Sermon preached by Rev. Fr Michael Elliott at the Ordination Service at the Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega Spanish Town on Sunday, July 2, 2017

Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul

Today we welcome into our Diocese, the church’s newest priests and deacon. That is if between now and the actual ordination rite they do not hear from God that this is not their calling and they leave us. Nina-Rae, Marjorie, Natalie and Dwane – if you think your receiving such text from God please ask Him to forward same to the bishops in keeping with Jesus’ own words concerning the testimony of two or more witnesses.

Nevertheless, in faith please allow me to offer my own congratulations and those of my wife Trecia, who unfortunately could not be here due to work commitments overseas and sends her best wishes and prayers for you all. I also extend congratulations on behalf of the congregations of the Cure of the Holy Spirit in Portmore and Caymanas Estate.

Our reflections this afternoon is based on the account of Saul’s conversion experience in Acts 9:1-19a (which I will not read but refer to) The story begins with the statement “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” There we find an insignificant but key word – “still”. [Which most translations use, though a few use other words like – yet breathing out threats; kept up breathing out threats; most however use the word ‘still’] The resurrection has come, but Saul and the powers of evil are “still” at work (9:1). Saul has “official “letters” authorizing wholesale arrests of those who belong to “the Way” (9:2). Committed to the Jewish faith and tradition of his parents, Paul then Saul, sees the growing Christian movement as a threat. He is motivated by love for his tradition and not disbelief in God. He wants to maintain his status quo – the purity of his faith tradition from internal corruption. So Saul sets off for Damascus and all signs point to further success of his mission.

May I draw some parallels regarding this manifestation of evil within our own Jamaican context. As Christians, year after year, we celebrate feasts like Easter, Pentecost, Christmas and the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul – all of which are built around the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the dead and His victory over sin, death and the powers of evil. Yet without a doubt, throughout the length and breadth of our beloved country the powers of evil are still at work, being effective and seem to have control over many aspects of our nation’s daily life. And the question may then be asked “so what of the power and effect of the Resurrection we Christians celebrate?” “How is it helping our people, our nation? Secondly, as with Saul and the Disciples of the Way, we are also inundated with challenges to the reality, validity and authenticity of Christianity by unbelievers, atheists, doubters, skeptics and other religious beliefs.

This, my brother and sister ordinands, is the Jamaica and the world that confronts you as you, like the disciples, go ‘on the way’ of this ministry that you have been called to. The story continues: In verse three of Acts 9 we then read of the sudden, surprising entry of God into ordinary events. A light flashes “around” Saul and he bows to the voice, which quickly identifies the object of Saul’s persecution as not Christians, but “me,” “Jesus” (9:45). The command quickly cuts to the chase (9:6). “Get up and go into the city.”

Right away we see that God’s intervention into the ordinary, leaves no doubt about who is really in control of Saul’s destiny and dare I say, reminds us of who is in control even of Jamaica’s destiny and dare I further say, that of our Ordinands.

Ananias: A Second Conversion

The story then shifts to Damascus to a disciple named Ananias, one of Saul’s former targets. In the close parallels of the accounts of Saul and Ananias, James Boyce, a Lutheran New Testament Professor at the Luther Seminary in the USA, suggests that there are really two conversions taking place here. To his (Mary like) obedient “Here I am, Lord” Ananias receives the same cryptic command “Get up and go” but with explicit instructions regarding the object of his assignment: Saul (9:11). When the voice makes reference to Saul’s “prayer” and vision of one coming to lay hands on him so that he can regain his sight, the narrative already anticipates the continuing intervention of God and invites us into a future that even Ananias is not quite ready to see. In other words friends, obedience to God invites us into a future that often only God alone sees and knows – this is one way in which we Christians exercise our faith and trust in the Resurrected Lord. For Nina-Rae, Dwane, Marjorie and Natalie, the same applies for you. Yours is a future that God alone sees. And today in particular, as hands are laid upon you as was done with Paul, this same Jesus also commands you to GET UP AND GO!”

Ananias however responds with an excuse, “I have heard from others …how many evil things he has done.” Ananias like all of us, knows all too well the depth of the evils of our world and about persons like Saul. Similarly – for many of us – the past still seeks to define and control our present and even our visions of the future. Too often we forget Christ’s own words to His disciples – “For with God all things are possible”. We must exercise our faith in the promise of God’s word – believing that the ways of the world, our nation, our church are being rearranged by “the Right hand of God . . . in our Land” as the hymn writer declares.

So the command to Ananias is repeated along with supporting rationale. “Go, because”. Because Saul (and Dwayne, Marjorie, Natalie and Nina-Rae) are God’s chosen vessels who will carry God’s name. In God’s hands even the powers of evil must bow to His bidding, His purpose and His will, and this truth gives us hope that the future, which while, influenced by evil is NOT under the control of evil but rather is under the control of the resurrected Lord of Easter and the Spirit and power of Pentecost!

So now Ananias obeys. He goes, enters, and lays hands on Saul. His address, “Brother Saul” is a sign of the new relationship underway in fulfillment of the promise. It is sealed in baptism as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and outpouring, evidence of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God Shapes a New Community
In this story a profound transformation takes place between Saul’s opening threats and his preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is God’s resurrected Son. The two conversions are a sign of how the intervention of the risen Christ takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers, then and now.

In this story disciples and non-disciples alike are caught up in the plan of God’s design.

The story of Saul and Ananias invite us to ponder how we will look at our own world when God takes our negative, pessimistic “things can’t change or get any better” and transforms them into “Yes – for with God all things are possible.” As with Saul’s and Ananias’ new perspective, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being and acting. God transforms our world by His interventions.

Dwane, Marjorie, Natalie and Nina-Rae are here before us as God has intervened in their lives and they have subsequently responded to that same God who said to Saul and Ananias – “Get up and Go!” In doing so they have committed themselves to work with our God for the transformation of our communities, our church, our nation and our world.

Jamaica has the potential to become such a new community – however it will begin to take shape when we the Church, fully accept and grasp our mandate to Go and declare the Easter message! Believing that the power of the resurrection is at work in our land, confronting the strongholds of evil in the home and the workplace, in our schools and communities. How? When we, the people of God and all conscientious Jamaicans take our stand against corruption and dishonesty, against greed and injustice, against hatred, jealousy and oppression. When we speak out in our own circles of influence, promoting the standards of honesty, justice, peace and righteous, selfless behaviour. When we become the beacons of hope to a society that is being battered by the experiences of life – described by the Rev. Dr. Burchell Taylor in 2002, in these words – “For many persons, life is now experienced as a burden instead of a blessing – a burden too painful to bear and too heavy to confront”. Taylor went further to suggest that as the Church we must do the following – Proclaim, Embody and Practice the gospel of Hope in and to our nation. You, me, my brothers and sisters including our ordinands are charged to do the same!

This gospel of hope speaks of God’s intervention into the ordinary, every day lives of each of us, as HE likewise intervened in the ordinary everyday lives of Saul and Ananias. God is at work in our nation often in ways many do not see or recognize:- He intervenes when a 5 year old child of our Basic School at CHS was able to point her mother to seek the help of the Church (which she does not attend). When the mother asks why, the child says, because every Monday, the members of that church and Fr. Michael do devotions with us and we learn to prayer to God.

He is at work through the numerous Church and Diocesan programmes that provide food for the homeless, shelter for abandoned and abused children (Wortley Home, St. Monica’s Home and Clifton’s Boys Home), care for our elderly and so on. HE intervenes when hope becomes our state of mind. When we, the people of God become beacons pointing, guiding persons toward a better way of life, better values and attitudes that are grounded in the Word of God. When our people begin to see themselves as persons of worth and value, even if they are poor and homeless, educated or uneducated, male or female, gay or straight. The Gospels and the examples of Sts. Peter and Paul and Ananias are reminders of God’s powerful interventions in to the life of humanity, then and now, in order to bring humanity into the reality of His love for all persons demonstrated by His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead.

Nina-Rae, Dwane, Natalie and Marjorie, you are called to minister to God’s people in such a way that together as the Body of Christ, and individuals, we declare and manifest God’s HOPE to a nation that is seeking to find its way in a world of mayhem, confusion, uncertainty, terror, fear and seeming hopelessness.

For the first half of this year we have had over 700 murders, (48 per week the statistics say). We the people of God MUST be able to provide an alternative to the hopelessness brought on to our people by fear of the unknown future, crime, greed, corruption, child abuse, domestic violence, murder, and Godlessness; and we are not helped by leaders who do not seem to have any realistic, workable or relevant answers to the state of our nation and the world. WE ARE IN CRISIS!

But we are the CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD and you our ordinards are being called to join the charge to bring HOPE in this time of crisis. Dr. Taylor explained HOPE to mean the following:-
             H.O.P.E. – Helping Our People Endure in a time of crisis
             (Theme from Christian Teaching Conference 2002)

Elaborating on this idea, Taylor defined the crisis facing our nation as “a deep seated and pervasive loss of confidence in life and about life itself”.

 

• This crisis leads people to desperate action  Drug abuse, Hedonistic behaviour and sexual immorality, suicide, violence, scamming, anarchy and chaos.

• This crisis in our land is a spiritual matter. The spiritual has been disregarded, devalued, limited and marginalized, removed from the center of our nation’s life and existence.

Without Hope –  Life is meaninglessness and is replaced by lawlessness and Godlessness. It imprisons life in its present circumstances with no exit that is meaningful, says Taylor. There is no viable alternative. Many people see no way out!
The world in which the church finds itself has also been described by Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Truth speaks to Power, and he further defines the world that the church finds itself in, as a society that has:

“Lost its way in its easy violence against the vulnerable;

Lost its way in its uncritical exploitation of the less entitled;

Lost its way in its easy commitment to greed as a way of life;

Lost its way in false promises of happiness and security;

 

Lost its way in its presumption about entitlement and privilege as the chosen people.”

