St Paul's Within the Walls, Rome, Italy
Sunday 18 November 2001
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 40:1-14; 2 Corinthians 3:4-9; John 20:19-23
What a great joy it is to preside at this ordination - this very special moment in the life of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. It is a joy as well to acknowledge the presence of those who have joined us from other parts of the Anglican Communion and churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, as well as representatives of the Holy See and other communities of faith. We are deeply grateful to you for being here and thereby enlarging our awareness of Christ's presence through baptism in the many limbs and members of his risen body the Church.
This is the first time that a bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. has been ordained in Europe, let alone in this center of Christianity in the West: the city of Rome. Yesterday, Pierre Whalon had a privilege never before afforded to an Anglican bishop-elect: on the eve of his ordination and consecration to be greeted in a large company of Episcopalians by His Holiness the Bishop of Rome. As one of the members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said to me at the conclusion of our joint audience: the presence of your bishops and members of the clergy and laity of the Convocation of American Churches is a continuation of the work to which we are committed and a sign of encouragement as we look ahead to the future. To which I could only say "Amen."
While speaking of our audience, again I want to thank all young people who prayed so eloquently for peace and unity in the church and in the world: may their prayer may be made our hearts' desire, and may Christ through the driving motion of the Holy Spirit - the minister of communion - draw us all more deeply into God's continuing work of what our Jewish brothers and sisters describe as Tikkun-olam - "repair of the world".
Speaking of the world's healing and repair, I am profoundly mindful of the fact that, today's ordination is an action of that portion of the church of God which calls itself the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, what we are doing this morning transcends many national and ecclesiastical boundaries and embraces a variety of cultures and languages. At the same time, it reminds our church in the United States and those of us who are United States citizens that we live not to ourselves alone, but are part of a vast network of relationships that bind us together as a global community in which the suffering of one must become the responsibility of all. Much has changed in the wake of the evil visited upon us in September. In addition to seeking to defeat and thereby remove the continuing threat of terrorism, it is incumbent upon the United States, and other nations as well, to engage in self examination and ask hard questions about our way of being in the world. Where should self-interest give way to solidarity and service? When does patriotism become arrogance and chauvinism?
In the readings from Scripture we have just heard, the servant of the Lord described by Isaiah is both a person and a community: a faithful nation called to proclaim and to live the mystery of God's justice - God's just-ness expressed as mercy, compassion and a "fierce bonding love" that builds up, heals and reconciles. Such is the nature of the peace: the shalom, the Salaam that the risen Christ, in the gospel, breathes truth in a radical act of new creation upon the fear-bound disciples locked away on that first Easter Day. Such is the nature of the competency released within the apostle Paul which comes not from himself but from God. Such is the nature of "the new song" God puts in our mouths which transforms us, as it did the Apostles before us from bystanders (and in Paul's case, persecutors) into participants as we find ourselves drawn beyond ourselves and our tiny and constricted worlds of self-interest and self-defense into a new space, a new mode of being, an new way of perceiving and knowing who Christ is and who we are in relationship to him.
The apostles behind locked doors were transformed from those who had followed and largely observed into witnesses (martures in Greek) from which we get the term martyrs: those who declare that a thing is true not only with their lips but in their lives. In this sense all of us who have been baptized into Christ are called to be martyrs: to embody the faith we profess by being conformed to the image of Christ through an ever-deepening companionship with the Risen One worked in us by the Spirit of the Son: the Spirit, who - praying within us - makes it possible for us to cry Abba Father and thereby enter into the intimacy of Jesus' own prayer making his loving address to God as Abba, our own.
The apostles' new vocation to be witnesses, to be martyrs, meant taking into themselves the pattern of Christ's own life and faithfulness. And therefore as Christ - in another Easter Day encounter - proclaims, "Thus it was written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day." He is saying to all of us that dying and rising is the fundamental dynamic of all authentic witness. This is so however and wherever we are called to proclaim the good news with our lives: that Christ is not simply a totem or exemplar, but the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is no more true of the vocation of bishops, priests and deacons than it is of all of us who through baptism have been buried with Christ in his death and raised with him to newness of life.
One of the fruits of the liturgical movement of the last century born within the monasteries of Europe (which has profoundly affected patterns of worship in the churches of the West) has been the recovery of the understanding of baptism and the eucharist as a proclamation of and participation in the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. While we are familiar with the cross and resurrection, the intimate connection between the two sometimes escapes us, and produces a skewed understanding of what it means to live the Christian life. There are those who focus on the cross as the sign of human sin but never go through the cross into the new and abundant life of resurrection. And there are those who see everything from the perspective of the resurrection without being mindful that the new freedom it imparts can become distorted and allow evil to masquerade as an angel of light.
