Sermon on the occasion of the Ordination of Jo Fielding to Priesthood in the church of Christ – PENTECOST 2013
‘Do not be afraid’
In a few moments time, +Kelvin will ordain Jo to the Sacred ministry of Priest, a Priest in the church of Christ. Priesthood only makes sense in the context of God’s people, And Jo, you may well look at the church today, and think ‘what on earth am I doing here??’ I hope you do.
One of the things that seems to pass pretty much unremarked in this well known gospel incident, where Peter encounters the risen Christ, is that Jesus refers to His people as Sheep . . . feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. It is all too easy to Romanticise sheep, but only someone with no experience of them can do so. It is an unpromising metaphor!
I have several shepherds in my family, English Lake District Hill farmers . . . – and from personal experience I know that there is nothing at all romantic about working with sheep. Sheep are ignorant, they are willful, they require you at times to be up in the night at times risking life and limb to rescue one that has got into a jam, they are remarkably unbiddable, and above all they are easily scared by anyone and anything. Sheep are Full of fear, and although I have never myself witnessed it, there are those who say sheep run West every morning at the alarming sight of a strange ball of fire rising on the Eastern horizon
So Sheep is not a flattering metaphor for the people of God, but in that we are fearful, it is perhaps the truest. For of all human emotions, fear is probably the most powerful, the most prevalent and the one which drives so much of what we do, albeit usually at a deeply unconscious level . . . and the people of God are not immune from the human condition in this respect.
The OT in pretty much its entirety is a testament to the ignorance, the unfaithfulness, and the wilfulness of the people of God. Why are they unfaithful? Why are they willful? Why are they unbiddable – because they are afraid . . . But let us not deceive ourselves playing silly games over the uniformity of the two testaments. There is a remarkable uniformity between the children of Israel, the disciples, and the infant church to which Paul writes – a remarkable uniformity of . . . well for want of a better word ‘sheepness’, frightened ‘sheepness’.
I had thought to begin this sermon with the parable of the talents and focus on the third slave – the one who is afraid – but of course to speak of ‘talents’ is itself an all too easy way to evade that primordial fear. ‘OUR talents’, so we tell ourselves ‘make us safe’. We may well think, we need a talented person. We need someone we can all take confidence in!! Send us someone to get us out of this mess!!
We also hear the cry in the church, Send us Strong leaders. Send us someone with a track record in growing the church. Send us someone to save us, for we are afraid!! And ignore what God has done. And ignore the gospel – that God Has Sent His only son into the world. It is an odd thing that the Church in its fear ignores Jesus Christ and the salvation he has wrought, and His promise to build the church.
. . . but don’t go feeding us the strong medicine of the gospel – don’t make us face the Living God. If we truly understood ordination, we might well say – whatever you do, don’t send us a Priest. Indeed the people of God in one way or another will always try to stop a Priest being a Priest
One of the key reasons we should require our priests to be faithful in the reading of Scriptures, is so that they are under no illusions about the people whom they are called to serve . . .
But, God be praised, the Scriptures are an even more consistent testimony to the long suffering God who has called them into being, who breathes his Spirit upon them, and who calls some of their number to the sacred ministry of a priest.
Some of their number. The other reason we require our priests to be faithful in the reading of Scripture is that they never forget, they too are sheep. Where does Christ look for shepherds?? Amongst the sheep, Amongst the wilful ignorant unbiddable and the fearful – ‘but I am only a child!’ Wails Jeremiah. Yes, the priest must also read the Scriptures to unmask her own tendency to conspire with the people of God – it was after all Aaron who made the golden calves and such ministry goes on unabated to this day in the church. No – Priests come from the sheep and they need to be alert to that.
There is a foolish tendency to imagine that the disciples ‘Got it’. That following the resurrection they were so brim full of the Love of God, the realisation of what the resurrection meant, that now Peter ‘gets it’ Now he understands. But the evidence of the New Testament suggests not. Peter, however boldly he proclaims the gospel at Pentecost – is afraid of the implications of the gospel – as we read in Galatians 2, he separates himself from the Gentile believers – Aaronic ministry continued
And Jesus sees this in Peter – listen to His words. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ Peter, you weren’t prepared to lay down your life for me, and even at the end, after you have been following me however many years I choose, you will have to be taken unwillingly to die for the sake of my name and to glorify God. Peter, called to feed the sheep, is a sheep to the last . . . as the people of God, we’d love to see ourselves in a more favourable light, We are deniers of the truth – And Jesus reinforces the point – placing the one who denied him at the front of the line where we can all see him, if we but looked. Peter is chosen that we do not get above ourselves, that we do not think that it is about us and our skills, our abilities, our knowledge – Or even, and Peter is the best example of God – our ‘desire to lay down our life’. Peter is chosen to remind us that it is All about the Glory of God, as Peter’s death will be, and as I pray, your priesthood will be, Jo
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence of Scripture and the history of the church, regarding the church and its leaders – we still run away from it. The Spirit of Aaron is not dead. We may Romanticise the Priesthood, – and perhaps more so on a day like today.- Ah, the sacred ministry of the Priest . . . how Wonderful . . . Romanticism is utterly out of place – it is a horrible sign that we are avoiding Christ – that we do not believe – we haven’t looked the cross in the face.
