Sermon for Lent 2 – Evening Prayer – Year A – Sunday 16th March 2014
‘The Seriousness of the Christian’s calling’
One of the to me enjoyable facets of life here in New Zealand that I am still getting used to is that to travel any distance you have to fly, and that this is nothing of note. Back in the UK, although I often travelled several hundred miles, trains were the way most folk got about. I quite enjoy flying.
Imagine for a moment though, that the next time you fly up to Wellington or Auckland; prior to the flight the Captain introduces himself with the words, ‘Although I’ve spent many hours on simulators, I’ve never flown one of these for real, so I’m very much looking forward to our flight today, and I hope you share my sense of anticipation! . . .’
I don’t know about you, but I think I would be joining the queue for the exit. Recently we hosted a friend from the UK whose husband has been training as a pilot to fly with British Airways. Airspace in the UK is very crowded and there isn’t room for lots of folks to be up in the air training – so they train here instead where there is still realtively little air traffic. Of course, one might say, simulators being so good, they COULD train on the ground . . . BUT . . . as I know from my own very limited experience as a pilot, there is something about the threat of imminent death should you make a serious error that sharpens your training and makes you a better pilot than someone who has never flown for real. (And therein perhaps lies a serious warning for an entire world increasingly immersed in the Virtual . . . )
Flying aircraft as tragic circumstances this past week only reminds us is a very serious business – lives, many of them are at stake. When I went skydiving, one of the things that helped me to enjoy the experience rather than scream all the way down, was the knowledge that the instructor to whom I was attached had made over 10,000 jumps – I wasn’t jumping with someone who hadn’t done it for real, AND what is more – HIS life was every bit at much at risk as mine – which of course is the same as for pilots – their own lives as well as those of their passengers are in their hands and THAT I suggest is a thoroughly good thing . . .
But this begs for me a troubling question – or rather it causes me to ask troubling questions of the church, especially here in New Zealand and in our Diocese. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, before anyone is ordained Priest, they must train for many years – in the case of the Catholic church, for seven years. Even back in the Church of England there is a minimum requirement of either two years full time or three years part time study and formation required prior to ordination, and that is on top of evidence of several years of study and formation in courses for the laity of the church. When I arrived on these shores I was and remain seriously troubled by the practise of ordaining people to Holy Orders in the Church of Christ with NO prior training . . .
Now of course for some this may be a matter of little or no concern. The prevailing understanding of priesthood in the church seems to amount to little more than an ability to manage a church, or to be a generally nice person. Why begin my remarks with such illustrations as Pilots or Skydive instructors – there is no comparison! And I agree. However much the spirit of the age might have blinded us to this fact, and this is an age when the truth of the matter has been hidden from us, more than ever, there is no comparison with pilots and skydivers, the vocation of a Priest in the church is immeasurably more significant, dangerous and responsible. (In a few moments I shall broaden my comments to include the life of the whole church, but please bear with me . . .)
It is 20 years since women were ordained to the Holy Order (a sign of my own immersion in the problem is that I first wrote ‘Office’), the Holy Order of Priest in the Church of England, in Bristol Cathedral. I was privileged to have one of those 12 women as my spiritual director. Christine had the insight that only comes from a priestly life, one dedicated to prayer, devoted to Christ, and more than once she revealed my sin to me, and the deadly peril I was in through my pride or some other aspect of my nature. To use a metaphor from our Old Testament reading, she showed me how I had been bitten by poisonous snakes and needed to look up for healing before I died spiritually.
Of course, as is true of any good mentor, Christine herself had an insightful spiritual director. And I remember, as a not so subtle teaching method her recounting how in a conversation with her spiritual director, having had a torrid time with her flock, she had commented, ‘well at least I’m not responsible for their Salvation’. Quick as a flash her director was back at her – ‘whatever gave you that Idea!! You ARE!’. Like on occasion Christine’s comments to me opened up the ground under my feet, this comment saw her stood over the deepest of chasms
Of course the idea that any of us is in some sense responsible for the Salvation of our brothers and sisters is to those of us who have grown up in a largely Protestant and increasingly secular atmosphere within the church – either a nonsense, or worse an anathema. We are more brazen than Cain – declaring ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’ ‘He is responsible for his own life!’, and we declare this before God. Given that state of affairs it is hardly surprising that we treat preparation for Priestly ministry with such indifference and carelessness.
