The Priestly Ministry of Teaching the Faith
Ordination Sermon for Edward B. Mulligan IV
Jan. 21, 2007
Ephesians 4.7, 11-16
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is properly equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.For this free-church sojourner, it is a great honor to preach at the ordination of Edward B. Mulligan IV—otherwise known as Ned—into the priestly ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America and thereby into the sacred ministry of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I am pleased to be here for many reasons, but not the least of them is the strong respect, affection, and hope I have for Ned. If any are worthy of this high office of priestly ministry—which all of us must confess is only possible by the grace of God—then surely Ned stands firmly embraced by that grace. His previous vocations, studies, and ministries have given ample evidence of his earnest appropriation of the grace Christ confers and by which Christ summons some into a future of consecrated leadership of His church. Whatever may be the numerable faults and flaws in Ned’s life—which the angels can surely enumerate and name—we may be sure that such flaws are not legion. And just as surely, many of us here today can testify to having repeatedly experienced an irrepressible glow and gladness in Ned’s countenance. It does not seem to be the glow of ambition or of self-assured pride or of cocky confidence in native abilities; rather it seems to be the glow and gladness of a readiness to trust that he has been summoned by God and sent on a great adventure to witness to a Gospel that he does not own and has not invented but has radically changed his life.
Yet today this act of ordination is an act of the church of Jesus Christ. It is, however, a sobering matter that the church dares to ordain persons to priestly ministry. Coming from a tradition that wrestles often with the temptation to think the church must continually reinvent itself with new discourses and practices, it is provocatively reassuring to me to realize that the liturgy we are enacting today has been read, spoken, and prayed by centuries of believers before us. The Scriptures that have been read on this occasion have been read repeatedly in the confidence that the church and all of its ordinands need to hear, heed, and ponder just these Scriptural passages. The words that will perform this ordaining event are words that have performed countless previous ordinations. No slight of hand or sneaky invention here. The previous enactments of this service are a reminder to us that the church of Jesus Christ lives in and through its sacred discourses and practices.
I am hoping that the historic steadiness of this liturgy and these Scriptures will empower us to confess that being the church of Jesus Christ in these tumultuous times is also a staggering task. We—the church today—do indeed stagger under the weight of our brokenness, under the weight of our incessant temptation to serve other gods, under the weight of our nonchalant and hesitant performance of our worship and prayer life, and under the weight of the enmity that surges among the members of the church’s catholic body.
The church dare not ordain this man Edward Mulligan—or any other—in the absence of a searching awareness of how utterly odd, bold, and counter-cultural it is to claim to be the body of Christ in just this contemporary worldly culture. We must not hide from ourselves that this very Christ was a Jew proclaiming the peaceable kingdom of God and that he was judged by the ruling authorities as deserving of being strung-up on a cross to experience a cruel and brutal death—a crucified death that aimed to demonstrate to Jesus’ frightened followers and to all bystanders that it is Rome that is in charge and rules over life and death.
In the profoundest theological sense, it ought to scare the hell out of us to even contemplate being now the living body of this Christ and thereby being disciples of one who collided with the principalities and powers of the world. If it does not so scare us, it must be because we have so domesticated and tamed Jesus that being-his-body involves no more than occasional gestures of invoking his name and admiring his courage.
I make these remarks not in order to prepare us to launch into a diatribe about the ignominious policies of the Bush administration. Rather, I am reminding us that to engage in this act of ordination requires honesty about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in just these times in which we live. In actual fact, none of us can avoid confronting Bush and his world. Yet the crucial question is not whether we will confront him and his world as Americans-on-the-right or Americans-on-the-left, but whether we will confront him as the body of Christ. There is a huge difference.
We are not ordaining another American to be a chaplain to America in its wars and miseries. We are ordaining this man Ned to be a priest of and for the body of Christ as it witnesses to God’s judgments and grace in this world and for the redemption of this world.
There are, of course, various emphases we might make in describing the priestly office within the body of Christ. Some might say the priest is primarily the performer of the liturgy, while another might say the priest is primarily the prophet who judges the church and the world, and yet another will say the priest is the pastoral counselor/spiritual director to the church and to the spiritually wounded of the world.
I do not doubt the claims of these various perspectives, but I ask us today: how can a priest perform the liturgy if he has no theological grasp of the language of the liturgy and can discuss that language with the people? How can a priest be a prophet in and for the church if she has no articulable theological criteria for discerning what sort of matters require the prophet’s discernment? How can a priest pastorally counsel the wounded in church and world if he has no deep understanding of the reality of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I must insist that it is impossible for a priest of the church as the body of Christ to perform any of these roles if he is not at the very center of his priesthood a teacher of the faith. It is this multifaceted role of the priest as a teacher of the faith that I want to celebrate and commend to us and to Ned.
We can make no headway in getting clear about what is involved in being a teacher of the faith if we fail to grasp that such a teacher—such a priest—is a theologian. And if we—clergy and laity alike—fall into thinking that being a theologian is somehow best performed by professors in the academy and we poor priests are really not theologians, then the game is up! We will remain forever confused about the priestly task of teaching the faith and its centrality to the life of the church, whether in its congregational manifestation or in its other manifestations.
Over many years of working with congregational pastors, it never ceases to shock me when a pastor says ‘I’m not a theologian and have never had an interest in theology, but what do you think of…’ in which he asks about what he thinks is difficult theological question. [I say ‘he’ because no priestly ‘she’ has asked that question.] Typically my short reply is to admonish my friend to resign from his church appointment immediately for it is impossible to be a pastor and to preach if he is not a theologian speaking and thinking theologically. The only interesting question is whether he is doing and teaching good, sound, and truthful Christian theology.
It is the Ephesians passage read today that warns the church that it must be wary of being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”[4.14] It is in the context of these problems that Paul proclaims that Christ has given “gifts” to some folk to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the sake of equipping “the saints for the work of ministry.”[4.11-12]
Two quick points: First, we should not over-interpret this passage as though it is telling us precisely what the offices are that govern the life of the church. Second, we should not interpret the passage to mean that the offices loosely and imprecisely mentioned are the prime offices defining the ministry of the church, as though these are the offices where real ministry occurs and the others in the body of Christ are the one’s who get ministered unto. Rather, I would emphasize that for Paul these offices function to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” It is the saints who are to do the work of ministry, not primarily the officers. But who are the “saints”? The saints are simply all those persons who comprise the body of Christ and in whose work the body of Christ is being built up!
Granting that Paul never mentioned ‘priest’ as an office of the church, tradition has pulled together several of the tasks involved in equipping the saints as the tasks of priesthood. And surely—now my big point—essential to being a priestly officer involves teaching the faith and you cannot teach the faith without vigorously speaking and thinking theologically.
It helps in making further traction on this task if we recall a traditional distinction between two interrelated meanings of the word faith. On the one hand, there is the fides qua creditur —the act or activity of believing—and on the other hand, there is the fides quae creditur—what is believed by the act of believing. When the tradition goes on to say that the life of the Christian is the life of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—we cannot avoid the conclusion that the body of Christ—the church—has beliefs, teachings, or doctrines that are crucial to its life. Or to put it more emphatically, it is unsaintly and deceitful to suppose the church can be the body of Christ when the teachings or doctrines—the what-is-believed—are regarded as negligible and nonessential.
Certainly we must also grant that teaching the faith is more than teaching folk the content of the beliefs, as though those beliefs stand on their own as abstractions apart from the practices of the Christian life. Yet it is in the language of the faith—what I also call the discourses of faith—that folk come to learn how to be a Christian.
Ned, nothing I have said here is new to you. But you do need to be reminded, especially in this event of ordination, that teaching the faith is central to everything you do. Never succumb to the temptation to suppose that being a priest can be faithfully pursued in the absence of keeping together and wrestling with the interaction between the what of the faith and the how of the faith. It is easy for anyone—Christian or not—to forget that how we live our lives necessarily involves how we construe ourselves and the world in which we live; such construals are the beliefs that shape us.
The Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ intends to shape how-we-live by how-we-think and to shape how-we-think by how-we-live. Both inseparably together.
Two concluding points: John Howard Yoder, one of the most arresting theologians of the second half of the twentieth century once wrote that repentance is not simply a matter of feeling bad, rather it is a matter of resolving to think and live differently. My wife, Sarah, is a spiritual director and the title of one of her books leapt out at me when I first saw it: Thoughts Matter, by Mary Margaret Funk.
Yes, yes, feelings and actions matter too. But if the church does not teach us how to think about God, about ourselves, about our world, even about our enemies, then we may be sure our faith will continually wobble and may finally expire, perhaps unnoticed by us and by the world.
Ned, teach the faith and in teaching the faith, live the faith.
All this dear friends I have dared to preach in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all. Amen.
[A sermon preached at the ordination of Edward Mulligan into the Priesthood of the Episcopal Church on January 21, 2007 in the Salisbury School Chapel, Salisbury Connecticut.]