The Ordination of a Deacon, Wesley Hill, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries” (Ecclus. 39:7).

Today our diocese gathers for the ordination of a new deacon, an action of the church that has significance for our ordinand (of course) but also for the church at large: in Tennessee and further afield, and especially in the seminary community in Ambridge where our friend Wesley Hill is a teacher and mentor. A celebration like this, of its nature, suggests a personal marker, a cause for rejoicing on the part of family and friends; but what’s often missed is the significance of the action for the community of faith.

Significance suggests “sign,” the word at the root; and that brings us to sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” as we say. Ordained ministry is a sign, in this sense, of gifts and graces given to the Body of Christ as a whole, but which must be exercised by individuals for the sake of the Body. Bishops, priests, and deacons are raised up from among the People of God to be reminders of our vocation as a church, incarnating in themselves the gifts that God gives for ministry. These gifts are rooted in the community, but they must in the course of things be taken up and received by particular persons in the name of the whole. Such is the nature of “Holy Order.”

Our first reading this morning invites us to think again about the foundation of ministry itself. Here our lectionary makes a bold move by appointing as an option our text from Ecclesiasticus, a hymn of praise for the vocation of the scribe. Bold, because Jesus has some hard things to say about scribes in the Gospels, dealing with them in the same breath as the Pharisees; though we should note that in Matthew’s Gospel he tells us that our righteousness will need to exceed theirs if we are to enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:20). Scribes in the ancient world were originally transcribers of texts, but by the time we come to the post-exilic period, scribes had become something more. They were transcribers of the sacred text, yes; but persons also learned in the law and prophetic writings of Israel.

Our reading says of the scribe, “He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables” (Ecclus. 39:1-3). Our reading suggests that this concern with the text of law and prophets is linked to wisdom, knowledge, and understanding: all words from the wisdom tradition of Israel that is demonstrated in this Apocryphal book.

This wisdom tradition began in the practical wisdom of the judges and kings of Israel, called upon to render judgement and to chart a course for the nation; but it came to rest in the penetration of hidden mysteries, in a wisdom known only through the revelation of God. As it says in our reading, “The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries” (Ecclus. 39:7). This knowledge from God was not esoteric, specialized and secret; but in the case of the scribe it was gained through the study of the sacred text, what we can now call (without much fear of anachronism) the Holy Scriptures themselves. It was open and accessible to the People of God. The scribe, learned in the text, “will show the wisdom of what he has learned, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant” (Ecclus. 39:8), as it says in our reading.

This connection with scribal wisdom has a long history in the Christian tradition, stretching all the way back to the time of the New Testament. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), as it says in St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, and as we will hear tomorrow. Scripture was scribal work in Jesus’ day, and knowledge of the texts was crucial.

Sometime later the early Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, writes at length about the nature of the true knowledge of God. “But they who are willing to work for the noblest prizes,” Clement says, “will not relinquish their search for truth, until they obtain the proof from the Scriptures themselves” (Stromateis, Bk. VII.16). Students of the time will know that this emphasis on the Holy Scriptures was especially perpetuated in the Alexandrian Church of which Clement was a part, and which has come down to us in our own day in our own tradition. “Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation,” as the Articles of Religion put it.

Our reading this morning reminds us that the wisdom contained in the Holy Scriptures is foundational for our growth in the knowledge and love of God. It’s foundational for ministry: not just the ministry of the ordained but for the ministry of each one of us. But don’t let scholars of the Holy Scriptures, the scribes of our age, become conceited here! The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says somewhere (Genealogy of Morals) that we don’t so much need to be interpreters of texts as to let them interpret us, to bring their own “wise fire” (as Clement called it, Eclogae Propheticae xxv.4, et al.) to bear upon us, to purge and prepare us for the work ahead. “The wise fire”: fire that destroys what is unworthy within us and purifies the rest. The knowledge of God transforms us, because as it says in Hebrews, our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29).

It is traditional at this point in the sermon to ask the ordinand to stand. Wesley: God has raised you up as a teacher of the Holy Scriptures, that most excellent vocation among the People of God. Now God is calling you to serve as a deacon in the church, to be yourself a sign of the ministry of service that belongs to all of us. As a deacon you will encounter the Scriptures in a new way. True study of Scripture lies in its application to ourselves, as our ordinal and our tradition reminds us, and you will be called upon to serve as an example to those among whom you live and work: your friends, your colleagues, and those whom you mentor and teach.

In a few minutes we will pray for you to be “modest and humble, strong and constant” in your life and teaching, as you receive the laying on of hands. My knowledge of you leads me to believe that God has given you the gifts you need for this work, but you will always need God’s grace to accomplish this ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). May the Lord direct your counsel and knowledge, in the days ahead, as you meditate on his mysteries. Let the “wise fire” of God’s transforming love surround you at all times. This is our prayer for you on this day of solemn consecration.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee