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Sermon for 2004
Luke 15:11-32
2 Timothy 1:6-9a

I can think of no greater privilege than to proclaim the gospel to those who have committed themselves to being ministers of the gospel themselves. As the years go by, it can become burdensome when one is constantly the giver of the gospel and too seldom the recipient. That is why, when I was a Conference Dean for a couple of years, I used the worship time at each meeting, not to preach a sermon that would save the other preachers some preparation time, but a message of grace and reconciliation strictly for ministers.

An old gospel hymn says:

I love to tell the story; For those who know it best
Are hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.

The author of the letters to Timothy was writing for a church that had lived with an ordered ministry long enough that it had to work through some issues of institutional standards and expectations. The church existed in a pluralist world of many religions, cultures and associations. The piety of mighty Rome was that of civil religion. The Roman gods were symbols of the virtues and victories of the nation.

People prayed at civic and business functions to ask the gods to bless their ventures. For Christians, however, the God of Jesus is the only God who really is God. God is not merely a myth rationalizing civil society. So Roman society thought of Christians, not only as a sectarian organization, but as a threat to the very fabric of the social structure. It was not only heretical, it was treasonous! It was very hard to distinguish between political rhetoric and religious faith in the Roman empire of the second century.

That sounds familiar, doesn't it? We see and hear expressions of civil religion in the speeches of the President of one of our neighbouring nations. Themes like that are being played out in the current federal election campaign. It is easy to see this blending of ideology and theology in the fundamentalist/nationalist struggles among Arabs, Israelis, Hindus and the Irish, but the secular domination of religion in Canada has been more subtle, so no one is sure where the line needs to be drawn and over which issues.

The church would prefer that its members would stick strictly to theological deliberation in making its polity, but cultural and moralistic ideas make their way into the mix. Nevertheless, the church must set its own agenda: it must exercise the freedom to make its own critique of secular life.

So some English translators of The Second Letter to Timothy have engaged in a little word play: "Your name is Timothy, not Timidity." We lay hands on you so that you may receive the gifts of true apostolic leadership: the gifts of power, love and self-control. Timidity is a spirit: a caving in to the relativity of the times; but it is not an expression of the Spirit. God has identity apart from all ideologies, including ours. So what we, who lay hands on you today wish to impart, in these times of competition for truth, is spiritual gifts of vision, imagination and courage.

  • Vision: to discern the intention of God within the babble of human opinions.
  • Imagination:to shape a plan faithful to the vision.
  • Courage:
    to enact the plan apart from popularity with either the church or the world.

Ministry is not about us. It is always a test of whether we can pray Jesus' prayer: "Not my will, but yours, be done."(Luke 22:42) If the church is the bride of Christ, we are the footmen and bridesmaids of the bride. We would like to think of ourselves as companions of the groom; peers of the Christ, but that's not the case in this analogy.

It is the role of the Holy Spirit to be the groomsman of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the witness, advocate; the one who convinces the world that Jesus is the real thing. Our task is to prepare, support and protect the bride in splendour and honour; to keep her faithful to the relationship and help her to be the nurturing mother of God's children.

As you grow in wisdom you will endure the pain of watching popular trends lead the church astray without being able to do much about it. That side of the ministry is portrayed in the wayward son of today's gospel parable. I see that occurring in the so-called spirituality of these times: It loves to be introspective but avoids the harder work of praying in silence so as to hear, not the voice inside, but the word of the One outside hoisted yet again on the cross. It occurs when social science replaces theology in our sermons and trendiness substitutes for true prophetic imagination.

As you grow in wisdom you will endure the pain of watching religious legalists hold so rigidly to historically-determined pieties that they fail to enter into any genuine relationship of joy and celebration with the God Jesus called Abba. That side of the ministry is portrayed in the other son in today's gospel parable. These are people who require constant certainty and therefore fall prey to fundamentalists and to those who make the scriptures into idols superior in authority to the living God of whom they are a witness. They prevent the church from critiquing its history and making fresh decisions based on new calls to faithfulness.

Many ministers burn out because they experience these two sets of insights as walls on the right and on the left converging and making the road they travel feel narrower and narrower. You begin to feel damned if you do and damned if you don't. Those who support you are as demanding as those who do not. That's why Luther prayed for protection; not only from his enemies, but also from his friends!

When these things happen, don't be timid! Remember your heritage. The Greeks considered their philosophy the height of truth and Christianity a superstition, but today Greece is a Christian nation and the gods of Olympus exist mostly in the pages of super hero comic books.

The Romans considered Christianity a seditious threat to their orderly and civil way of life, but today Rome hosts the Vatican and the republic most like ancient Rome is a great social and political destabilizer.

So when you feel that the road is getting narrower and narrower, don't be timid. That's an illusion. That's simply the adolescent squabbling of the two sons of tonight's parable; each trying to reassure himself that he is getting what will fulfill him. In the meantime, they both fail to see that the father has emptied himself of what is his in order to show those sons unconditional love.

It is not when Jesus is humiliating his detractors that he is fulfilling the Father's call. Rather, we are reminded in an ancient Eucharistic prayer, that it was when he was on the cross that he opened his arms to all.

Our world is waiting for the church to call it to something that is worth surrendering oneself to. We have been trying to lure people through their self-interest and curiosity in religious ideas. The chief symbol of Christianity is Jesus on the cross. He wears no clothes, holds nothing in his hands. Yet, it is from there that he shouts, "It is accomplished!"

It is not the cry of a suicide bomber, blasting shoppers in a mall. Jesus has accomplished what he read in Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD'S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

Isaiah 61:1-2 (NRSV)

Don't be timid! When we lay hands on you tonight, it is to impart to you the Spirit. Then you will be gifted with power and love and self-discipline. You will prevail over the squabbles and lift high the cross from which Christ opened his arms to all.

I close with one stanza of hymn R276 in the Renewing Worship songbook:

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

John L. Bell

I wish you every blessing for the journey ahead.

Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop

This sermon was written for the 2004 Eastern Synod ordination.

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