The Ordination of Rev. Jonas Ellison - October 14, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Is. 6:1-8 + Ps 139:1-18 + 1 Cor. 4:1-5 + Luke 24:13-35
On Saturday, October 14, 2023 St. Columba’s Episcopal Church had the joy and privilege of hosting Bishop Claire Burkat of the ELCA in celebration of the ordination of Rev. Jonas Ellison to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. To the good people of Christ Lutheran, Aptos, CA, we are delighted to have shared in the joy of this moment for all of you. To Jonas, my friend and brother in Christ, know Fernando and I are grateful to have participated in your ordination and trust that I commit to walking with you, Alex and Rory on this journey of your ministry. May our sister churches grow ever closer in shared ministry, fellowship and communion as the fruit of our deep friendship.
I am blessed by the invitation to have preached at your ordination, and pray that these words will inspire you to be a gentle pastor and shining example of Christ’s love in the world. The church is better today for counting you among her ministers. May your ministry bear fruit abundant.
As Ever in Christ our Lord,
Fr. Vincent Pizzuto, PhD.
Vicar, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, Inverness, California
WELCOME on the Occasion of the Ordination of Rev. Jonas Ellison
Bishop Claire, beloved members of Christ Lutheran, friends and family: on behalf of my congregation here at St. Columba’s it is my pleasure to welcome you all to our little church and retreat house here in Inverness for such a joyous occasion. My name is Fr. Vincent I am a professor at the USF where I have taught for the past 20 years, and priest here at SC where I serve as the vicar.
It would be hard for me to put into words the joy and pride, and hope I feel at being a part of Jonas’ ordination. He and his wife Alex and their daughter Rory have become fast friends and people with whom I share a deep spiritual resonance and wicked sense of humor.
I want to extent hearty congratulations to the Call Team of Christ Lutheran for the work you have done in summoning Jonas to this work of ministry with you. And I look forward to getting to know you better at our reception and in creating deeper partnerships in the years ahead.
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the Name of the Three in One and One in Three. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, the church is dying. Our congregations are hemorrhaging. And Christianity is losing its capacity to speak to a world exhausted by conflict, scandalized by human depravity and unspeakable violence, wearied by the existential threats of climate collapse, terrified by the resurgence of fascism, and reeling by the need to come to terms with a tradition that has been coopted or complicit in a history of colonialism and racism.
This is the church and the world into which Jonas is being called to serve as a minister. And make no mistake, it is because of people like him – who carries within himself a pastor’s heart -- that I am filled with profound hope. Hope for the church and for the world. And so I speak most directly today to you, good people of Christ Lutheran.
And I ask you to hear me with a tender heart. To listen with an open mind. Because I don’t want to waste your time today offering a few light hearted jokes, some shallow comments to make us all feel good, a proverbial pat on Jonas’ back -- and call it sermon. No. I want to talk with you about the radical, scandalous beauty of Christianity that the modern church has all but forgotten, but about which I believe Jonas has the capacity to summon you.
I want to remind you of what Christ calls the kingdom of God. Not just a quaint idea or a future promise, but that great and redemptive interruption of the terror of human that breaks upon us – even now -- not with the ferocity of a divine warrior but with the vulnerability of an infant messiah. I want to remind you of what it is we profess in Christ: nothing less than God’s journey into every living soul. I want to proclaim anew this unspeakable joy of Christ, whose light has arisen in history, and extends now to the shadows of every human heart.
This is the good news the world is desperate to hear. For all our social media and its efforts to connect us, we still crave for spiritual intimacy, deep down what we hunger for is not a church that will be just another social club, but a compassionate spiritual community that will nurture us into our most authentic selves; a place where we can hold a communal faith even as we are accompanied in our deepest interior lives.
It is all the more tragic, then, that Christianity has become associated in the popular mind with a body-hating worldview or with certain forms of doctrinal rigidity, institutional hypocrisy, scientific ignorance, and religious intolerance—assessments that too often bear merit. The rise of modern secularism in the West along with the precipitous decline in church attendance must be understood, at least in part, as a purifying corrective to the spiritual, moral, and imaginative failures of our religious institutions. The consequence of these failures is the church’s diminishing capacity to convey beauty. We have forgotten how to communicate the radical, scandalous beauty of the incarnation. It is, after all, beauty that attracts the human spirit and beauty that compels the human conscience toward the good, not the dry, rigid formulas of doctrine, nor the clinical dissection of biblical texts, nor the petty infighting among our denominations, nor the ethical demands to love even before we ourselves have been made to understand not only that we are lovable, but that we are indeed love itself.
We are love incarnate! And this truth flows from the very heart and center of Christian faith: Ours is a God who will not tolerate confinement in a far-away-heaven, forever distant and transcendent, but who tears beyond the veil of eternity who breaks into time itself, to enter the very flesh of our flesh, the very marrow of our bones, as One who is “crazy” in love and who begs to be loved in return.
If it is true, as the early Fathers insisted, that the church is most herself at liturgy, it is because every time we gather around word and sacrament, we gather to realize that very truth, to celebrate and embody the very reality that each of us are members of Christ’s very body still incarnate in the world. It is what the early church called, the Incarnatio continua. The Church as the “continuation of the incarnation” in the world.
Just, hold that thought for a moment. Ponder it. We are, each of us, members, of Christ’s body. Paul insists upon this repeatedly throughout his letters, 2 Peter tells us “We are partakers of the divine nature” and Jesus teaches us in the gospel of John, “I am the vine you are the branches.” Notice what he is saying there! Where the vine ends and the branch begins is not marked by a radical break or a separation but an organic continuity. “I am the vine you are the branches.” Where my body ends and yours begins is marked by separation but endless continuity. The very fine of my body gives live, gives being, gives divinity to the branch of your body. The early church called this deification or theosis: the affirmation that in Christ, God became human that humanity might be made divine. As St. Augustine would tell us: “God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves.” And if the world is to know this, we must not only preach it, but live it. And not only live it but celebrate it.
The fact that most Christians today would be confused and even scandalized by this almost unqualified union between Christ and humanity as expressed by the early church marks a radical failure of the church to communicate to the modern world its greatest spiritual treasure: The incarnation has made mystics of us all.
In its wake, the modern invention of biblical literalism has rushed in to fill the void. As a result, Christianity has been reduced to a new kind of Pharisaism centered on moral scrupulosity and obsessed with personal salvation. Unable to see Christ immanent in one’s own body, in material flesh, in creation itself, Christ remains a distant overlord rather than the Cosmic Christ whose life-giving energy pulsates through every living atom.
Having forfeited the cosmic dimension of salvation history, we have no way of conveying what it means that in Christ heaven and earth interpenetrate the other. That all ground is holy ground. All water is holy water. All bread is Eucharist. All life—not merely human life—is sacred. And this is the very mystery of our faith, the very truth we come to celebrate in the liturgy. The incarnation has made mystics of us all! And this truth is deeply embedded in the gospel we heard proclaimed today.
Now I understand that when many of us here, the word “Mysticism” we think of individuals, perhaps the medieval Mystics with their visions of heavenly things, or their experiences of divine union, and so forth. But that is not the earliest nor the most essential understanding of Christian mysticism. From its beginnings, mysticism was never the possession of any one individual or an elite spiritual class, but a possession of the entire church. Collectively, as a whole, the church is by its very nature, mystical.
And mysticism, as it became associated with early Christianity, took on three interrelated dimensions. Specifically, an unveiling of the hidden presence of Christ in Word, in Sacrament, and in the depths of the human heart. And thus, the Christian liturgy was understood as essentially mystical because by its very nature it unveiled the hidden presence of Christ in Word, in Sacrament and ultimately in one’s own heart. And this connection between liturgy and the mysticism underlies the whole of the gospel we heard this morning.
