Saturday, April 12, 2014

Homily from the Mass of Chrism

St Paul's Cathedral, April 12

“We receive you into the household of God…”.  

Three years into episcopal ministry now, I am aware that one of the aspects of parish ministry that I miss is administering the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the process leading up to it. So I get almost giddy with excitement when a priest tells me there are baptisms waiting for me at my next visit. I’m thrilled to preside at a baptism, and one of my favorite parts of the experience is when we’re all finished and the whole congregation says together, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess with us the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” I was at a parish recently where the choir sang a choral setting of that text, and I nearly broke down into tears as I heard it while trying to deliver the body of Christ to people kneeling at the communion rail in front of me.

We are on the brink now, in the various Eucharistic Communities of the diocese, of plunging once again into the heart of the Paschal Mystery, as we sacramentally and liturgically transcend time and space and place ourselves among those who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” with those who gather with him in the Upper Room as he repurposes the bread and wine of a Jewish ritual meal to be his own body and blood given for the life of the world, with those who gather outside the Praetorium and shout “Crucify him!” and “Give us Barabbas!”, among those who keep vigil at the cross as he commends his spirit into the hands of his Father, among those who make their way to the tomb in the early light of the first day of the week and are told to look for him elsewhere because he is risen from the dead. The identity of the People of God is formed by these events, and it is into that identity, and not something else, that we are conformed when we come to the waters of the baptismal font. This, and not something else, is what we are welcoming people into when we receive them into the household of God.

Confess the faith of Christ crucified …

“Christ crucified” is a reality that is also a symbol. It means more than it says. It contains within itself the entire “Christ event”—prophecy, incarnation, birth, life, baptism, ministry, passion, death by crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, ongoing intercession. It is the baton that has been passed along to us by those who received it from others, who received it from the hand of Jesus himself when he breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples and commissioned them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Proclaim his resurrection …

Christ risen from the dead is the beginning, middle, and end of the story it is ours to tell to the world around us. Everything else is an amplification and elaboration of this central data point. I was awestruck some years ago when I first encountered these words from the renowned Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” Let me repeat that, because it really is quite breathtaking in how it says so much so concisely: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” You and I hear lots of chatter on the internet and on the media about waxing atheism and debates about whether God “exists,” as it that’s the definitive question. But what this quote from Jenson reminds us of is that the definitive question is not “Does God exist?” but “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Once we answer that question—and a careful examination of the available evidence, the same way we examine evidence for any other purported historical event that far back in time, will demand only an affirmative conclusion—once we answer the question “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”, then most everything else falls into place without any extraordinary effort. The “existence of God” question become more or less a footnote.

Today we’re going to bless oil to be used in the sacrament of unction and the ministry of healing. There are many ways of proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, but the ministry of healing is surely one of the most compelling. Through the sacramental use of oil, along with prayer and the laying-on of hands, we consecrate our illnesses and injuries, placing them at God’s disposal for the revelation and outworking of his redemptive purposes in the world and in human experience, redemptive purposes that are galvanized by and precisely the fruit of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Some among us are gifted with a special charism—the gift of healing—through which God manifests the truth that he is a God of health, not sickness; a God of life, not death. Healing ministry is part of the proclamation of the resurrection, and even as we share in the blessing of this oil, we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and our faith in the God who raised him from the dead.

Share with us in his eternal priesthood …

Christ is the one true and only priest. He is the one who stands before God the Father, bearing the human nature that he shares with us, and entreats the Father to look on us not as we are, but as we will someday be in him.  The whole company of the baptized, precisely as the Body of Christ, bears the mark of priesthood. We are, all together, a priestly people—indeed, as St Peter tells us in the bit of post-baptismal catechesis known as his first epistle, a royal priesthood. Then, from among the whole number of the baptized, some are called to an intensification of that baptismal mark. Any priest, generically, stands in the gap between human sinfulness and divine holiness, between human contingency and divine completion. Abraham acted as  a priest when he begged the Lord to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses acted as a priest when he begged the Lord to spare Israel after their apostasy in the wilderness, at the foot of Mt Sinai. Jesus acted as a priest as he hung on the cross, and he continues that high priestly ministry as he continually make intercession for us as our advocate before the Father. Those of us who are called into the particular and peculiar ministry of the presbyterate, the ordained priesthood, exercise that ministry on behalf of, for the sake of, and in the name of the whole priestly community of the baptized.

Of course, those who are called to iconic servanthood, whom we name as deacons, and those who are called to iconic shepherd-hood, whom we name as bishops, also proclaim Christ’s resurrection in their ministries by manifesting in their being and in their doing the Risen One himself.

My beloved, as we enter once again into the solemn remembrance of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, as we prepare in many of our communities to add to the number of the offspring of Abraham through the paschal sacrament, it is my hope and prayer that we will take heart, that we will be encouraged, by the precious gifts that are ours as members of the household of God, that we will confess together the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood. Amen.

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