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.