Priceless Treasure in Frail Jars

“We have this treasure in jars of clay,” or “in earthen vessels,” as the older, more poetic expression put it (2 Corinthians 4:7). The infinite loving grace of the Gospel message is stored in earthy, breakable, frail containers created from dirt, namely you and I. For even the most literalist Fundamentalist understands that the Bible, while it may indeed hold the Word of God, is useless unless read and shared by humans. God chooses people to be the conveyers of his message of grace. At first glance, this may seem a bizarre bad idea. Humans are the antithesis of grace, full of sin, shady schemes, lusts, avarice, murderous thoughts and deeds, self-righteous imprecations, hate, jealousy, idolatry, a whole jug full of toxic urges.

But it is the Alcoholics Anonymous concept, that the best person to get through to an alcoholic is another alcoholic. We listen to those who “speak our language.” The word of grace gets around by “one beggar telling another where to find bread,” as Martin Luther noted. We who are unworthy beggars before God are entrusted with not only the preservation of the apostolic message of grace, but with its spread to the ends of the earth.

One human sin is the resistance to the thought that we are all unworthy. It is part of pride and arrogance to assume that because we are bearers of the Word of God, that somehow the jar becomes of better quality if it carries better contents. It has been assumed that the clergy are of special quality, a cut above sinful mankind. It is sometimes assumed even by clergy, who surely should know better. It results in an artificial environment surrounding clergy, people protecting them from the sinful world around them but also judging them as hypocrites when they demonstrate their own fully sinful instincts.

This creates a whirl of confusion. Thus, it behooves us to examine what we are doing when the Church ordains someone. Almost all denominations have some form of ordination, yet the meaning given varies so much as to make the term “ordination” almost defy definition.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for ordination is χειροτονια (kerotonia), from the word for “hand,” deriving from the material sacramental act of laying hands on the ordinand. Our first ordination is connected to baptism. St. Peter observes, for example, that all are baptized as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), meant to administer the Lord’s earth and to offer that stewardship to the Lord.

Beyond the basic baptismal ordination, the term was used for a variety of offices in the Church. It is first used in its modern meaning in the ordination of the first seven deacons (Acts 6:6). Within a short time, three offices develop as major ordinations; bishop, presbyter and deacon, although the term continues to be applied to other offices as well. Those called to orders, as leaders, are exhorted to be an example to others. St. Paul lists fourteen moral qualities that bishops should aspire to meet (1 Tim. 3:2-7). Yet at no point does he suggest that they can cease to be sinners, or even that they can fulfill all these qualities perfectly, before or after ordination.

This was tested when Christianity ceased to be persecuted and became a legal, favored religion in the Fourth Century. The “Donatists” insisted that those with blemished records during the persecution were not worthy of priestly or episcopal office, and that sacraments from their hands were invalid. The Catholic Church eventually decided instead that sacraments are ultimately from God, not from the earthly vessel distributing them. Therefore, the worthiness of the celebrant is irrelevant to the validity of the sacrament. This has been Catholic doctrine ever since, consistent with what we know of human nature, that none are without sin. If ordinands had to perfectly meet all the requirements of 1 Timothy 3, there would be no clergy because no one is “worthy.” It is about grace.

Nevertheless, Donatism continues, excluding various persons from ordination due to lack of perfection in specific areas of behavior, often overlooking other sins in areas more acceptable to the authorities. Yet an attitude towards the clerical office which assumes moral perfection among the clergy will never be other than hypocritical, and will always be an impediment to grace being received. Those who self-define as almost perfect perceive little need of grace and little in common with the rest of humanity. This makes them among the least qualified for ordination. It is better to follow the understanding that Pope Francis articulated. When he became Pope, he self-identified, not as Pope or prelate but rather as a sinner. If there is one overriding impediment which should always preclude ordination, it is a lack of honest perception that I am first an unworthy sinner in desperate need of grace.

In the Middle Ages, the role of the priest re-oriented from being primarily pastor of the flock to being the one who offers the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass. Such a role suggested a person without blemish, even without physical handicaps. Donatism found an easy nest in this dogma. The priest, rather than being a pastor who shared and understood human foibles became instead set apart, and in the dualism of the time, was placed in a spiritual realm above those with material concerns. Such an expectation tortured those who, like Martin Luther, retained an honest view of his own sinfulness. Those who were in denial about their own imperfections nevertheless possessed them and others could see what they could not, and the consequent unavoidable hypocrisy.

The Reformers universally rejected the idea of the priestly replication of Christ’s sacrifice. While they differed significantly on the role of the priest, all had a concept of clergy as pastors and teachers. Most continued to ordain. But not all returned ordination to a sacramental imposing of grace on unworthy clergy sinners. Donatistic attitudes of personal holiness continued in some circles. The theology of the Mass changed, but not always the concept of clergy as morally better than others. The Puritans in England, and still today in America, for instance, muddle the clear Gospel message of grace alone for lost sinners with such notions.

Anglicanism is one battleground for this conceptual struggle. Is it surprising, therefore, that the meaning of ordination continues to remains contentious, both officially and in practice? The recent extensive study by the Anglican Church in North America Task Force on Holy Orders documents the lack of consensus on the meaning of ordination which remains unresolved from Reformation times until today. It results in many Anglicans simply talking past each other when trying to resolve the issues surrounding ordination. Worse, the confusion is an obstacle to grace among us. What should be a compelling analogy that dirty, damaged jars are used by God to hold the beautiful flower of his grace is lost in the impossible task of trying to make the pot worth more than the flower.

If you fail to see sacramental action in the laying on of hands, if you see this as simply an orderly way to conduct church business, or as a way of setting apart those of higher moral character, try to understand what it means to be a weak, grubby, half-broken vessel chosen through no value of your own to hold the most glorious gift of grace.

With Pope Francis, I understand that I am first defined by being a sinner. With Martin Luther, I know I am a beggar before God. That I am also privileged to preside at the altar, the banquet Table, to hold and share the precious gifts of loving grace can be no other than sacrament.