And then again we run away as I have suggested by imagining that it is all about the competence of the one called – I think on this second point it is instructive that those elements of ministry which are the strict preserve of the Priest, require no skill set whatsoever. Blessing the people, pronouncing absolution of sins, baptising, and presiding at the Eucharist. At the heart of Priesthood is something which requires nothing in terms of skill, learning, training, natural gifting – and everything in terms of giving yourself.
The Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows speaks of the Christian life, that life which is focussed in the Priesthood, in these terms – It is as if we carefully craft a life – we work hard at it, we bring all we have to it and then – as if it were a most beautiful vase we carry it up a steep mountain to proudly show it to God, only to get to the top of the mountain and discover that God is not there, and that God is down the mountain, down a steep and perilous path, down somewhere we cannot see, and that we have a choice – we can seek after God, or we can stay on top of the mountain. but to seek after God requires us to lay all that hard worked, that beautiful vase, al that learning, all those skills, to lay them down. As a priest presides at the Eucharist, they do just that. Lay down all their skills, learning, accomplishment and risk themselves, entering the Holy of Holies, seeking out the living God – the one whom no one can see and live – and what is more – to lead the people of God to that place. To pick up the Cross.
And so we run away, or to use Burrows’ metaphor, we stay in the light of the things we believe we can trust – we hold on to our skills or Romanticism, we strive to be Strong leaders precisely because we are running away from the Cross of Jesus.
God in his mercy is weakening his church, precisely that he might be its all in all – but we do not believe. We do not believe that death is the door to life – we are afraid precisely because of the Cross of Christ. Even though it is often on our tongue – we reduce the Cross to a metaphor, or a doctrine. ‘The Cross is about God’s Love for the world’ – a subtle means of romanticizing the Cross – or a doctrine – ‘God was in Christ reconciling himself to the world’ – Yes it is Scriptural, but it is also dissociated from the Reality of the Cross, which is a first century Jew, nailed to a piece of wood, naked, flogged, gasping and dying . . .
it is no wonder that the Church is always to be found running in the opposite direction, but in a few minutes we are going to Ordain Jo to hold the gaze of the people of God on that reality in ministry of Word and Sacrament to say ‘Behold, your God’- to embrace it in her life, and bid God’s people to follow.
Of course – like the prophet Jeremiah she may well say – Who? Me??
‘Now the Word of the Lord came to me’ – How fine that sounds – There I was just enjoying life and ‘the word of the Lord came to me . . .’
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, That’s nice but we don’t follow the path of what is unfolding : before you were born I consecrated you; Hang on a minute . . .! Isn’t this something I choose??? I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Perhaps THE clearest sign that someone is truly called of God to the ordained ministry is that they are running like hell for the exit . . . At least it shows that they really have encountered the Living God . . . you realise that you may after all end up . . . like Jesus. [Another cause for romanticism - ‘Ah, you want to remind people of Jesus? You want to be like Jesus . . .???]
‘a naked, flogged, gasping and dying first century Jew, cruelly nailed to a piece of wood’ by whom? By the people of God’
As a priest you are to hold the crucified one before the eyes of the church. And we may well not thank you for it – so you need to hold it before your own eyes day after day after day. For this is the pattern of your ministry. People today may well wish you every success in your ministry – but what are we the sheep looking for??
What does success look like – ‘If only Jesus knew what we knew’ ‘If only Jesus had access to our skills our wisdom’ ‘If only Jesus got it . . .’ is the translated bleating of so many of the sheep
‘It is finished’ he said – and there was no-one there – there at the zenith of his ministry – the sheep had all scattered. There is Successful ministry – There is God reconciling himself to the world. There is The Priest
As a priest called to be with God’s people – your greatest challenge is that it will often be God’s people who don’t want you to follow that path. Who desire to be part of something which soothes our fears – something which makes us sure we are on the winning side – Like Peter they will say “This must never happen to you . . .” Where have we heard this voice before??? Look! You need to turn stones into bread – here’s a book to show you how – Go on a course in “How to Throw yourself down from the Temple” – that will get the crowds flooding in – actually if you want, we can sit you at the feet of many who ‘for a fee’ can show you how you can rule the world . . . Just whatever you do, don’t turn us to face the Crucified one . . . Don’t be a Priest . . . be a manager, be a good pastor, be the sort of person everyone can admire and love . . . but don’t be a Priest. So today the Church also calls you to make vows – that you not forget that you are a Priest, to hold your gaze on the crucified one, and to promise to hold ours there also, even though we may not thank you for it, or indeed wish you success . . .
I said at the outset, that we might well look at the church today and think ‘Crikey’ – Actually perhaps there is no better time to be ordained – when all our earthly resources are spent, when all our attempts to save ourselves have come to nothing, perhaps when fear is at its height. When the vase we have carefully constructed is shown to be fit for nothing. I close with a brief thought, an image and a word from the Scriptures.
Firstly a word from the Psalms – Facing the Cross – confronting our weakness, the word of the Gospel is the same – ‘Do Not be afraid’. 18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love . . . to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. The Lord will deliver your soul from death, he will keep you alive in famine.
Then from my Tutor in Christian Ministry who when pushed to give a visual metaphor for the Priesthood said ‘The one Stood at the head of the line of God’s people at the Colisseum’ It is a picture of utter vulnerablilty and requires no skill, no gifting, just devotion to Christ – ‘Do you Love me?’ is the only question Jesus asks Peter. Not ‘can I trust you not to get it wrong again?’ Not ‘can you build a fine church for me’ – That is not what Christ requires of you – Jesus himself has promised to build the church . . . He asks ‘Do you Love me?’ That is Enough – That is Everything