Jesus is saying “I’m giving you power to forgive the sin and to embrace the sinner.”[3]

So with these words Jesus does not empower us to withhold forgiveness. Instead, Jesus empowers us to forgive and to embrace and include and welcome others into the circle dance of love that flows between the Father, the Son, the Spirit and the Church. Through these words, the Holy Spirit empowers us to let go of that which we need to let go and to hold onto and embrace that which we need to embrace. One of my favorite poets Mary Oliver concludes one of her poems with the following words: “To live in this world

 / you must be able
 to do three things:
to love what is mortal; /
 to hold it

 / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
 / to let it go.” Reconciliation involves holding and embracing that which needs to be embraced and those whom need to embraced and also letting go of that of which we need to let go.

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The Holy Spirit empowers us to forgive and let go of our anger and frustration towards others so that we can truly embrace and welcome them into the beloved community. When we do this, we are being agents of reconciliation and we are being priests. The sacramental role of the ordained priest is to serve as an icon of our common role as priests, forgiving and embracing, letting go and holding on, in order to bring reconciliation.

So today we celebrate the birthday of the church when the Holy Spirit empowered all of God’s people to be deacons, priests and bishops by building bridges between the world and the beloved community, by working for reconciliation and by embodying peace and unity. We step into these roles at different times and in different ways throughout our lives and we each incarnate these holy orders in our own unique and beautiful styles: “there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.”

And the ordained clergy act out these roles in the liturgy in order to show the people what the Spirit has empowered all of us to do in the world. And often the real work of outreach, reconciliation and peace-making is done not by clergy, but by the laity. William Temple understood this when he wrote, “Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.”[4] Most of the time, according to Temple, it is not the ordained clergy who are serving as deacons, priests and bishops in the world but the laity.

Finally, I have loved every minute of my ordained life and ministry and I am certainly called to be a priest and deacon in the world and not just in the church. However, part of my calling as a priest and deacon is to remind the people of God of the profound power that we have all received through the Holy Spirit so that we may all be God’s priests (deacons, and bishops) in a world that is in desperate need of God’s love. Yesterday, more than a hundred people were confirmed by the Bishop, including members of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group, and again we sang “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, asking the Spirit to come and empower God’s people. And may that be our prayer today on Pentecost. Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit, make us all your priests in the world. Amen.

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[1] L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Harrisburg PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 44.

[2]ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. If we were to translate the Greek of the first clause literally it would read something like this: “Of whomever you forgive the sins they are forgiven to them” and so the translation “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” captures the meaning quite well.

[3] Sandra Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, 181.

[4] William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (New York: Penguin, 1942), 17.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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