The lyrics of the hymn we were singing said, “Your majesty, I can but bow. I lay my all before You now. In royal robes I don’t deserve I live to serve Your majesty.” I think it is easy to sing such words when you are in church or some other setting were you are dressed come as you are and there is not much in the way of personal promotion going on.
It is easy when in simple clothes to sing out “In royal robes I don’t deserve.” This day, however, was different. The church (Croydon Minster – A truly spectacular building) was filled with men and women who had just graduated from a variety of programs of Theological education. There were Three new Doctors, Nineteen new holders of Master’s degrees, Seven recipients of Post-Graduate Studies Certificates/Diplomas, Thirty new Baccalaureates, and Forty-One recipients of different Certificates and Diplomas in various Christian Ministry specialties. This was the Spurgeon’s College (an excellent Theological College that I recommend to everyone seeking a first-class theological education) graduation ceremony for 2013 (in the interest of full-disclosure this is my Alma Mater for two degrees and was participating in this ceremony to have my Doctorate formally awarded). There we were dressed in the finest of UK Academic regalia – colorful robes and hoods each representing the degree conferring University and type of award. Each wearing suits and dresses fit for the occasion (which, apparently, is more than what is worn in most Sunday worship services these days). With the faculty and staff in their finery – more robes, more colors, more great wardrobes. The guest speaker for the occasion, Chaplain General Jonathan Woodhouse, QHC, was in his splendid uniform. Everything about it screamed look at us! At least externally.
Chaplain Woodhouse gave an incredible message about our being “clay pots” whose job it is, is to carry the glory of God to others, not receive glory ourselves. He was preaching from 2 Corinthians 4:7 which reads: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
That is an important message and a true message but a hard message. It was especially hard on a day when everyone was there to congratulate you. It was especially hard when the day is designed to exalt your accomplishment. In other settings it can be especially hard when for one reason or another you are given deference. In the Army the rank system ensures that as you rise through the ranks you will receive benefits and privileges. These are due and right for all those who sacrifice on behalf of their nation but for the chaplain it can be a difficult balancing of what the world (in this case the Army) gives and what God expects. In the church (at least in most congregations) deference is paid to the various members of clergy on staff. It is important to give support and follow the leadership of the clergy – they are after all “pastors” meaning shepherds and therefore are to direct the congregation the “sheep.” But, at the same time it is all too easy for congregations to revere ministers too much and the ministers be too quick to accept the attention as their own.
“In royal robes we don’t deserve.” Denominations are different. On one end of the spectrum, some ministers formally vest and can spend thousands of dollars on the various robes and other vestments. On the other end of the spectrum the minister will wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals. As much as either side would hate to admit it – they are the same. Each, and the various points in-between them, chooses what to wear in order to make a statement. One is saying – I am a servant in the King’s Court and dress as a royal servant. The other is saying, Jesus loves everybody – just show up. Both are true statements, both are being made loudly in the clothes worn. The question that matters is: What motivates the individual minister? There are some (sadly too many) in each camp that are wearing what they wear to say – Look at me! Look at how cool my robes are! Or on the other, Look at how humble I am! But neither can compare to Christ – the one they are supposed to be serving. Christ, Jesus, King of All Creation is adorned in a super-natural splendor that we cannot even conceive and was only briefly on display on the Mount of Transfiguration (No matter how cool they are – no vestments compare to that). Jesus is so humble He gave up everything to be subjected to life as a man and endure scourging and death upon a cross (Sorry, but a trite Jesus logo on a T-Shirt and a pair of Tom’s on your feet just is not living up to the example the real Jesus set).
I ponder all of this while I have been basking in the accolades being poured out for my completing the degree I was awarded that day. As I do I am struck by the story of a man I have just recently met. He is a refugee from Syria. He is a convert from Islam. He has changed his name and his nationality in an attempt to evade those who would try to kill him for apostasy. His plan is to return to Syria under his new identity in order to be a Christian missionary. He will certainly earn his crowns (James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:2-4) but they will not be in his name – he does not even have his name anymore – he will truly be doing all he does in the name of Christ.
I try to remember the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase but I must decrease.” I keep a picture at my office. It is on old photo (no newer than the 40’s but I would guess the 30’s – maybe earlier) of a young priest. I found it at a junk shop. When I did, I asked if anyone knew who it was or where it was from. Nobody knew and that is what clinched the sale. Here is a man that is nameless. Yet I am sure there are spiritual offspring today that, if it were possible, could trace their origin to the ministry he performed. The photo is a simple reminder that what I do is not about me (someday I will be as forgotten as this nameless priest) but about Jesus and sharing His Good News because the Gospel will never change.