1 Timothy 3:1-13, 4:6-16
"Set Apart, Not Set Above"
Some years ago, there was a short tongue-in-cheek article in a publication called Pastor’s
Manual. The story featured a Labrador retriever named “Sadie” belonging to the Charles Thurber family in Terra Linda, California. As we know, California folk sometimes have a tendency to be on the cutting edge of things, leading the way in introducing the rest of us to unusual and even strange practices. Well, this one just about takes the cake.
The article reported that Sadie had been ordained as “Minister of Faith and Practice” by the Hilltop House Church in San Rafael. The dog’s name, along with fifty dollars, was submitted to the San Francisco municipal court and filed with the proper state authorities. Sadie received her
Certificate of Divine Ordination, effectively giving the animal authority to solemnize marriages, perform baptism by full immersion, and administer the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The article further reported that the ordination was not accompanied by the laying on of paws.
This, of course, is a goofy little story we don’t take seriously at all. It does, however, shinelight on the fact that many of our most sacred institutions – including the church and its practices – have been cheapened by and made to look irrelevant, even foolish in our current culture. Even so, we ourselves in the church are perhaps guilty of not taking some of the church’s practices seriously enough; the act of ordination to church leadership being one. As we read in Paul’s letter to Timothy, the early church took the act of ordination very seriously. It was a high and weighty responsibility conferred to people who were deemed by the church as worthy and capable of leadership. Paul lays out codes of conduct which seem rather strict by today’s standards, but are meant to strengthen the leadership of the church, and the church as a whole. One of the first questions I’ve asked folks who are preparing to be ordained as a Ruling Elder or Deacon is: What do you think “ordination” means? Most of the time, the question draws a blank stare or downcast eyes. Sometimes, there will be a blunt stab at an answer. That’s not surprising as we don’t talk much about what ordination to leadership in the church is fundamentally about. As with some other things in the life of the church, we too often simply go through the motions.
The Book of Order, which is part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA, at one time defined ordination thusly: “the act by which the Church ‘sets apart’ men and women to be
Ministers of Word and Sacrament, Ruling Elders, or Deacons, and is accompanied with prayer and the laying on of hands.” While this language is no longer a part of the radically-shortened
Form of Government section in our current Book of Order, I still find it descriptive and helpful.
Take note of the language “set apart,” as opposed to “set above.” Men and women are chosen by the congregation – through election such as we conducted a few weeks ago – based on evidence of special gifts, leadership potential and ability, and Christian character. They are not chosen to lord their gifts, their potentials and abilities, their character over others; but to use those gifts, abilities, and express their characters alongside others.
I’ve found in my experience that some church members have the mistaken impression that ordination places a person of some sort of pedestal. The fact is, ordination is fundamentally about servanthood, not about hierarchy. Ordination is about humble leadership, not about haughty lordship. Ordination is about using gifts of service and character to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to safeguard the peace, purity, and unity of Christ’s church. In the case of those ordained into the office of Ministry of Word and Sacrament (as I was in June of 1993), the charge is to pastor and shepherd a congregation of God’s people. In the case of those ordained to the office of Ruling Elder, the charge is to administrate and offer spiritual leadership to the church. In the case of those ordained into the office of Deacon, the charge is to extend in an ordered way the care, mercy, and compassion of the church. All these offices are set apart, yet are set in place to work with the people of the congregation to fully live out the church’s ministry in all its multi-facets.
I believe one of the best images of what ordination is fundamentally about is illustrated in Jesus’ statement we read in our first Scripture lesson this morning. The episode is not concerned with the matter ordination per se, but rather with the larger issue of what we call “servant leadership.” In response to the request from James’ and John’s mother – who seemed to have the impression that working for Jesus was about power and supremacy, prestige and pedestals --
Jesus said of those who labor for the Kingdom of God: “It will not be so among you; but who-ever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” That’s pretty strong language. And it’s quite a different image of church leadership than I believe most Presbyterian folk have when we speak of ordained leadership. As I was once reminded by a pastor under whom I interned back in Pittsburgh:
“Ordination is not a climb into an ivory tower, but a lowering to the knees in humble service.”
This morning, we welcome servants into leadership ministry of our church family. Two are being “set apart” for the first time for special roles in which they will cultivate and exercise their gifts to further the work of this church. Others are being called back to use their gifts which we’ve acknowledged when they were first ordained. So this morning, at the deepest level, we celebrate gifts. We celebrate servanthood which typifies followers of Christ. We celebrate God’s provision for the ministry of Central Presbyterian Church. And as we lay hands on the newly ordained, we are reminded that they carry on a tradition of being set apart, not being set above. We transmit responsibility, and God sends forth the power of the Holy Spirit to carry it out. And we all humbly come before our Lord, together, prepared to lead God’s people in the ongoing work to which we are all called.
Lord our God, You call us – first through the waters of baptism, then through our learning and understanding of Your Word illumined by Your Holy Spirit, then by the voices of Your people – to serve Your purposes in this world. Grant us clarity, energy, and a servant’s heart, as we seek to minister to others in every way You’ve equipped us. Hear this, our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen