Bishop Gwinn preached this sermon at the Ordination service in the North Carolina Conference.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)
Ordinand, God has called you into His work. It is important to remember this is not to be your work. God wants to do God’s work through you! We heard our Lord saying in our gospel lesson tonight, “it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:8-10) God has called you to serve out of love for Christ and His Church not out of desire for personal gain and fame. This calling is about loving Jesus and living for Jesus.
And, Ordinand, what you have been called to do is so counter-cultural! You have been called to die – to self! The Epistle lesson tonight says, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) That’s why the theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer could say, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them come and die.” And, that’s why Meister Eckhart said, “There are plenty who follow our Lord half way, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.” But that is your calling.
In some ways it would be good if this dying could be a once and for all act. Something we do one time and get it over with! But, unfortunately and fortunately this is not the case. Dying to self must have a time when there is an intentional act of the will, but it is also a daily and continual act. So the Epistle lesson tonight says, “…set your hearts on things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” That literally means, keep setting your hearts and keep setting your minds on the things of Christ. This calling is definitely about losing focus on the things of this world as you focus on the things of Christ. In fact, the saints of the church through the years have reminded us that He is ALL we really need! He is MORE – than all he can do for us or give us. So, Charles Wesley in his great hymn, Jesus Lover of my Soul, begins with those incredible words – Thou O Christ, art all I need. More than all in thee I find.
Ordinand, this life – hidden with Christ in God is in so many ways a mystery. We cannot fully understand or explain how God creatively indwells our personalities to transform us and infuse us with His cleansing and re-creating power. Though we cannot fully comprehend it, we can experience and know the fact of His indwelling. The Apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no long I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
But, Ordinand, never under estimate the power of self-deception and self-centeredness to separate you from a life hidden with Christ in God. The density of this world’s goods and goals can surely hold you back from the path to fullness of life in Christ. We can become so distracted and confused by the abundance of consumer goods, political and economic ideologies, and urgent challenges as well as the many obstacles we face in these fast-paced lifestyles. You must not let earthly things, status, riches and honors become your goal, your aim, your master! You must not let these earthly things perplex your mind and bring you anxiety! Don’t let your life be shaped by things and feelings! For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. And, you have been raised with Christ! Let go of yourself! Let go of the things of this world!
Ordinand, one of the biggest temptations you will face as a United Methodist clergy person will be to make this role a job instead of a calling – a profession instead of a vocation. You will be so tempted to think this is about you – and your needs, your wants and your desires. But remember it is Jesus who transforms your people and your church, not you; it is Jesus who takes words of truth deep into the heart, not you; it is Jesus who is Lord, not you. Remember what our Lord said, “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work.”
Henri Nouwen helps us with this point when he writes, “It is not enough for (clergy) to be moral people, well trained, eager to help their fellow humans, and able to respond creatively to the burning issues of their time. All of this is very valuable and important, but it is not the heart of Christian leadership. The central question is, Are the (clergy) … truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?” He was talking about people who are setting their minds and hearts on things above.
Ordinand, please do not misunderstand, God does not intend for this “other worldliness” to be a flight from reality or an escapist withdrawal from the stresses, strains and responsibilities of this world. This does not mean that the conditions of our society should be of no concern to you. In fact, it means the very opposite! It means that because you are focused on the heart of Christ that you love the world the way God loves the world. It means that you give yourself for the world in the same way Jesus gave himself for the world. It means that you have a heart that genuinely forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In Christ’s heart there is no vindictiveness, no resentment and not a tinge of hatred and ugliness. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance people have to let God love them unconditionally. It is a heart that says with its whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, “You are loved. There is no reason to be afraid. In love God created you and calls you by name.” Ordinand, that is to be your heart!
God is calling you to be in the world but not of the world. And, He is not calling you to less; He is calling you to more! Your brother, Paul, the Apostle, who experienced the same call that you have experienced from the same Lord who has called you, writes a note to you (and us) about getting ready for an eternal glory beyond all measure – because, he says, “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:18)
When Christ calls a person, He bids them come and die.