Holy Cross Day, 2020 (Trinity, Lincoln)–John 12:31-36a, Philippians 2:5-11, Psalm 98
A little more than six months ago, we gathered here—most who are here now were here then, and many who were here then are here now—we gathered here six months ago to configure Christopher Ben Simpson to the sacrament of holy order in the Holy Catholic Church by making him a deacon. For as far back in time as there is historical evidence to consider, it has been the practice of the church to ordain successively—that is, before someone can be made a priest, they’ve got to be made a deacon first, and before consecration as a bishop, evidence must be submitted of prior ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood. I don’t think anybody is sure of the precise reason for this. In the Episcopal Church, there have been a handful of proposals sent to General Convention over the last three or four decades to allow direct ordination to the priesthood, skipping over the diaconate, and—well—these proposals make a certain amount of sense theologically, in my opinion. But, sometimes, theological sense is not in itself a compelling argument. Sometimes the best response to a “why” question is, in fact, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
So, the best way I know how to frame the ordination of a “transitional deacon” is to think of it, not in term of diaconal ministry, per se, but of the sacrament of order, understood generically. Back in March, in making Chris a deacon, we conformed his life—his character, his being—to a structure of accountability. He became, as it were, a “company man”—company in the sense of how we use it in the Rite One postcommunion prayer—“the blessed company of all faithful people,” having already identified it as “the mystical body of” God’s Son. Chris was authorized to speak with the authority of the company, the whole people of God, to a local gathering of some of the people of God.
Today we are adding an endorsement, a gloss, a codicil, an inflection—do you see my point?—we are reframing what we did back in March, by making Chris Simpson a presbyter—literally, an elder—and in the Christian vernacular, a priest. A priest, generically, is one who stands in the gap between sinful humanity and a holy God. A priest advocates on behalf of sinners, that God would spare them from his righteous wrath.
The only true priest, the only one in whom that character of priesthood is organically inherent, is, of course, Jesus himself. Jesus is our Great High Priest, the one who interposes himself—his sinless life and his once-offered sacrifice on the cross—as the only perfect offering for the sins of the whole world. Any ministry in the church that we call priestly is derivative, an extension, by grace, of the priestly ministry of Jesus our Savior.
So, the priestly ministry to which we ordain Chris this evening is none other than the priesthood of Jesus the Great High Priest. Our petition as we lay hands on him will be that the Holy Spirit conform Chris to this prototype of all priesthood.
When Chris and I were discussing potential dates for this event, the opportunity to ordain him on the Feast of Holy Cross was too appealing for either of us to pass up. And so we have this gospel reading from John, in which Jesus said of himself, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” Just as Jesus was “lifted up”—that is, lifted up on the cross—that he “might draw all men to himself,” so Chris’ ministry will require his willingness to be “lifted up” to that same end. There’s a double meaning to being “lifted up.” Being ordained to the priesthood carries with it a certain presumptive honor; one might even say, an exalted status. But from the lofty height of the pedestal on which people will place him from time to time, Chris will know that he is only that much closer to being lifted up on the cross. The life of a priest, as any priest of very much experience will tell you, is a cruciform life. Chris Simpson will never need to question the whereabouts of the cross that Jesus bids him take up daily in order to be a disciple. That cross will be right in front of him when he gets out of bed in the morning.
St Paul, writing to the Philippians, point us to Jesus who was “obedient unto death, even death on the cross.” In the days before my own ordination to the priesthood in 1989, I had one of the most vivid and realistic dreams of my life. I was with the rector of the parish that sent me to seminary three years earlier, a priest who, in many ways, was already the template for my own ordained ministry. We were on a beach, but we were not on vacation. You may have heard of the practice of some devout Christians in the Philippines, who, as an act of devotion, persuade their friends to literally crucify them, to nail them to a cross. Of course, these same friends take them down from the cross shortly thereafter, so they don’t lose their lives, and—who knows?—maybe some of them have it done multiple times. Anyway, in my dream, this is what was happening on the beach. People were getting crucified. And I had the unmistakable sense, though nobody actually told me, that I was waiting in line, that it would soon be my turn to be nailed to a cross. And, without my even asking, the priest who had for years been my own pastor said to me quite matter-of-factly, “Oh, you knew about this, didn’t you? If you’re going to be a priest, you have to get crucified.”
And as I look back on 31 years of ordained ministry, save for the nails and the blood, he was right. Make no mistake: the cross is a place of suffering. Chris Simpson will likely not be literally crucified, but there will be times when he feels like he is. And those moments of agony will be for the glory of God, the benefit of God’s people, and the perfection of Chris’ own holiness.
After he foretells his own crucifixion, Jesus tells his followers, “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness will not overtake you.” That’s what we’re doing here this evening. This is a collective act of fleeing from darkness, of walking while we have the light. It’s simultaneously an act of desperation and an act of hope. I mean, it’s no small thing to invite somebody to get crucified. Those who join me in the laying-on of hands—indeed, anyone who responded “It is” or “We will” a few minutes ago—may as well be pounding the nails. That’s pretty desperate. But it’s also an act of hope. Jesus said to his disciples about his own “lifting up” — “now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” We persevere in walking in the light, confident that the ruler of this world, the source of all our suffering and sorrow, is indeed being driven out by the lifting up of Jesus Christ on the cross.
By grace, Christopher Ben Simpson will persevere with us on that long walk in the light, shining that light on the ruler of this world being driven out. The Lord will make known his victory! In the words of the Psalmist, “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.”
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.