Tuesday, December 21, 2010

becoming a priest

Last Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Jimmy Abbott’s ordination to the priesthood. Here were my thoughts …

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.”

I just want to begin by thanking Jimmy for the honor of standing before you today. Jimmy, I am so grateful for the privilege of preaching the Gospel at your ordination to the priesthood. Thank you.

For those who don’t know me my name is John Newton and I serve as the Missioner of the Episcopal Student Center at the University of Texas, which is where Jimmy and I met about seven years ago. The Student Center is also the community where both of us heard God’s call to the priesthood, and so it’s a really special place for both of us. My relationship with Jimmy always seems to be in transition. In the last seven years I’ve been Jimmy’s classmate, his program coordinator, his classmate again, his flag football coach, his sponsoring priest, and most recently, because God’s funny, his premarital counselor – but throughout it all Jimmy’s always been a great friend, and today, I’m proud to say, he’ll be my colleague. Jimmy, you’re about to be ordained a priest in Christ’s church. We have to ask – what are you getting into? But seriously – what does it mean to be a priest? And a second question, which can’t ever be separated from the first – what does it mean to be the church?

A lot of people answer the priest question differently. When I was ordained one of my best friends gave me a huge hug and said, with all sincerity, “John, congratulations. You have no idea how blessed you are. I just don’t know anyone else,” he said, “who else gets paid full time to work two hour weeks.” I guess that’s one take on the priesthood, but perhaps we can find another.

Tonight, I want to reflect on the last verse of tonight’s Gospel from John: “for I have come down from heaven,” Jesus says, “not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” In this verse we discover what it means to be a priest and what it means to be the church. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.”

First – Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven.” As Christians this is where our faith begins – with Jesus “coming down,” with God Himself freely choosing to enter our lives. The incarnation – it’s where our faith begins, where the priesthood begins, where the church begins.

Jimmy, tonight you’re being ordained to model for the people of God a life of “coming down” – to joyfully do for God’s people what Jesus Christ has done for us. God freely chose to enter our world. The privilege of a priest is to do the exact same thing – to choose to enter the lives of God’s people and to love them with the same spirit that Christ loves us. In other words, the priest’s privilege is to model the incarnation. Eugene Peterson wrote that the priest’s call is, and I quote, to “take people seriously just the way they are and look at them, enter into conversation with them and see the glory that takes place right there, in that person’s world, the glory of God present in them.” In other words, the priest’s call is to reflect Jesus back to God’s people – that is to love people, not because they’re lovely but in order to make them lovely. A priest can’t be distant or aloof or detached. After all, God wasn’t. Jimmy, you’re being ordained to enter the lives of God’s people and love them, not because they’re lovely, but in order to make them lovely.

Now, practically speaking – what does it mean to model the incarnation; that is to enter people’s lives and love them to make them lovely? Well, it doesn’t mean a life of spiritual hospice work. A priest’s job is not to take away people’s pain, which we’re always tempted to do. The work of a priest is much harder. It’s about entering people’s lives to empower them for mission. It’s not to shield them from the world but to equip them to become missionaries within the world. In the words of Henry Nouwen, “The spiritual life doesn’t remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” So Jimmy, you do well to remember that we priests are not the primary ministers of the church, but it’s the people God entrusts to us – the people whose lives we’re invited to enter – they, more than us, are the primary ministers sent into the world to spread the Gospel. Love your people in a way that empowers them for their mission. After all, the church isn’t a building. It’s not a club. It’s not a social gathering of like-minded individuals. In fact, the word church comes from the Greek ekklesia, which literally means “called out.” To be the church is to be “called out” into the world with a mission. Jesus had a mission, which began with His choice to come down from heaven. We too must come down – from what’s comfortable and what’s familiar – and build God’s Kingdom in the world. In other words, the church has the privilege of telling people that life is found in Jesus – people that don’t know or don’t care or don’t believe; people that are angry and hurt and scared; people that need grace – and then to embody Jesus’ mercy and love and compassion, so that our message is credible and our presence worth following.

You see, a non-missional church isn’t a church at all. Mission – its just in our DNA.
The church’s privilege is to be in the world, in people’s lives, for the sake of sharing the Gospel, which means that the privilege of a priest is to model for God’s people what this incarnational, reaching-out-kind-of-love looks like. In today’s epistle Paul is bold. He tells the Philippians, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Jimmy, I know this is scary, but a priest’s job is to be able to say the exact same thing. Reach out to God’s people in a way that empowers them to reach out to others. Jesus reached out to you – He came down from heaven. Come down for your people, and I promise, they’ll come down from their place of comfort and serve the world in Christ’s name.

That being said, it’s not enough to just enter people’s lives. After all, the incarnation alone is not good news. There’s an ancient Greek myth about Zeus and Hermes, who wanted to know just how committed people were to the gods. So, as the story goes, they came down to earth disguised as slaves, but after getting the info they needed, threw off their rags and revealed themselves in all their Olympian glory. Did Zeus and Hermes take the form of a slave? Sure, but it was only a disguise. The Gospel is different – the Gospel says that when God became human in the person of Jesus, he didn’t disguise who God is. He revealed who God is – the Most Humble Person in the entire universe. For the Gospel is not merely that God entered our world – it’s that He entered with a certain character; that He entered with a certain mission. “Not to do my own will,” Jesus says, “but the will of Him who sent me.” Jimmy, we’re not ordained priests to do our own will. We’re ordained to do the will of God, who by the way, just happens to be the Most Humble Person in the entire universe.

So what does that look like – submitting to the will of the Most Humble Person in the universe? Well, in the context of John’s Gospel the people have just tried to make Jesus their King, but Jesus refuses. The people want Jesus to take power. But Jesus – he refuses to seize power – for His Father’s will wasn’t for Him to take power but to lose it.

You see all that stuff I was saying about reaching out and loving people – you know, entering people’s world not because they’re lovely but to make them lovely – that’s hard and vulnerable work, and we’ll find very quickly that if we do it well we’ll get hurt. In Jesus’ own words, “only those willing to lose their life are going to save it.” Jimmy, the will of the One who sends you is to find your life in the ministry by losing it – to love people so deeply and so fully that you allow your heart to be broken. “I have come not to do my own will,” Jesus said, “but the will of Him who sent me.”

You see there’s just something within us that craves the very power that Jesus refused. Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” We ask him, “Can I sit at your right hand in your kingdom?” In fact, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Christian history is how often our leaders gave in to their craving for power – political power, military power, economic power, spiritual power – all in name of Jesus, who didn’t cling to His divine power but came down from heaven to do His Father’s will. So we need to be honest – power is a lot easier than love. It’s easier to be God than to love God; to control people than to love them; to seek a throne than embrace a cross. Jimmy, the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life. Why? Because it’s the road of choosing love over power. It’s the road of saying, day in and day out, “I came not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.”

To be a priest, to be the church, is to live a life of humility, which isn’t a life of self-depreciation or of feeling unworthy or of being a doormat – but a life of saying what John the Baptist did with respect to Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease.” You see Jesus decreased himself until nothing but His Father’s will mattered. Our life, our effectiveness, our joy, our salvation, our ability to be a good priest, our ability to be the church, is found in decreasing ourselves just like Jesus did – in decreasing our own story until nothing matters but Jesus’ story. To quote Paul “we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God.” Humility happens when the smallness of our own story gets lost in the largeness of Jesus’ story. Our life cannot define Him. Jesus’ life must always define us.

A couple weeks ago a friend handed me a note, which I wrote ten years ago – my senior of high school – to my “future self” in response to this question: What do you want your life to look like in ten years? I missed my ten-year reunion, but a friend was kind enough to grab it for me, and I’d like to share what I wrote. “I’ll be somewhere in Texas practicing law with a beautiful wife, a nice house, a young family, lots of money and my whole life ahead of me … or at least I better be.” Jimmy – I don’t know how you would have answered that question, but I imagine this wasn’t your plan – standing before the church, the bishop and God and taking a vow to serve Christ faithfully as His priest. But at the same time, I also know you wouldn’t be here right now unless you were called – unless God interrupted your life to say “get behind me,” and I know how grateful you are that God did.

