Sunday, February 26, 2006

Getting Apostolic

Sermon for the Feast of St Matthias

(Acts 1:14-17, 20-26; Ps 84; Phil 3:13-21; Jn 15:9-17)

We have heard today that “the lot fell on Matthias”, but we don’t know much about him after he picked it and himself up. Even by the standards of those entries in Books of Saints which most of us have looked up from time to time when called upon to speak or simply to think about one of the apostolic heroes of the earliest Church, to the effect that “little is known of the later life of Saint so-and-so”, Matthias seems to drop out of sight with particular speed.

He is, admittedly, the joint hero of the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Cannibals, an exciting but not very edifying work which seems to have been some third century Christian author’s attempt to interest his teenage children in Church history or ancient geography by having the apostles go to exotic places and take part in ripping yarns. In fact such apocryphal travelogues are evidence for the confusion and embarrassment of the ancient Christians about the disappearance from the map of figures like Matthias. A glance through the pages of the NT reveals that the twelve have little significance beyond this point of the narrative, even in what we have come to call the Acts of the Apostles. What then does it mean to remember the apostle Matthias, or to profess belief in the apostolicity of the Church, as the creed has us do?

The shadowy figure of the apostle Matthias is illumined somewhat, if in silhouette or negative, by the contrast inevitably drawn with the figure of Judas, his much more colourful predecessor. The comparisons of the first reading are unmistakable, although the lectionary attempted to restrain the text of Acts by leaving out the verses depicting the graphic fate of Judas, complete with the description of him “burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.”

What is good about being the apostle Matthias depends somehow on the dangers of being the not-quite apostle Judas. Matthias is chosen because like Judas he was one “who had accompanied [them] during all the time that Jesus went in and out among [them], beginning from the baptism of John”, as Peter had put it when drawing up this job description for the vacancy in the apostolic circle. Even beyond this criterion of continuity, Judas more than Matthias was one of that inner group having the benefit of that intimacy that comes to mind when we hear Jesus talk of “abiding”, of being one of those whom Jesus now calls friends rather than servants because we know our master is doing, part of that community whose founding members they were remembered as.


Yet for all his apparent apostolic advantages, Judas’ choice is separation. For the likes of Dante, speculating about the future of Judas was to describe the nadir of eternal desolation and suffering. This also has a sort of geographical or architectural aspect in Dante, who depicts the Inferno as a vast complex of alienation, a sort of anti-city where there are many people but no community, and with Judas, along with others who have betrayed bonds of love and trust, in its ninth and deepest circle. There are those who from time to time have wondered aloud about whether the grace of God could not extend even to Judas, and imagine his ultimate restoration to the community. But even this serves to underline what the difference is; it is not fame or talent that makes an apostle, or even a personal intimacy with Jesus (which Judas had), but belonging, “abiding”, committing oneself to the faithful community. The deepest and worst of sin is alienation – from God and one another. The height and the best of salvation is love – God’s love for us and ours for each other in God.

If the Gospel has a future it is in “abiding”, in the circle, Church. By “Church” I do not mean the idea of a cluster of Christians earnestly abiding with the like-minded or the close at hand. By Church I mean that whole messy inconsistent community of pilgrims through history, that traces its faith not merely to a good idea once read in a book but to the living stones who were built, course after course, row after row, some famously and some anonymously, into the great, rambling, difficult edifice of the City of God. We cannot start again.

For the truth is that it is quite another city than that of the ‘cannibals’ that grants Matthias his real significance:

It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21)

We do not yet experience that city in its totality; but as we journey toward it we are, paradoxically, within as its builders, adding rows and courses on what went before. Even though we face enormous challenges in making that city habitable for new generations; even though some of its inhabitants imagine that they have created ‘mission-shaped’ gated communities that will appeal more to today’s spiritual house-hunters; despite all this, we are really just one city, one body, one living tradition inhabited by the Holy Spirit in mysterious and messy ways, founded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus the cornerstone.

Any Gospel that pretends to emerge and flourish otherwise is not that apostolic one, however well it reads the market. Any Gospel that offers individuals salvation apart from the challenge and promise of Church is not the apostolic one, however much more attractive it seems for its isolation of faith from history. To study theology is to study the architecture of this living city, past and present; to immerse ourselves lovingly and critically in its living past, and to commit ourselves to its future which is yet to be seen. I celebrate with you, as we begin another academic year, our membership of this school of craft, this guild of builders, this small corner of the one apostolic foundation.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Diakonia: Phoebe, Ancient Greek Cups of Tea, and the Gospel

Sermon given at the Ordination of Deacons, St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, February 4th 2006

Twenty years ago less five days, on February 9th 1986, eight deacons were made here in this Cathedral. Many of the ingredients were the same: candidates, families, friends, bishops, clergy - although this time we hope there won’t be a bomb scare. They were, of course, the first women duly ordained as deacons in the Anglican Church of Australia. Some are no longer with us, having gone on to higher things (one has gone to Perth, which is not quite as good); I salute them all.

