Peter and Paul - Servants of the Gospel

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson on the occasion of Peter Wolton’s first Sunday as a Deacon, 29 June 2014

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” Mtt 16.18

There could be not be a more appropriate scriptural text to hear as Peter you begin you ministry in our community!

Today we welcome Peter who was yesterday ordained as a deacon in St Paul’s Cathedral. Peter will serve in our parishes in that sole ministerial capacity for the coming year, until he is ordained as a priest. In the Church of England, we along with many other churches, most notably the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, maintain what is called the threefold ministerial order of the early church. That’s to say we have from amongst the entire community of the baptised those who serve as deacons, as priests and as bishops. Each ministry has a particular focus and gift which enables the Church at large, you and me, to reflect on what it is to be Church in the first place, what is it is to be a community dedicated to following Christ. So as we receive a deacon in to our midst, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what this particular ministerial order says about who and what it is we already are in Christ, and who and what it is we are called to more fully become as Christians.

"Deacon" is derived from the Greek διάκονος meaning “servant", or  "one who waits", “one who ministers", or “one who proclaims a message". Etymologically the roots of the word are resonant with "through the dust.” So it is probably related to the dust that would be dislodged and cleaned away from both property and people if a servant was being diligent in doing their job. A deacon in the church fulfils a distinctive ministerial role. Over the next year we will see Peter: proclaim the Gospel every week; preach on occasion; assist at the Eucharist every week, by laying out the sacred gifts of bread and wine and by assisting with the chalice. (It will not be until after his ordination as a priest next year, that he will preside at the Eucharist,  bless in the name of the Trinity and pronounce absolution after confession.)

But on top of the particular liturgical work of a deacon which I have described and we will see from week to week,  within the church the role of the deacon is also regarded as focussing our attention as an entire community on serving the poorest of our parish,  and by extension the deanery, diocese, nation and the world. This  focus derives from the text in Acts 6 in which the first seven deacons are  deemed to have been appointed. These seven are called to be deacons specifically because the need arose within the church to make sure that the food that was held in common in the community was equally and fairly distributed among all the followers of Jesus, especially the widows, no matter if they came from a Jewish or Gentile background. So in the very conception of the role of a deacon there is built in the need that they should be people who are guardians of justice, guardians of fairness and guardians of equity within the Christian community and beyond.

To help us reflect further on this I would like to unpack what is the dominate image in the liturgy for the ordination of deacons which we celebrated yesterday: the washing of feet.

On Maundy Thursday we, in this community, together with Christians throughout the world, celebrate the Mass of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples before his own death. At one point in that service the presiding priest takes of his outer robes, the chasuble and the stole, which James as today’s president is wearing, and then washes the feet of members of the congregation as they come forward. It is an echo of the action that Jesus himself performs in John’s gospel for his own disciples. It is a sign of his own humility before them. It is a sign of his humility before his own impending death. It is a sign that he has come not to be served, but to serve and to give up his life for that vision of the justice and peace of God’s reign which he lived out in word and action. It is, I think, the predominant sign of the heart of the gospel, for it embodies for all of us who follow Jesus, that  in order to love God with our whole heart, and in order to love our neighbours as ourselves, we are to live out the life of Christ in our own lives, in giving ourselves up in service both to God and other human beings.

It is the present Pope that has brought this annual ritual of the Church to international attention. In his first Holy Thursday ceremony Pope Francis made media waves by choosing to wash the feet of a group of young offenders at the Casal del Marmo detention centre in Rome. His predecessors had generally washed the feet of 12 priests in St Peter’s Basilica. But Francis chose to go out and to wash the feet of ‘criminals.’ It was  also the first such occasion in which a Pope washed the feet of both women and non-Christians. Among the 12 inmates there were two girls one of whom was Muslim.
This year Pope Francis performed the same ceremony at the Don Gnocchi Centre in Rome. It’s a place of care for those with extreme physical and psychological difficulties. Here the Pope washed and kissed the feet of 12 disabled men and women, many of whom were in wheelchairs. They ranged from 18 to 86, and were predominately Italian but amongst them was one from Cape Verde, another from Ethiopia and a 75-year-old Libyan Muslim  who had suffered severe neurological impairment in an accident. The Pope, himself in his late seventies, knelt down before each one, gently washed their feet, and affectionately kissed them, before looking each person in the eye and meeting their gaze with a broad smile. If you watch the videos on the internet you may well assess with me that it is that that smile is truly sacramental too!