Standing here today talking about what you’re getting into, I need to be honest: Jimmy, today doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to Christ, because they all do. Your life is found in Jesus. He must increase; you must decrease. Allow yourself to fall so deeply in love with Him that you don’t think twice about following Jesus wherever he leads. Your best days as a priest will be the ones when you think of yourself the least – when its Jesus’ story that defines your life, when you come down like He did and have the faith to choose love over power.

I’m going to ask you to stand.

Jimmy, congratulations. You have no idea how blessed you are. I just don’t know anyone else who gets paid full time to lose their lives in the only story that matters, and to empower God’s people to embody the Gospel story in the world. So really quickly, before you’re ordained, turn around and take one last look at the people of God. Jimmy – love them, not because they’re lovely, but to make them lovely, for you are called – not to do your own will but the will of the One who sends you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

expecting to be offended

To listen to this teaching online please copy/paste the following link:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

A man dies and, before being allowed to enter heaven, has to walk down a hallway past holding rooms filled with people not quite ready for heaven. Approaching the Pearly Gates the man notices the first holding room on his left. “St. Peter,” he asks, “who are they?” “Well, these were not good Baptists, and as you may expect, they were known to dance.” The man kept walking and noticed another room. “And who are they?” “These misfits belonged to the Church of Christ, and as you may expect they used instruments during worship.” Well, the man was intrigued and decided to stop at one last room. “These people look miserable,” he said, “Who are they and what on earth did they do?” St. Peter just shook his head. “These were not good Episcopalians,” he sighed, “They ate their salad with a dessert fork.”

I guess that’s an Advent joke because Advent is about expectation, which is what today’s Gospel is about as well. You see something about today’s Gospel forces us to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings what do we expect? Jesus once asked James and John, “what do you want me to do for you?” In other words, what’s your expectation here? You see we all have expectations that impact our experience of God, whether for good or for ill. Baptists – we expect no dancing. Church of Christ – we expect no music. Episcopalians – we expect good table manners. We’re wired to expect. We expect certain things from certain people, and when things turn out differently than we expect, we’re sometimes offended. Well, that’s kind of what’s happening in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is disappointed because Jesus isn’t what he expects. “Are you the one who is to come,” he asks, “or should we wait for another?” But can you hear what’s behind John’s question? “Jesus – this isn’t what I expected.”

Jesus did not meet John’s expectations. You see John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was Jesus’ biggest backer, at least at first. In fact, a lot of Jesus’ disciples used to follow John, who at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is the sensation of the nation. Before the crowds came to Jesus they all came to John, but now John’s in prison. He feels irrelevant and forgotten, and because He believes Jesus is the Messiah He expects Jesus to fix it. “How much longer must I wait?” He’s starting to wonder. “Hey Jesus – you going to fix this, or should I wait for someone else?”

We don’t typically think of John the Baptist as a sentimental guy, but He is. Like most Jews of Jesus’ day He expected a Messiah different from Jesus – someone to bring back the glory days when David was king, the pagans were punished, and the law of God was kept. That was John’s view – John’s expectation – of salvation. In other words, John had a very narrow script he thought the Messiah should live into and Jesus refused to adapt. Was Jesus’ fame growing? Yes. But not for what John had expected. Not only was Jesus befriending the people John expected him to punish, but even worse, Jesus’ focus seemed to be a cross and he kept saying things about desiring sacrifice and how to lose your life with him and for him. A cross – that seemed to be Jesus’ focus – and when John hears about that he gets offended. So, he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question – are you the Messiah or not? John found Jesus offensive. In fact, the Greek word used is skandalidzo, which is where we get the word scandal. When John first heard the message of the cross he was scandalized.

