The Rector’s Sermon for Passion Sunday, 2019

Passion Sunday, being the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 7th, 2019

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

Fr HawtinTwo weeks ago, Bishop Vaughan designated this parish church as a pro-Cathedral of the Diocese and installed me as Dean. In doing so, he declared that, far from an empty honor, it brings with it new responsibilities and a considerable increase in authority. In most respects, I stand for him in the northern half of the diocese.

He went on to preach a sermon that I would hazard a guess, made many of us feel rather uncomfortable. It certainly made my toes curl. His subject: The obligation of Christians to obey the shepherds God sets over them.

No human being—Christian or pagan—has ever viewed obedience, in any way, shape or form, with enthusiasm. This, of course, should come as no surprise. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us the one thing that utterly galled Adam and Eve was the duty to obey the God—even though he’d created them, given them life, and dominion over every other living creature on earth.

It is, thus. worth attempting to figure out the why God sets such vast store by this the most uncomfortable of obligations and how he means us to apply it in our lives.

An initial clue is found in the Ten Commandments. The first four deal with our relationship with God—and essentially their basic message is we should treat him with great respect. The remaining six commandments relate to our relationships with our fellow men.

And they contain the same fundamental message. We should treat them with the same respect we show to God. In short, God’s demands are not only remarkably modest, but are plainly intended to enable us to live comfortable lives.

This, however, raises an interesting question: If God wants us to live comfortable lives, why, then, does he impose on us the decidedly uncomfortable obligation to obey people who differ from us only in that they have been bestowed with fancy titles or have had “hands laid upon them”?

The answer lies—at least in part—in God’s concept of Christian leadership. Jesus laid it out graphically during the Last Supper when the apostles started bickering over who should have leadership roles in the Messiah’s future administration.  

Jesus’ concept of leadership must have come as an unpleasant shock to them. You’ll find it in the 22nd Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, Verses 25-27.

Jesus told them: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.”

Jesus’ concept of the leader as servant—coupled with his description of the Christian shepherd as a person who lays down his life for his sheep—is the complete antithesis of the human idea of a leader. Yet it is the model he expects every Christian leader to follow: from His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury to the laity in the pews; from the priest at the altar to the guys or gals in charge of putting up the tents at parish garden parties.

People being what they are, however, one has to admit it is an ideal honored more in breach than in practice. Humility is a virtue that’s usually in short supply even in churches—especially during episcopal elections.

“Purple-itis” as it is commonly known, is a disease that has been common among the clergy since the founding of the Church. And lay leaders are by no means immune to its secular equivalent—giving rise to the sobriquet “lay pope.”

There is, however, a remedy for incipient despotism and tyranny whether its origins are clerical or lay. And that lies in the nature of Christian obedience itself.

Baptism is not initiation into a secret society with iron discipline and harsh unbending rules. Joining a church is not the religious equivalent of enlisting in the Waffen SS. Indeed, the unique nature of Christian obedience is spelled out with crystal clarity during the Sacrament of Ordination for both priests and deacons.

The first promises they make concern the manner in which they will behave towards the people they serve:

They vow to “maintain and set forward … quietness, love and peace among all men, and diligently such discipline as by the authority of God’s word, and by the order of this Church, is committed” to them.

Their authority is thus limited by Jesus’ command: “Be ye merciful as your Father also is merciful” and St. Paul’s dictum: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”

They then take vows of obedience to the bishop that define the nature of Christian obedience. They are not vows of blind obedience—far from it. They promise to obey only the bishop’s “godly admonitions”; while, for added emphasis, the priests vow to submit only to the bishop’s “godly judgements.”

This duty to obey the “godly admonitions” and submit to the “godly judgments” of one’s superiors applies to laity as well as clergy. Even so, it’s important to understand that by no means all admonitions and judgements are “godly.” Indeed, if there’s any doubt in the matter it’s quite reasonable to ask for clarification by citation of chapter and verse

However, for Anglicans, when it comes to the question of obedience, it is the individual Christian’s conscience that is the ultimate deciding factor. And the Church in its wisdom has given us the General Confessions in the Book of Common Prayer to help us make up our minds on matters of conscience. The private, personal nature of a general confession is no easy way out because sincere Christians find the conscience a very hard task master.

But, then, Christian leadership is no easy matter either. When I was installed as Dean, I was given a fancy chair to sit in, the right to process last into church and the obligation to purchase a posh—and obviously expensive—new cassock.

So well and good! But I also had to promise that “I will exercise my Office with patience, lowliness, justice and courtesy.” And that, brothers and sisters, takes more than a little the gilt off the gingerbread.” AMEN

To the only wise God, our Saviour, be glory and majesty dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

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