The actions of the Pope have not only drawn media attention for whose feet it is that he is choosing to wash. They have also caused a bit of a stir among some (clergy) inside the church who like to think of ministry in a hierarchical fashion, and like the signs of the liturgy to reflect this. To understand this fluttering of cassocks look at both myself and Peter. I am dressed with my stole hanging straight down in front of me, as is the case with all priests and bishops.  But you can see that Peter is wearing his stole differently: over the left shoulder, and tied at the right hip, so that it appears diagonally across his chest. When Pope Francis washed the feet of the young offenders last year,  and those with great psychical and psychological care needs, this past Holy Week, he did not simply take of his chasuble and stole, as is the traditional liturgical practice. Rather Francis removed his chasuble, and then took hold of his stole, which was hanging as a priests like mine and James’,  and then intentionally rearranged it so that it became the diagonal stole of the deacon like Peter’s.  It was only then, dressed as a deacon, that Pope, or Deacon Francis,  began to wash feet.

Pope Francis’ action was, I think, spiritually and sacramentally significant. It pointed both to what he views lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and also how that should make us view the different ministerial orders of the church.

At the heart of Christian discipleship is this act of washing one others’ feet. In imitating Christ’s same action, The Pope, Peter, you and me, we are imitating Christ as the Servant, Christ as the Deacon. Christ as Deacon is the one who was pouring out his life for others in the entirety of his liberating ministry.  Christ as Deacon is the one who poured out his life upon the cross in love for the world. Christ as Deacon is the one who in pouring out the water over the feet of his disciples asks them and us to do the same.

In relation then to the orders of ministry of the church the Pope’s action reminds us that that these are not a hierarchy which apes the career structures of much of the world. Church structure is not a ladder of assent with lay baptised Christians at the bottom, then a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop, and an archbishop, and then at the very top, a Pope. Rather here the Pope asserts both his continuing identity as a deacon and that the role of deacon is the heart of all ministry, including his, within the church. In deliberately changing the arrangement of his stole and in assuming his ordination as  deacon  Pope Francis reminds us all that, all of us, in our entirety as the Body of Christ, are called to this servant ministry of the church; He reminds us that the church is the body of Christ the Deacon. He reminds us that the church n its very nature is diaconal. It was to this same diaconal and servant calling that both Peter and Paul whom we remember today devoted their ministries, and which they, like Christ, in the end gave their lives.

The actions of Pope Francis in the ceremonies of Maundy Thursday echo many of his other actions which have prompted attention.  He has chosen not to live in the Papal State rooms of the Vatican but in a smaller apartment. He prefers to use a minibus rather than the Papal limousine. He addresses other cardinals as ‘brothers’ not as ‘my lord cardinals’. It’s an informal and modest style which has contrasted sharply with his immediate predecessors.

These actions themselves are further echoed in how he told reporters he chose the name Francis for his Pontificate. He said that the name came to him as he realised that voting was going his way during the conclave. He told journalists:

“I had next to me the archbishop emeritus of Sao Paulo, Claudio Hummes, a great friend of mine. When things became a bit dangerous, he comforted me, and when the vote for me reached the two-thirds majority, a moment in which the cardinals started applauding because they had chosen a Pope, he hugged me, he kissed me and he said 'don’t forget the poor’.That word, the poor, lodged in me here” (he points to his heart). “It was then that I thought of St Francis. And then I thought of wars and about peace and that’s how the name came to me – a man of peace, a poor man ... and how I would like a church of the poor, for the poor.”

What is significant in the Pope’s choice of name here, as we today welcome Peter as a deacon of the church, and as we remember Pope Francis serving as a deacon and washing others feet, is that St Francis, perhaps the best loved of all the western saints was  simply that: St Francis remained a deacon for all his ministry, he was never ordained a priest, nor a bishop, and yet his life and story and witness to Christ has touched the hearts and minds and bodies of many more people than perhaps any other saint.

To have a deacon among us, whether that be Peter, Pope Francis, St Francis, SS Peter and Paul, James, Ivo and myself, who also continue to be deacons, is to be reminded of our primary calling as Christians which is to offer service to the church and the world which is consonant with the service of Christ, participates in his life, and reflects his person. Peter’s physical presence, this year, should call us to live out the ‘diaconate of all the baptised’ in which we all share for each of us, lay or ordained, we are all deacons too.

All of us like Peter, are called to proclaim the gospel. How might we do that more effectively in our own lives?

All of us like Peter are called to strengthen the church as a community of self sacrificial love.

In what ways might we be able to enliven that among us here in these parishes?

All of us like Peter are called devote ourselves to the eradication of poverty, and to be guardians of justice, fairness and equity.

To which aspects of the world’s mess can we put to use the gifts and skills that God has given to each of us and make a real difference?

May Peter help us to serve more faithfully. May Peter help us to be deacons ourselves. May Peter help us to become a bit dustier and bit dirtier in how we live out our Christian faith. May Peter help us to give up our lives in the service of God and our fellow human beings, just as SS Peter and Paul did in theirs, and just as in this Holy Eucharist we remember and take part in the full pouring out of self sacrificial love in the person of Christ himself.