Thursday, February 2, 2012

Letter to Penny Quostal, part 4

So, Ms. Quostal, in your original question, which most of our readers have long since forgotten, you wonder why, when the bishop lays his hands on the head of one being ordained, nothing appears to happen? When a Pentecostal faith healer lays his hands on someone who is praying for healing, that person may fall over, speak in tongues or some such interesting thing.  You are assuming that the laying on of hands always means the same thing. It doesn’t.

The laying on of hands had a number of meanings in the Bible. It was a way to ask God to give a blessing. For instance, Isaac blessed Jacob by the laying on of hands. (Genesis 27:27) This is what happens in a prayer meeting or healing service. The person doing the praying is asking God to bless or heal someone and different people react in different ways to the experience of God’s Holy Spirit. 

The Moravian Brethren, a movement similar to Pentecostalism met in the Quaker meeting house on Aldersgate Street in London. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement had a life-changing, even a world-changing experience there in 1727. He didn’t fall over or speak in tongues. He simply said that “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”  He was an understated sort of fellow. Some people fall over. Some people don’t. The whole thing is that different people react to the perception of God’s Holy Spirit in different ways. It is a human reaction, not necessarily a divine or supernatural action. 

I remember a priest who was prayed over at a prayer meeting who said  afterwards that he had never felt that God was alive. He had always believed it, but never felt it.  It was no less real when he didn’t feel it, and no more real when he did. It was just that he now felt what he had always known. That’s one function of the laying on of hands. In this case it confers nothing. It is a  form of prayer, a kind of petition.

The next example of the laying on of hands in the Bible is found in Leviticus 16: 21. The high priest transferred the sins of  Israel to a sacrificial goat by the laying on of hands.  We see the same thing going on in Exodus 29:10 and Leviticus 1:4. The laying on of hands was a way to designate sacrifice. This is closer to what happens in ordination. To ordain means to arrange or appoint unalterably. As in the phrase, “ordained since the beginning of time.”  It means to consecrate to God’s use. 

It has nothing to do with “experience of the Holy Spirit.” It has everything with offering yourself sacrificially for use by the Holy Spirit. The two are different things. Paul the Apostle fell over on the Damascus road. That didn’t make him a priest. We read in Acts 13:2
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them on their mission.”   
See? No falling over, just being set apart for a certain work, which ultimately involved the sacrifice of their lives. Falling over and ordination: two completely different things.

Ordination goes way back in Israelite/Jewish tradition. Moses ordained Joshua by the laying on of hands. ( Num  27:15-23, Deut  34:9) He and the elders of Israel  ordained their successors, also by the laying on of hands in this way. This unbroken chain of ordination of elders by the laying on of hands continued through the time of the Second Temple and only seems to have ended in the late Roman Empire when  Emperor Theodosius II executed Gamaliel VI and abolished the great Sanhedrin. 

This idea of ordination by the laying on of hands isn’t something we made up. The idea of an unbroken chain of ordination comes from the Bible and our Israelite roots. The Israelites ordained their elders. Don’t forget that the word priest comes from the Greek word “presbyter” which means elder.  I can think of nowhere in the Bible where religious experience alone confers authority on a person. 

Religious experience may call a person to ordination or be the result of ordination, but it is not, in and of itself, ordination. Ordination has to do with the unbroken chain of relationship. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and the Church of the East have it. Rev. Billy Bob’s Church of What’s Happening Now with Signs and Wonders Following does not, no matter how many people fall over when the Rev. Billy Bob prays for them.  Ordination is God’s plan in the Bible for the Church. Religious experience is wonderful. It is a gift from God that proves God is generous to sinners like me, but it isn’t ordination. 

Ordination is a sacrament, which, as I have said, is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. You may think that someone falling over is an outward sign. It isn’t. It is an external reaction to an inward experience and though it might have great meaning for the person experiencing it, it is meaningless, or at best hard to interpret, for those who see it. 

A sacrament is incontrovertibly external. There was no doubt when I went up to the altar and placed my hands in the Bishop’s hands and he looked square into my eyes without blinking and asked, “Will you respect and obey me and my successors?” I said “yes” and he laid his hands on my head, and from that moment on I was consecrated to a specific work in the church and my life became a sacrifice to the Lord for his people just as surely as the Yom Kippur goat became a sacrifice for the good of Israel. I might not have known it then, but I know it now. I was not “empowered.” I was consecrated. It’s a different thing. 

Today, as I write these things, it is the 44th anniversary of my experience of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, so called. It really was an immersion in the awareness of the presence of God. It helped me on the road to ordination and was incontrovertibly a life changing experience. Everything I have done since has been colored by that experience and the direction my life has taken is most certainly the result of that evening in January of 1968. 
At the time I had no idea what the whole thing meant, even though it would change my life. I had not asked for the experience, but God gave it to me without my asking. It was a calling, the beginning of an amazing and  difficult journey. Ordination was quite different. 

On May 14, 1975, I knew exactly what ordination meant. I would offer my life at the altar with Christ for the well being of his Bride, the Church, and for the salvation of the world. In the religious experience of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit God was calling me. In ordination, God called and I answered and was set apart.  Different things.  One was an experience, given by God. The  second a covenant that involved God and this sinner, that is to say, it was a sacrament. You have to have your eyes open for a covenant. Falling over is not part of it.  It is an outward sign, not just an inward experience that causes an outward reaction. The sign is meant to be outward, not the reaction.

Next week: More about Sacraments. It will involve more Greek and Latin words. Oh Boy! I bet you can’t wait!

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