1 Samuel 16. 1-13a; 2 Corinthians 3. 17-4. 12; Luke 22. 24-30
“I am among you as one who serves”
It has been a great pleasure to be in the Cathedral daily for the first part of Holy Week and it is a joy to be with you today at this Chrism Eucharist with the Renewal of Vows and Blessing of the Oils. It is very good that Holy Week services have been accessible remotely and I greet warmly all who are participating online across the Diocese. I am grateful to those who have worked hard to make this possible.
Here in the Cathedral today are Deacons ordained last Michaelmas, Area Deans, Archdeacons and the Dean. There are a few Bishops and other clergy – but they are outnumbered this morning by those whose ministry has a strongly diaconal character. This evening as we enter the three days of the Triduum, we shall remember Christ washing the feet of his disciples before instituting the Lord’s Supper. But as we remake our commitment to the ministry entrusted to us in the gift of Holy Orders, today’s Gospel invites us to consider what it means to be among others “as one who serves”.
In obedience to our Lord and receiving the faith that was entrusted “once and for all to the saints” (Jude 1. 3), an episcopally ordered Church such as ours acknowledges that episcopacy is the apostolic fount of ministry. However, a spring or a fount requires some bedrock through which its waters pass and are purified, and in the Church this spring is nothing other than the diaconate – for all subsequent Orders are received in addition to this first, sacred gift.
The ministry required from each of us during the pandemic has renewed our understanding of the diaconal nature of all ministry. We have had to tie the towel around our waist as Jesus did, and to do to our neighbours as Jesus did. This has been the case in parishes across the country but it is especially so in sector ministry – in our prisons, our schools and universities, our hospitals, in the emergency services, and in the armed forces – where the worth of chaplaincy has been plain to all.
Because we have been called to operate from the first gift of Deacon’s Orders, we have found that our bedrock in ministry is robust and secure. Indeed, with this ministry so often in the past being the hidden treasure of the Church it has been recognised at last for what it is and has become in consequence more visible and more properly appreciated. This should reassure us but it should not surprise us, even if we do feel buffeted by the storm that has not yet blown itself out. For Christ is ever among us as one who serves, and to serve the world in his name is to participate in Christ’s own service, the highest of all callings.
Since we have rediscovered our bedrock, there is a real sense of renewed hope opening up to us as our purpose and intent is strengthened and clarified. We are reminded that even in the most routine aspects of our service, something sacred has been entrusted to us in the gift of Deacon’s Orders.
As we recover something more like normal life and gather again in churches more confidently and frequently than before, I urge you not to lose this insight as our recovery progresses. Return to it, dwell in it and reflect on it. Allow it to take root and then to blossom joyfully and vigorously.
Having made these observations, it is easy now to see the wisdom of the Liturgy as the Deacons bring the various oils forward for blessing. These oils are the equipment of sacramental ministry. Because they are consecrated in this context for the whole Diocese – Bishop and clergy together – their use in the name of the Church keeps us from a cult of ministerial personality which is always spiritual peril and keeps God at the centre of what we offer. The need for sacramental ministry, too, is something we have rediscovered during the pandemic. Paradoxically, as we have held praying communities together and reached out to welcome others by a deep focus on word and sacrament, the fact that the Eucharist has by and large been available online and has therefore lacked the intimacy for so many of physically taking in our hands and consuming the body of Christ broken for us and placing on our lips the sacred cup, drinking the precious blood of Christ shed for us on the Cross – this deprivation has made us more keenly aware of our sacramental participation in Christ – and in one other – through baptism.
The first oil to be blessed is the Oil of the Sick. Never before in our lifetime has health and wellbeing been so closely tied to survival. Never before in our lifetime has the healing ministry of the Church been so vital – to our nation, to our parishes and to our souls. This ministry is rooted in the diaconate, as the Ordinal says: Deacons are “to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”. When you receive your oil of the infirm today for your parishes, take these words with you.
The second oil brought for blessing is the Oil of Baptism. The seeds of renewal are found in Christ’s exhortation to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28. 19) and this oil is the sign of and seal upon this ministry. The Ordinal once again speaks clearly: Deacons “accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism”. Christ is among us in this service, too. So let us offer the Gospel to those who are searching for faith, the primary task in mission and evangelisation, accompanying them on their journey, and bringing them to incorporation into Christ’s company through baptism.
The third and final oil is the Oil of Chrism, the sign of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It is the oil of consecration used at coronations and at the ordinations of priests and bishops. It carries all the connotations of Old Testament prophecy. Chrism is also the oil of gladness, used in confirmation and it may be used as a post-baptismal anointing. When used in this way it symbolises the royal and priestly dignity of all the baptised – for the dignity bestowed by our creation in the image of God is ennobled further through baptism.
I am grateful to Deacons and Area Deans assisting in distributing the Oils to our parishes. Receive each oil as a kind of commission. From the bedrock of your Deacon’s Orders, go out first to those in your care to offer Christ’s healing. Go out also to journey with those who are seeking faith and bring them to baptism. The Gospel speaks so powerfully to the loss, grief and uncertainty of this pandemic – we have Wisdom itself and Life itself to offer those trying to understand what has occurred, so be confident in the Wisdom of the ages. And, as you go, remember the dignity of those you serve, each person lovingly made in the image of God, bearing the dignity of that image in their being. Bring them to the font – the source, the fount – where even greater dignity is bestowed as they become part of the body of Christ, through the flowing waters of baptism.
So, my beloved brothers and sisters, may God bless you as you enter these holy days and as we make our journey into the Passion. And may God bless you and all entrusted to your care when we come to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection – for Christ is with us, and will never leave us, as one who serves. Amen.
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
Bishop of Southwark