Florida is a beautiful state, a long peninsula situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is also covered with bodies of water, lakes, rivers and inter coastal waterways. We were attracted to this place because of water and nearness to it. We have called this a fountain of life.
The tradition of American evangelicalism is closely aligned with camp meetings and arbors that were located near sources of water, perhaps for baptism.
And, farther back, the holiest sites of our own tradition are near sources of water-Jacob's Well, the Sea of Galilee, the pool of Siloam. Waters were also places of ritual cleansing and healing.
I have also come to realize that Florida is a state that is connected by bridges, some of them iconic and we almost take them for granted. You may have crossed some of these:
The St. John's River Bridge. The Seven Mile Bridge. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge
The Green Swamp (Withlachoochie River). The Manatee River Bridge. The Alligator Alley Bridge.
I could go on. I have traveled across this conference, back and forth, and have met amazing people, people who follow Jesus people who love their churches, people who are transformational leaders in their communities. This for me is the itineracy. Not staying in one place, crossing these bridges, necessary journeys if I am to really be in the presence of the people of this conference.
The image of a bridge is one that I want those being licensed and ordained to keep before you as you enter into this relationship and vocation today. Because, brothers and sisters, while you have traveled across bridges that others imagined and constructed, you will need to repair some of the bridges and build new ones.
Rowan Williams reflects on the priesthood in this way:
A priest is somebody who interprets God and humanity to each other. A priest is somebody who builds bridges between God and humanity when that relationship has been wrecked: somebody who by offering sacrifice to God re-creates a shattered relationship. Of Jesus' priestly role I need hardly speak of that connection. As baptized people are drawn into the priestliness of Jesus, they are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. As baptized people, we are in the business of building bridges. We are in the business, once again, of seeing situations where there is breakage, damage and disorder, and bringing into these situations the power of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in order to rebuild something.
Jesus our Priest
Rowan Williams is reflecting on John 17, which has been called the priestly prayer of Jesus.
When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. (17 1-5)
I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I've given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I'm in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. (17. 21-23)
The gospel teaches us, through words and actions, that Jesus himself is the bridge between God and humanity. He unites the schism caused by our sin. He races toward us when we had left home. He forgives us when we have betrayed him. He dies for us in our state of sinfulness. As he is lifted up, he draws all people to himself.
All who take the name of Jesus in baptism are called to become bridges who connect God and the people he has created in his image, the world that he loves, the creation that he speaks into being. In baptism all of us are immersed into the priestly ministry of Jesus.
The role of the representative minister, the elder, the deacon, the local pastor, is two-fold:
- first, to remind the people you serve that they are a priesthood of believers;
- and second, to embody the repairing and building of bridges in your own ministry.
Priestly ministry of Jesus is expressed in John 17, is the bridge between God and humanity. This bridge overcomes our sin, our separation. In our baptisms we are immersed in the priestly ministry of Jesus to build bridges between people, to connect them. You are called to see the disconnections, see the divisions, and find ways to bridge that.
In John 17, Jesus does all of this through the form of prayer, more precisely, through intercession.
A little spiritual classic that I find myself returning to again and again is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. In one moving passage, the great theologian and martyr says,
"A pastor should never complain about her congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to her in order that she should become its accuser before God and men... Let the pastor rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brothers and sisters. Let us, in the consciousness of our own guilt, make intercession for our brothers and sisters. Let us do what we are committed to do, and thank God."
In John 17, Jesus is in the midst of betrayal and abandonment and conflict. Does he criticize his disciples? No, he intercedes for them.
I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.
That they may be one. You are not being sent to a church or a ministry to be its consultant. Whenever I hear a clergy speak of the church as "they" or "them", I know that they are detached. We are sent to repair and build bridges. And if we are tempted to complain and accuse and blame, let us instead pray and intercede.
Yes, I know that there are divisions and polarities in American culture, in our political life. There are divisions and polarities in the Christian Church, which transcends churches at every level and includes our own United Methodist Church. And frankly, you are being licensed, commissioned and ordained at a crucial time in the life of our denomination. There is some bridge-building that needs to happen in the United Methodist Church. We are a global church, a democratic church, a spirit-led movement. I serve as one of the moderators of the Way Forward, which is working over the next years on what we will look like, as a church, in the future.
You are being licensed, commissioned, ordained at a particular moment in history. Anyone can destroy a bridge. Anyone can lament that a bridge does not exist.
But to build a bridge, that requires a combination of hope and strategy, the visionary and the engineer. It will require you working with the laity. And it will require the resources that do not now exist in your local church. And it will require much prayer.
You are coming into leadership in the United Methodist Church. It has always been in our DNA to build bridges.
Our mantra is not "the parish is my world!" It is "the world is my parish".
Our mantra is not "what is the least I can do!" It is "do all the good you can in all the ways you can..."
Our mantra is not "make the people happy" and keep the doors locked and the church clean.
Our mantra is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
You have been called to repair and build bridges for such a time as this. It would be easier not to build a bridge. It would be easier to stay on our side, of whatever our preference or position or perspective might be.
But you have been set apart for a different purpose. You are set apart to do this very work. John 17 is an extended teaching of Jesus, and in the words of the great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin, it accomplishes two objectives:
- He reminds the disciples that they are participating in the fulfillment the great promise, that the dwelling of God will be with his people.
- He sends the disciples into the world to continue the mission for which Jesus came from the Father.
The Meaning of Consecration
And then he consecrates them. To be consecrated means to be set apart. Years ago a mentor was talking to me, this was a long time ago, and he was talking about the role of being a bishop. And he looked at me and said, "remember, it is a consecration, not a coronation!"
It is less about hierarchy and more about being set apart. You have been called by the church to invest the most precious resource you have, your life, in this work. That is consecration. And why are you consecrated. So that the world will believe.
Jesus prays for us, dies for us, rises for us, lives in us, so that the world will believe. We dedicate bridges. We consecrate lives. From a human point of view, we complain. In the spirit, we intercede.
You Are The Bridge
I want to conclude with an experience from the last church where I served. I was visiting at one of large hospitals in our cities. I had seen two or three people. On an elevator going out I ran into another pastor in the conference, he was just beginning in ministry. We said hello. He seemed surprised to see me. "You visit people in the hospital?", he asked. "Yes." I responded. "I did not expect that", he said. He went on to say that since I served a large church, he just expected other people to do that. I suppose he heard that in some church growth event.
"No," I said, this is what we do! And I smiled.
Then I walked to my car, which was parked some distance away. The hospital had recently moved the parking spaces for clergy out of the deck just adjacent to the entrance and to an outdoor lot which was much farther away. I was inwardly grousing about the lack of appreciation for what we do.
And then I ran into another pastor. We said hello, I was actually still walking and he told me that the wife of a retired clergy friend of ours was in the hospital I had just left. "She is near death", he said, "you should really go back in and see them". He gave me her room number.
And so I did, I walked back, made my way into the elevator and found the room. I shook hands with my friend and hugged his wife, who was lying in the bed. We stood and talked. Their pastor, also a friend, was there. In time I could see that she was growing tired, and soon their pastor asked if we could form a circle, join hands and pray. And then we noticed that a woman was very near to us, quietly cleaning the bathroom. The pastor saw her too and he asked her, "would you be willing to join us in this prayer?"
And it was as if something came alive her face, in her body. She removed her rubber gloves, took my hand and the pastor's hand, and we prayed, one after another, the patient, the retired minister, the hospital employee, the pastor and me. And yes there was a very real Unseen Presence.
And as I remember that moment, it was as if I were crossing one of the most beautiful bridges I have ever seen.
Brothers and sisters who are being licensed, commissioned and ordained today, you are the bridge.
Rowan Williams, Being Christian
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come