Chrism Mass & Renewal of Ordination Vows, Christ Church Cathedral, March 25, 2024

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev. 1:8).

Somewhere in the course of my theological education, I picked up a version of basic management method. You know the thing: make a plan, execute the plan, evaluate the result. Then repeat the process, past experience now guiding the new plan. It’s an adapted version of the scientific method: of hypothesis, experiment, and evaluation. Mind you, I don’t think my seminary had a course dedicated to ministry planning, for which I am profoundly grateful. I’d have been bored stiff! Much better to spend time on prayer and systematics, scripture and sacraments. Attempts to make education of any sort more “practical” leave me very cold indeed.

Make a plan, execute the plan, and evaluate the result, is not rocket science. Still, I confess that what I know about it was acquired during the seminary equivalent of recess, on the playground as it were. I am a non-serious practitioner, an amateur, when it comes to management. It seems reasonable to plan for the future, to move into action on the basis of the plan, and afterwards to reflect on what has happened before forming a new plan. It’s a fitting method. We are, after all, creatures of time, who naturally face the future, act in the present, and reflect upon the past.

God’s order, however, stands this reasonable and fitting order of things upon its head. Did you notice how the formula embedded in our reading from Revelation runs?: “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4 & 8). It’s not the natural order we might expect, of past, present, and future, “who was and is and is to come,” but it’s important enough to occur twice in our brief reading.

In St. John’s vision, the present comes first, riffing on God’s self-description from the burning bush, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:15). God encompasses all past and all future, the beginning and the end, but he is first of all the “I am” of the present. We are creatures of time but God is not. Even the future tense “who will be” is replaced in Revelation’s formula by the present tense “who is to come.” It’s as if the present tense of God’s action is overwhelming the logic of human living, not to mention the customary order of planning.

God has plans for his People, as the prophet Jeremiah says, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). But God’s plans for us are not the result of a planning process, nor will God be reflecting on them afterward. For God, there is no future and no past. We have a future, and we can reflect upon the past, but God’s reality is always present now.

Apocalyptic literature, like the Book of Revelation, captures this sense of urgency by describing God suddenly breaking in to the present, upsetting the applecart of the familiar order of things. Author and activist William Stringfellow made this point about the Revelation of John: “In this saga, time is transcended within the events of a single day – today – so that all that is past, from the first day, is consummated and all that may yet come, even unto the last day of the world, is anticipated; so that today is eternal in its real dignity, as if it were the first day, as if it were the last day, as if it were the only day, as if today and eternity were one” (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land).

Stringfellow sees Revelation as a clarion call to Christ’s disciples to seize the day. In Jesus Christ, God’s eternity has broken into our present. God calls for us to act, as Stringfellow says, as if today were the only day. St. John’s vision, after all, takes place in exile on “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), the weekly observance of the Resurrection. God’s action in Jesus Christ, in raising him from the dead that Easter morning, invites our own faithful response. This is the time that is given to us as disciples, this day in which God acts to reverse the whole course of history, and brings new life into being.

Our renewal of ordination vows today naturally finds us looking back to the first time we took those vows, whether recently or maybe decades ago. Because we’re human beings, we might also be thinking of the future. We make a plan, we execute the plan, we evaluate the result, and we move forward into the future on that basis. Again, nothing could be more natural.

But all of our planning, all of our vow taking, and the entirety of our ministries, takes place in the eternal present of God’s now. Now is the time for faithfulness, for careful attention to God’s call. Now is the time for us to sit up and to take action. Now is the time for us to fulfill or accomplish our ministries, as St. Paul writes (2 Tim. 4:5). Or, more truly, for God to fulfill or accomplish those ministries within us. He is, and was, and is to come. That is the present ground on which we stand.

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