The paschal mystery embraces both the cross and the resurrection in a double dynamic set forth in the gospels and the apostolic letters, particularly those of Paul, in which the paradox of authentic discipleship is proclaimed: we enter into life by dying; we find by losing. And it is as we face our essential poverty before God that the way is opened for us to experience the riches of Christ's grace - a lifegivingness, which as Paul knew well, comes to full term, is made perfect, in weakness.
This weakness, this poverty is not, however, an invitation to some sort of passive resignation, but rather it is revealed to us in the midst of active engagement: in the midst of "insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ," (2 Corinthians 12:10) as Paul tells us. "For whenever I am weak then I am strong;" not with the strength of my own psychological, intellectual or physical effort, though they may certainly be called into play, but with the strength of the risen Christ: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).
In the letter to the Hebrews we are told that "Although [Christ our high priest] was a son, he learned obedience through what the suffered." What is obedience but the capacity of listen intently for God's desire at the heart of our lives and the circumstances that life sets before us: not what do I think given the limitations of my mind and heart, but what does God yearn for, what is God's project, what is God's imagination seeking to bring into being. This kind of deep and costly availability to God's desire - listening to what the Spirit is saying - invites suffering: the crucifixion of the attitudes and opinions, the unacknowledged biases and prejudices and fears that keep us from entering into that open space spoken of in the psalms where all is reconciled according to God's own truth and justness. "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself" and to us, through baptism, has been given "the ministry of reconciliation."
We have come here this morning to ordain Pierre Welté Whalon - a fellow limb of Christ's risen body and minister of reconciliation - to be a bishop in the Church of God and to serve as the first elected bishop-in-charge of our American congregations in Europe. Don't be fooled by pointed hats, elaborate walking sticks and amplified honorifics before his name. The truth is that the more you put on externally, the more you are obliged to take off within, and the higher you ascend in the eyes of others, the more you are invited to descend into the truth of your own poverty before God. This is perhaps the most hidden and precious gift of episcopé.
This puts me in mind of the words of that great African Bishop, Augustine of Hippo who, reflecting on the episcopal office, had this to say: "For you, I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian; one is an office accepted; the other a gift received. One is a danger; the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded be more fully your Servant." Augustine lived at a drastic and perilous time both for the Church and for the Western world with this city at its center, yet his confidence, his ground, his security held firm because his sense of himself was derived not from his office as bishop, but from his having been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and made thereby a sharer in Christ's eternal priesthood and ongoing work of reconciling all things to God.
This profound sense of being rooted in the paschal mystery of Christ led the contemporary Brazilian bishop Helder Camara to open himself to the deep demands of the gospel thereby provoking both challenge to the mighty and hope for the dispossessed. From that vantage point he offers this reflection: "The bishop belongs to all, let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with the compromised and dangerous people, on the left and the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone."
I ran across these noble words shortly before I was ordained a bishop. They spoke to my heart and I said, "Yes, that is just the kind of bishop I will be." How naive I was and unaware of the cost involved. What God had done was to entice me with Dom Helder's words and what I perceived as my noble intention was in fact God's agenda with me. The stretching and the reluctant opening of my heart continues, as does the dying to my fears and judgements in order that, over time, and according to the wild and unpredictable motions of the Spirit, I might in some small measure have, in the words of Paul, the mind of Christ. And what is the mind of Christ? It is a mind transfigured by compassion, a compassion that can embrace and contain all, a compassion that passes all understanding and calls our narrow and sectarian views our into the brilliant light of God's Trinitarian love, reordering and transforming them and enabling our hearts to run free "overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love," as St. Benedict tells us.
A compassionate heart "burns with love for the whole creation: "for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts… for the enemies of truth and for those who seek to do us evil" (St. Isaac of Syria). Clearly such an open and expansive and undefended heart is not for us to claim, but to ask God in Christ to work in us through the purifying action of the Spirit - the Spirit who empowers us to bring forth justice, to proclaim news to the oppressed, liberty to those held captive, and gladness to those who mourn (Isaiah 61). This brings me back to the unrelenting yet life-giving dynamic of the paschal mystery that we encounter over and over again in the ebb and flow of our lives whereby we are shaped and conformed to the pattern of Christ.
The ordination of a bishop always takes place in the context of the Eucharist in which the risen Christ, in the full force of his dying and rising, abides in us and we in him. And though the newly ordained bishop presides at the table, he too, along with us, receives the one who seeks to give himself to us in bread and wine.
On this solemn and hope-filled occasion, may each one of us, therefore, along with Pierre, receive the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation in a profound spirit of availability and willingness to be caught up afresh through the paschal mystery, into God's project, God's mission, of reconciling all things and all persons to God's self. And may we do so with eagerness, courage and joy. Amen.