Nick was ordained this weekend, and this is what was preached.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you for this celebration. What I’m about to say is for everyone here. Nick would be the first to point out that what we’re doing here isn’t all about him. These words about ministry are for any disciple, though I will be addressing Nick a lot, because… well it’s his name on the program.
Nick. This is not your ordination sermon. This is an unsermon. I had the perfect sermon nearly written for this occasion. It was about all of the problems you’ll face as an ordained minister. I was going to tap into my vast experience of one year of being ordained to let you know how arduous it will be, but that you can get through all of this if you just realize that Jesus is the answer. Because that is something you would never have heard before.
I can’t preach that sermon for strong and pressing reasons, you will soon learn.
If I had though, I know exactly how that sermon was going to go, and after 10 minutes or so of scintillating rhetoric I would have arrived at the dramatic resolution with this line from the end of Thessalonians, Paul’s farewell phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you.”
I would have pointed out that this is not a throwaway line Paul just tacks on for flourish. It is not just a stock farewell, like the word “sincerely” written at the end of a letter that is anything but sincere. Paul uses this phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you” as a benediction – a hope, a wish, even a prayer that the actual presence of Christ will accompany you.
In this sermon I’m not going to preach I would have told you that I’m praying the same for you, and if you pray hard enough yourself you can receive this grace and it will carry you through the trials of ministry – all that hard stuff I would have spent 10 minutes describing to you in lurid detail.
And then, I even had a list of ways which you can use as a test to know if the grace of Christ is actually with you, since presumably this grace is invisible.
The first is that you would find yourself filled with trust in God’s Love. If the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, you wouldn’t feel anxious or worried about the future, or what other people will think of you. You would know your true value as one of God’s Children and wouldn’t need to look for outside sources of approval to boost your self-esteem. You wouldn’t need to be in control all the time, but would be able to let the outcome rest in God’s hands. Like the suffering servant from Isaiah you could trust even when things look bad. That is one sign I would have listed in this sermon I’m not going to preach.
The second sign, that the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, is that you would be unafraid to make mistakes. Like this story from Mark where Jesus is trying to give the blind man back his sight, but after the first attempt everything is jumbled and people look like Ents from the Lord of the Rings, but Jesus doesn’t get flustered or angry, he just tries again… You wouldn’t mind being fallible if you had the Grace of Jesus Christ with you.
If I had been preaching this sermon I would have said the third sign, which is much like the first two is a willingness to be vulnerable – to expose your true self to scorn and ridicule. None of us are lovely all of the time. As someone filled with the Grace of Jesus Christ you would be able to share your weakness with us to make us stronger.
Most importantly, and stemming from these other signs of Christ’s Grace – you would be capable of transcending suffering. Not skip it. None of us gets to skip suffering. But you would be able to transform it into source of good. When afflicted to look mercifully on your tormenters and say “Father forgive them…” That’s what you would do if the Grace of Jesus Christ were with you.
And in this hypothetical sermon which will never see the light of day I would have appealed to you to pray for this grace so that all of these virtues could be yours. But there is absolutely no way I can preach that sermon, for absolutely the best of reasons – it isn’t true. It isn’t true, even though it hides behind a charmingly cliché notion of grace, it isn’t the gospel it is just a heap of advice that you don’t need. Advice is something you’ll get plenty of… you’re sitting in a roomful of reverends. We are good at such things.
Contrary to what my sermon was going to be all about, this unsermon is truer, and in it I tell you that you can pray as often and as fervently as you want and sometimes grace won’t come. And without it you’ll fail. You’ll fail at every one of those things I listed.
Using my prodigious powers of prophecy I can guarantee you that you are going to fail at trusting God’s love. You aren’t going to believe you are worth what Jesus has given for you. You will be afflicted with a fragile ego that needs affirmation from outside sources, and you will seek approval. You aren’t going to trust the future to God either, you will try and control it and make it what you think it should be. You will often do this in the most noble and futile of ways, not out of some luciferian moment of hubris when you wrest the reins out of God’s hand, but in moments of genuine compassion you will think you are doing God’s will for the sake of others. Most of the time when looking at your ministry you won’t be able to tell if what you feel is the Spirit moving or if you just had one too many sips of communion wine.
You will fail also at being unafraid of making mistakes. I know you are an easygoing guy so this might seem strange to you. I remember sitting upside down in your Jeep Grand Cherokee, so I know you are accustomed to laughing at your own missteps – but I also know that you are going to experience honeymoon periods. You will be admired by people and it will be very hard for you to let go of their admiration. You also will have people that you respect, mentors, friends, wise or compassionate elders, your absurdly talented and intelligent wife. You will not want to disappoint them. You will try too hard, therefore to get everything right.
And when you are trying to get everything right all the time it is impossible to succeed at being vulnerable. You will hide your mistakes, your flaws, your petty and serious transgressions and you will do so for the best possible reason – because sometimes it really does seem like people need a leader, a hero, a wise, strong, cornerstone kind of a guy, and you will want to be able to be that for them, not for yourself – because you will believe it is necessary.
Having failed at everything else, most excruciatingly you will finally fail at transcending suffering. You will be in pain and it will not be the educational kind of pain. You won’t be a better person because of it. You won’t see any grand design. You will just hurt, and instead of saying “father forgive them” you will curse and complain and shout at the heavens… For the love of God! And many other words that I won’t repeat in the pulpit when I’m a guest in someone else’s church.
Why? You will ask. Why didn’t I stick with Graphic Design?
And when that happens, someone will come up to you and interrupt you, while you are in mid-tirade. It might be a little girl, or a cranky old lady, or a young man very much like you and I are today. My prophetic vision isn’t that precise. But whoever it is will tap you on the shoulder and say… “Thank you…. Thank you for sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with me.”
And that’s when you’ll realize that this throw away phrase at the end of Paul’s letters “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ go with you,” isn’t a wish. It isn’t a hope, and it definitely isn’t a prayer. It’s a promise.
And you’ll laugh through your tears as you realize that you haven’t been working at cross-purposes with God at all. That God somehow has been working in you essentially regardless of your awareness, or your faithfulness. That the Grace of Jesus Christ has been going with you the entire way and through you countless others have witnessed the Truth, that God is love and in him there is no hatred or darkness at all.
You’ll laugh because you’ll know how wrong all those pompous pastors (no offense to present company, Nick knows I am an expert at pomposity), those experienced ministers who tried to dissuade you from going into ministry using that old saw “if you can do anything else…” They were wrong and ministry isn’t a tiresome, thankless, never-ending, low-paying, dead-end job. It’s unequivocally the BEST job.
Because somehow through you Christ’s love is being spread. Even though you’re utterly inadequate, the grace of Christ has and does and will go with you.
As ministers, we, all of us, are vehicles of God’s grace. Though we despair. Though our conviction is feeble – or worse, all too strong. Though we talk too loud and listen too little, and we charge ahead when we should wait, and sit on our hands when we should be busy. Somehow in the midst of that Christ is working. Grace is available. Grace is with us and it is our spectacular good fortune to be present when others receive it, again and again.
It doesn’t get better than this. Today you get to stand here at this table and from your hands, deliver the bread of life and the cup of salvation to people you love.
So, thank you. On behalf of all of those who you will minister to in your future. Thank you for all of the ways large and small in which you will be a sign of God’s purposes in the world. Thank you for all of the hearts you will ease, and consciences you will raise. Thank you for your future ministry in its lumpy, stumbling, inglorious beauty.
You are well loved. Take heart in that and go boldly forth toward future failures, knowing that especially in failure, the Grace of Jesus Christ goes with you.