Now, what about us? You see Advent is the church’s way of inviting us to come to terms with our expectations – who do we expect Jesus to be? What do we want Jesus to do for us? Are we bringing Jesus a prewritten script and asking Him to adapt to us? Or, do we see that Jesus has a script of His own and that our life is found in adapting to Him?

You see John the Baptist, he just did what all of us do. John had a very specific view of what salvation looked like – which for John was a restored kingdom with all the riffraff thrown out – and John expected Jesus to adapt to his own narrow agenda. And when Jesus didn’t do what John expected him to do, well, he got confused. Once again, John just did what we’re all prone to do – he told Jesus how to do his job. John brought a very narrow script to Jesus and said, “Here, this is what needs to happen for me to feel whole. Jesus, here – this is what I expect. Would you mind adapting to me?”

Now, I know we all have strong opinions as to what we need to be whole, to be complete, to feel saved. “Lord, give me that job. Give me that girl. Give me confidence. Give me peace. Give me warm weather. Give me so and so’s respect. Lord, give me this. Lord, get me that, because then I’ll be okay. God I promise – give me this and I’ll be okay!” And how does Jesus respond? In a way that is so loving, and so offensive. “Whoever doesn’t take up the cross and follow me,” He says, “isn’t worthy of me. Those who find their life – who write their own script and ask me to adapt – will lose it. But those who lose their life with me and for me, they” he says, “will find it.” Is that something we expect to hear from Jesus Christ when we wake up each morning – lessons in losing? If not, perhaps we need to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings, what do we expect?

So, here’s the question – if we making loving Jesus the central aim of our life, what should we expect? What I get from today’s Gospel is this – we should expect an encounter with the real Jesus to offend us. Not all the time, but sometimes. You see from time to time for Jesus to love us He has to take our script, wad it up and tell us to get behind him. He has to remind us that Christianity is about losing our lives. And as the sentimentality of our culture reaches its peak, this is something we do well to remember. Yes, I know – it’s the most wonderful time of the year. There’s eggnog and mistletoe and candy canes and lights. But Advent is about preparing ourselves for a gift – for the gift of Jesus himself. And if we think of Jesus’ birth and feel nothing but warmth and jolly good cheer, well, maybe its time we wrestle, yet again, with the scandal of the cross – because the cross, before its ever anything else, is offensive.

You see some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive. For example, if you give me a book for Christmas and tell me it’s going to change my life, but the title happens to be, How to Overcome Your Problem of Social Awkwardness – well, before I ever appreciate your gift, I’ll first feel offended. Why? Because your gift will expose a very embarrassing need. Some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive, and the cross of Christ is one of them. The birth of Jesus is one of them, because before Christ reveals anything meaningful to us about God’s love, He first exposes the depth of our need and tragedy of our sin. So in this season of Advent, don’t get swept away by music and mistletoe and mistake the fuzziness of what you feel for the fullness of God’s love. The love of God, before it’s anything else, is offensive. Why? Because the love of God is revealed most fully in the scandal of the cross. Do you understand now why Jesus has to say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” It’s because Jesus knows that when we understand His mission, offense is the first thing we feel.

And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d suggest. Throw away your script, because the question John asks Jesus is the same one we’re all asking – “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait?” And the answer is both. Jesus Christ has already come. He’s brought salvation. Everything, already, has changed! And we should expect – here and now – to be living in the already available grace that floods this world. And yet, let’s not forget, we still have to wait – for all the blind don’t yet see, and all the lepers aren’t yet cleansed, and all our chains are not yet broken. And we should expect to feel the pain that comes with waiting to be let out of prison. If we want to be faithful, we have to throw away our script, because Jesus’ is so much better. Yes, at times we’ll feel like John – a little unsure exactly what Jesus has in store. But Advent – it’s also a season of hope. “Eye hasn’t seen nor ear heard.” Whatever Jesus is up to – it’s so much more than we could ever possibly expect.