As leaders in God’s Church, Nina-Rae, Marjorie, Natalie and Dwane (along with all our clergy and church workers), you must be prepared to confront the crisis in our land and bring HOPE to our people. In order to confront the crisis, I combine words from both Rev. Taylor and Robert Linthicum, Pastor and author of the book Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform Their Communities. In order to make the following suggestions to our ordinands, and indeed to all of us:-

1. EMBODY the Gospel – Listen to it, study it, engage God’s word and learn from God. There is a sense in which this also means . . .

2. PROCLAIM the Gospel – Obey our Lord Christ and so demonstrate the meaning and power of the Good News in your own daily lives.

 

3. PRACTICE the Gospel – Love God and your neighbour as yourselves. Engage God’s people in their stories. Learn to, and practice loving God’s people – whoever they are, wherever they are, as they are.

4. Become God’s PRESENCE in their homes and families, in their communities, in their schools, neighbourhood, and workplaces, wherever God has placed you.

5. PRAY for their homes and communities, in their schools, neighbourhood, and workplaces, wherever God has placed you.

In other words bring HOPE – Help Our People Endure in the time of crisis. Rev. Taylor further reminds us that:

• Hope is what breathes life into our human existence.
• Hope liberates us – sets us free from the despairing, depressing, enslaving view of the dominant culture in our society.
• Hope gives us the ability to offer resistance and protest against all the things that destroy real life and the dignity of each person (greed, corruption, unrighteousness, unfaithfulness, poverty, unemployment etc.)
• Hope means engagement – building structures of justice and righteousness. This is not a popular view or action and it is costly and risky. It may even mean dealing with the power brokers in society, and engaging the poor, the homeless, the voiceless and marginalized in society.
• Hope engenders Joy. Nehemiah in addressing the people of his land following the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem declared 8:10 Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

My brothers and sisters, this ministry to which our ordinands have been called, also includes each and everyone of us. It is the mission of God, the Missio Dei and it necessitates each of us, not just our clergy, to come together as the Body of Christ, the Church, to bring this HOPE for one another, to our people and for our nation. In our churches, families, schools and communities, WE must learn how to and put away our petty differences and resolve our conflicts peacefully; learn to forgive one another our past hurts and sins, and come together to provide and demonstrate God’s alternative to our families, friends and neighbours, in our schools and workplaces, to our youth, the poor and needy, the oppressed and the voiceless, to our leaders, to one another, to our nation.

The Church – you and me, are the custodians and the messengers of HOPE for this nation. It is the reason Jesus came and died. We dare not keep it to ourselves. Our nation is waiting, looking for another way out of the depths of sin, evil, wickedness and hopelessness in order to become a nation of peace, justice, righteousness, and a safe haven for our children, our elderly and the oppressed.

Hope is a light that each Christian carries to light the life candles of others whose light is fading or has gone out. (eg of suicidal girl) [I recall very late one night, such a young lady friend called me(I was not yet ordainded). I woke Trecia and asked her to come with me (I don’t want my wife hear rumours of her husband’s late night shenanigans). We went to the girl’s home, just took her out of her gloomy environment, gave her something to eat – chatted, laughed and prayed. Today she is cheerful and hopeful about her future despite the ongoing presence of her problems.]

The church, our church is not realizing its potential to influence the environments in which it resides in terms of impacting issues of justice, crime, greed, corruption, poverty, hopelessness and other social and spiritual ills. Our churches need to be more visible in our communities, being relevant, and thereby making a tangible difference in the lives of the people where they serve. John Hull in his book, Towards the Prophetic Church; a study of Christian Mission, summarizes the culture of churches that have “wandered far from the biblical model” under three headings. Time will not allow me to explain in full what these mean, however to our ordinands, I say be careful you don’t fall into this trap. Hull states that churches that have wandered, tend to express:
“Words of faith without faithful actions,”
“Kingdom of God words without kingdom of God actions”
and “Uninterpreted actions” (Where Kingdom of God activities are performed but remain uninterpreted by Gospel words, that is, actions and words have become divorced)

Robert Linthicum, who I referred to earlier, summarizes the church’s mission with these words:

The future of the church lies in our capacity to move out of the comfortable ways we have learned to be “church” in order to embrace “church” as that community which is in mission to the world. We exist, like Jesus, to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to recover the sight of the blind, to enable the oppressed to go free and to [work for the coming of God’s kingdom of peace and justice]” (Luke 4:18-19).

After all, according to the WCC document popularly known as Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, “The chief responsibility of the ordained ministry is to assemble and build up the body of Christ by proclaiming and teaching the Word of God, by celebrating the sacraments, and by guiding the life of the community in its worship, its mission and its caring ministry.”

 

This is why Jesus came, This is why Jesus has called you and me. This is why He has called Dwane, Natalie, Marjorie and Nina-Rae, to be Channels of God’s Love, Hope and Joy in our communities, among God’s people and for God’s people. And as happened with Saul upon his conversion to Paul as Ananias laid hands upon him to receive the empowerment of God’s Spirit, so will you, my brother and sisters, have hands laid upon you and prayed for, for God’s Spirit to come upon you and so grant you His power and His grace to carry out His mission, and to do it in His strength, not your own. Dwane, Marjorie, Natalie and Nina-Rae – Go Forth with God and in the power of His Spirit! In doing so go bring HOPE to our people, in the midst of our crises.

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