St Lawrence

So who was St Lawrence, and what is a deacon? Well, Lawrence's story is one that inspired me long before I came to this parish and I think it is inspiring not only to those of us who are ordained, but to young Oliver here and everyone who chooses to live the life of a Christian, especially in these days when being a Christian is an increasingly challenging and at times even dangerous thing to do.

The facts about his life are quite sparse. Lawrence is thought to have been born in Aragon in the Roman province of Hispania. While still in Spain, he encountered the future Pope Sixtus II, who was one of the most famous and esteemed teachers in Caesaraugusta (now known as Zaragoza). When Sixtus became the Pope in 257 AD, he ordained Lawrence as a deacon, and though Lawrence was still inexperienced appointed him first among the seven deacons who served in the patriarchal church, now known as St Peter's. He was given a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and riches of the church and the distribution of alms among the poor.

Under the Emperor Valerian, the Romans required that all Christians who had been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury. At the beginning of August 258, the Emperor issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. In an episode that sounds all too familiar to us now, Pope Sixtus was captured on 6 August 258 while celebrating mass and executed forthwith at the point of a sword.

The prefect of Rome then demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Saint Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that St Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. He worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, keeping his word by storing up treasures in heaven. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, "The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor." This act of defiance led directly to his martyrdom on 10 August, the date now celebrated as his feast.

A much later tradition tells that he was put to death by being roasted on a gridiron, thereby becoming (rather gruesomely) the patron saint of cooks. Indeed until very recently, our friends at St Lawrence, Appleby celebrated this day with a church barbecue! Sadly, it is almost certainly not true. The Romans in that period executed their prisoners at the point of a sword and there is no record of execution on a gridiron.

That is as much as we know specifically about Lawrence, but there is much more we can know from his context. If you read the New Testament, you'll see that three types of ordained ministers are consistently mentioned - bishops, priests (also known as presbyters) and deacons. And it is the deacons who are by far the most numerous. Every church in the early New Testament churches had its own bishop overseeing a team of priests and an army of deacons. The ordained ministers were very close to their laity and the distinction between these Christians was not one of status, but one of calling.

In fact, if there was any status at all, the laity and the deacons were top of the pile. In fact, the earliest Christian code of conduct tells the laity and deacons not to despise their bishops and priests because they share the ministry with him. Where today it's our priests who need to be reminded to share ministry with the laity, in the early church, it was the other way about.

And the deacons began quite simply with Christians taking Jesus' example of humble service to heart and started imitating him. And the early church recognised in these Christ-like men and women (yes, women) people who really got what Christianity was all about. And they set them aside as examples to the church and to the world of Christian living.

People like Lawrence were given responsibility for the Church's service. Some cared for the money, some cared for the poor, some for the sick and needy and some conducted high level administration for the church. It became common for a deacon to assist the bishop with Godly administration. These deacons were called 'archdeacons' an office which still exists. Indeed, Lawrence was the archdeacon of Rome.

But what happened to all the rest of the deacons? How did we end up in a situation where vicars are all powerful, lay people are mere pew fodder and deacons had disappeared?

Well firstly, the deacons became too powerful, so they had to be reined in. Then, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire, he imposed Roman hierarchy on the church, so bishops became the most important and deacons and laity were relegated to the bottom of the pile. Now, ministry was about a career structure, a race to be bishop and it slowly lost its New Testament dynamism.

Then, in England, by the end of the 18th century, secularism meant that secular offices started taking over traditional roles of clergy. They were no longer the local doctor, policeman, magistrate or registrar of births, deaths and marriages. And they responded to this by trying to turn their role into a profession. They adopted distinctive dress, lived in distinctive housing, re-ordered their churches and formed professional bodies like Deanery Chapters. They were still ordained as priests, but it became all about the job status and even today we still think of them as vicars more than as priests. And these vicars steadily took over the ministry of lay people, simply in order to boost their own beleaguered status. And although there were deacons serving at vicars even up to the end of the 18th century, deacons were all but disappearing from the life of the church.

And that is pretty much the position we found ourselves in 6 years ago when I arrived in these parishes. The vicar was all that mattered. Lay people didn't do ministry and deacons were long forgotten. Yet, all the time, this church was dedicated to the most famous deacon of all: Lawrence.

Now, we've spent decades worrying about the fact that we can't afford a professional vicar and doing little things to help out. And all the time, Lawrence has been offering us vision for what we could be as a church.

Lawrence was part of that movement in the early church which really got to the heart of what Jesus was about. He took his own salvation so deeply to heart that he lived it with heart and soul. He devoted his whole life to serving Jesus and living the Jesus way. His treasure was not in the things of this world, but in the deep abiding love of humanity, his passionate desire to save the lost, whether it was the spiritually lost - people who didn't know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour - or the physically lost - the poor, the weak and the vulnerable - Lawrence dedicated his life to solidarity with them and service of them. And his ordination as deacon was not a status symbol, but a simple recognition that he was serving with the sort of humility and dedication that Jesus did.

And that is, in fact, the call of every Christian. It's the call being made on young Oliver's life as he is baptised. It's the call made on the life of each of us. And as we look at the state of the world today, do we not need that kind of passion?

You know, much is made of the need for moderate religion in the world, but I say what we need is deeply passionate religion, but religion that is passionate for the right things - the things of Jesus. When Fr Jacques Hamel was recently killed - like Pope Sixtus, celebrating Holy Communion - the Archbishop of Rouen said "The Catholic church has no other arms than prayer and fraternity among men" and he urged us "to become apostles for a civilisation of love." When Lawrence was told to present the treasures of the church on pain of death, he presented the poor. It wasn't just a stunt, it was how he truly saw them. That is passionate religion, a faith that is passionate about justice, about forgiveness, about humility, about love and which fights with prayer and fraternity.

It seems to me that Lawrence is a man for our times. It's wonderful that we have Sandy ordained to the same deacon's ministry. Like Lawrence, she is inexperienced, but has a servant's heart. Like Lawrence, young Oliver here is inexperienced, but today God is giving him a ministry. Because as I always say, it's baptism, not ordination that is the primary authority for Christian ministry. So Oliver - and each of us - is called not to be a quiet dignified Anglican, but to minister for Christ with the same passion that he served us.

I remember many years ago interviewing the cricketer Henry Olonga, who had stood up to Robert Mugabe by wearing a black armband when playing for Zimbabwe to draw attention to the death of democracy in his country. He had to flee for his life that night and I asked him how he found the strength to do it. He told me that in Africa you grow up knowing that you might have to die for your faith. He wasn't going to give in to a tyrant, because he serves the true king, who is a king of justice and love and humility.

We are living increasingly in a world where to be a Christian is costly. It might even cost us our lives. When faced with a world of violence, injustice, materialism, quiet dignified Anglicanism isn't going cut it. We need to live like Lawrence did, with our treasure in the true riches of God, fearing not those who can kill the body and then do nothing, but fearing God, our true king; dedicating ourselves not to status or worldly wealth, or to the fights of this world, but to a life of passionate goodness, of dedicated faith, of constant prayer, of service, of unstinting generosity and of love which has grown its roots deep into the very depths of our souls. And if we do that, then like Lawrence, the love of God will pour out of us and will change this poor, broken world.


Preached: St Lawrence, Morland; 14 August 2016