Among our most cherished of resurrection narratives, The Road to Emmaus, as it has come to be called, is unique to Luke’s gospel and reflects in its overall structure, the very pattern of the early Christian liturgy and this three-fold understanding of mysticism understood by the early church. And that pattern, as I will briefly spell out here, is still discernible today.
Suggestive of a liturgical procession, the story begins with two disciples – Cleopas and an unnamed companion – walking to Emmaus outside Jerusalem on the first Easter morning. Alone on the desert road, some distance from the city, Luke tells us that Christ “drew near and walked among them” just as he promised whenever two or three would gather in his name. Unable to recognize him (*notice Christ is present but still ‘hidden’), we learn that Cleopas and his companion are downcast because of the recent crucifixion of Jesus to say nothing of their bewilderment about rumors concerning his now empty tomb. Their state of mind is much like many in the world today: downcast, bewildered, overwhelmed.
Yet, they are captivated as Jesus gently chides them for their lack of faith, even as he unfolds the meaning of the scriptures as they relate to himself (Again, notice how Christ is unveiling how he is, indeed, present in the scriptures themselves). This is not unlike our own Liturgy of the Word, where we too proclaim the scriptures and offer sermons to reveal Christ hidden within them.
As they approach Emmaus, the disciples invite him to gather with them in table fellowship, whereupon Luke describes Jesus’ actions precisely as he does at the Last Supper: “He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” Indeed, even now these are the same words we will proclaim at the Eucharist. “With that,” Luke tells us, “…their eyes were opened and they recognized him in the breaking of the bread,” even as he vanished from their sight. Here again, the hidden presence of Christ in the Eucharist is revealed, even as his former, bodily form disappears. Amazed, they depart immediately again for Jerusalem, exclaiming to one another, “Where not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us along the way…!”
“Where not our hearts burning” – here we see that third element of the mystical essence of the liturgy: The intuitive sense that Christ is present within our own hearts that burn with recognition even before we have words to describe it.
Perhaps most importantly but least appreciated, they do not stay in Emmaus basking in their private mystical encounter, but immediately begin to make their way back to Jerusalem. This reflects precisely the liturgical dismissal or “sending forth” as it is sometimes called. And indeed, like the disciple’s mystical encounter with Christ in Emmaus, the dismissal is the precisely moment to which our eucharist is oriented. Perhaps then, reflecting the very structure of the Christian liturgy would perhaps be better named, “The Road from Emmaus.”
Because what matters for them and for us is that once they depart Emmaus, they go out into the world to proclaim the Good News: “Christ is risen!” And this is why the liturgy ends so abruptly once we have shared Communion. As the Christian commemoration of the first Passover, where Israel too was instructed to eat quickly (sandals on their feet, and buckles around their waists) so too in the liturgy, there is but a brief benediction, a hymn to get the procession going, followed by some version of the dismissal: “Go! This Mass has ended!”
Looking at it this way, much like the disciples on the Road from Emmaus, even today Jonas and his family will literally “eat and run” as it were, to make their way to Aptos where the fruits of his ordination will hold out the promise of new life. As Jesus reminds us repeatedly throughout the gospel, there is little time to waste. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few! And yet today we blessedly celebrate the commissioning, the ordination of a new laborer…and that is no small thing.
Good people of Atos: You have called as your shepherd a man who is not interested in the church as social club, but as agent of transformation. He is not interested in expediency but the radical and transformative beauty of the Christian tradition and the liturgy that celebrates it. He understands the beauty of the tradition and he desires to foster a community of people who learn what it means to be authentic and spiritually intimate. But above all, he knows in the very marrow of his bones the presence of Christ in all things, and he holds within him the very heart of a pastor.
Open your hearts to him as I know he desires to open his heart to you. Cleopas is on his way – and with news of a joy unspeakable. Jonas and Christ Lutheran, may your journey ahead be swift, but above all, blessed by the Christ hidden in all things!
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.