Some of those being made deacon today are too young to remember those events; but they are far from being a matter of archival interest. For the Church into whose sacred ministry these ten men and women are about to be ordained is still engaged in an unfinished process of reflection and action about the participation of women and men in the ministry of the Church, including the respective roles of deacons, presbyters and bishops. The character of that reflection is relevant not only to what we do here today, but what we will be doing in two weeks time as we come together as a Diocesan community to reflect on the nature of the ministry of bishop, and the discernment of just who God may be calling to be the next Archbishop of Melbourne.

It is impossible to ignore the contrast between the diversity of this group of five men and five women, representative, not only in gender but in training, experience, and gifts, of the richness of this Diocesan community, and on the other hand the limited scope given to those who have been entrusted with bringing a list of candidates for Archbishop. I think those who celebrated new ministries here in 1986 might have been surprised – not to say appalled - to think we would still, twenty years later, not be giving ourselves the opportunity even to consider duly qualified women for election as bishop.

When those eight women were made deacon here in 1986 we were at a relatively early stage in rediscovering the distinct functions and purposes of deacons in general, as well as the unmistakeable participation of women in the diaconate and other ministries in ancient times. We read and re-read scripture, and suddenly noticed women as well as men in the New Testament performing functions described by the Greek word diakonia, a term used in the New Testament to refer to aspects of the work of Christ himself and of the apostles and others. Some of these are given the title “diakonos” – from which we get “deacon” – for instance Phoebe, who was lurking the whole time in Romans 16:1, called the diakonos of the Church of Cenchreae near Corinth, and also described a patron or benefactor of Paul’s, commended by him to the Church at Rome in his letter to them.

Twenty years ago most of what we said theologically about deacons was to do with service, and to some extent we imagined Phoebe in these terms too. We had been taught that diakonia took its meaning from sayings and stories like that of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. For some, that supposed fundamental symbolism of the diaconate as menial service meshed with admission of women to the diaconate, and that order only, as reinforcing a view of subordination. In the historical imagination Phoebe was being allowed to make cups of ancient Greek tea – a good thing, by the way – but little more.

More recent examination of the language of the New Testament suggests that diakonia is to be understood not as service in the menial sense, drudgery divine as it were, but as authoritative service, such as that of an ambassador or delegate: powerful, representative, facilitating action on behalf of another – typically, of God. So when Jesus speaks about the service of the Son of Man who came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many”, he is presenting himself not as our servant (this time at least) but as God’s diakonos, the revealer of God’s mysterious power, and his saving work as the task that he enacts. Jesus’ service, in this instance at least, consists of radical yet powerful obedience to the will of God.

What then of deacons? Deacons – supervisors of these ordinands take particular note - are not there to do the ministerial tasks no-one else wants. While they may often have a special role binding up the broken hearted and healing the sick, they do so not because this is their sole prerogative, but because they are to exercise various ministries on God’s behalf, and of behalf of the bishop and the Church too – in liturgy, in preaching the Gospel, and in caring for God’s people. Their title does not indicate subservience; it indicates a delegation of full authority to do all these things. As we look at the ancient Church, deacons sometimes exercised greater authority than presbyters, nd often became bishops – I have warned these ordinands not to get any ideas about the upcoming Episcopal election, as I’m sure the list is more or less settled…

So the first-century Christian Phoebe, who twenty years ago was a model for us of the possibility of women’s participation in the diaconate, her sandaled foot barely stuck in the door of ordained ministry, now looks rather different. It is actually not clear that she held a permanent, ordained office, or indeed whether anyone did at this very early stage. But she was representative, ambassador, of the Church of Cenchreae to the Church at Rome – and not under anyone else’s authority. She was, from what we can tell, likely that Church’s most prominent leader. Twenty years after we made her a model woman deacon, it turns out Phoebe was also actually a pretty good model for a first-century woman bishop.

Well, it might be preferable to some if we forgot this stuff and got on with the point of preaching the Gospel. But in fact this is the point – who will preach the Gospel? Who will, under the Spirit’s guidance, exercise the gift and burden of proclaiming the Gospel inside and outside the Church? I am delighted to be among those bringing these ten, ready to be bold and fully-authorized ambassadors for Christ, proclaiming his reconciling ministry, his death and resurrection and the hope of the Church for our future life in him to our broken and divided world; but as we pray the gifts of the Spirit on them, let us also pray that across the brokenness of the Church, all those whom the Spirit is calling to preach the Gospel with boldness may be nurtured for their diverse ministries, lay and ordained, men and women, so that world may indeed believe in the one who sent Jesus Christ.

Let us in doing so give thanks that these men and women have responded to this call, and pray that they and others whom we call to various ministries, including that of bishop, will not impede the Spirit’s call to men and women to proclaim, teach, pastor and exercise authority at all levels in the diverse and dynamic Church we are called to be.

[Note: My debt to the scholarly work of John N. Collins will be apparent to some. See Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford, 1990)].