And we all suffer as a result. The Protestant error is based on a number of wrong assumptions, but like many wrong assumptions, with a tincture of truth. In this respect the truth is a quite proper insistence on ‘The Priesthood of all believers’, but coupled with an emaciated understanding of what a Priest is. So that rather than all being Priests, ministering the Grace of Christ, one to another, confessing and forgiving sins, none are Priests . . . and thus neither are those who are so ordained.
This is the consequence of treating lightly something which is Holy. Another example might be the Rock star who stands on stage and loudly declaims ‘I love you all!’, in an instant revealing himself as one who loves no-one, except himself. I have to admit that in my earlier years I fell into this trap, announcing the priesthood of all believers and at the same time loudly saying that no one was called to be a priest . . . God has a sense of humour and I was the butt of the joke when my own call to ordained ministry came. Admitting to people before whom, indeed whom I’d taught that Holy Orders were invalid that I was called to such Orders . . . humble pie
The Church sets apart Priests, not to flatten or lower the vocation of the laity, but to elevate it. To remind us all of the Seriousness and costliness of our calling as the body of Christ. That God in Christ has chosen to reveal his Light to the World, to Save the world in and through the Church.
So, the Priest is the one who first must count the cost and then lay everything aside to be a disciple of Jesus, even if as often the case this finds him or her at odds with God’s people. Priests must understand within themselves and seek to reveal what it means to Carry the Cross, to ‘give up all their possessions’. It is why as the Church we have demanded so much of those who the church calls to Holy Orders – we don’t want to hear from the flight deck, ‘I’ve never laid my life on the line except in a simulator – hope you enjoy the flight!’. Lives are at stake in the very fullest sense of the word. For we are dealing with The Holy, with Life or its absence, with Death
And so as the role of the Priest is a Representational one, Representing the Life of the Community to the Community of faith – that the role of the people is revealed as of ultimate seriousness, for which we all need to be trained.
Jesus as he speaks with those who seek to follow him, again reminds them of the costliness of Discipleship. It requires Cross bearing, which means laying aside our own priorities for those of the Kingdom of God. Cross bearing is NOT that suffering which is the common lot of human kind, broken relationships, pain and illness and the rest. Along the lines of ‘we all have our crosses to bear’ – no, Cross bearing is a laying aside of our life to seek the Kingdom of God. God becomes the Centre of our lives in the sense that the meaning of our lives is found purely and sufficiently in his service. The Priest is to have no life apart from that of Discipleship. And Jesus makes this plain at the outset – this will cost you Everything you have – take note of that. This Journey of following him has a cost – don’t disregard the cost. Don’t find yourself some way down the track grumbling about the conditions of your life serving God, not your own desires.
But as I said, this IS about all of us. So again in former times, the church required candidates for Baptism to undergo three years catechesis, training, rigourous confession of sins – for the call of Christ would demand everything of you. It was only right to do this. Now it seems that in the church we baptise blithely and then spend years afterwards trying to show folk what they have signed up for and finding few are enthusiatic about the way they are shown. In a sense perhaps the emphasis on Priestly training might be because having failed to call people to count the cost at Baptism, the church decided that it couldn’t make the same mistake twice. ‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions’. Now as I said, it seems that here in New Zealand at least we are more than content to continue to make the same errors over priests as well – and thus the whole church suffers . . .
And of course in Lent we remember that Christ himself is tested – the Reality of his calling is tested by being sent into the desert, fasting forty days and nights, that he might be tempted of the devil and the reality of his heart exposed . . . and this forty days and nights mirrors the 40 years of preparation of the children of Israel in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land where they are to be light to the nations. Prior to taking up the LIfe of Christ, there is a counting of the cost
This strange story of poisonous snakes and the Bronze serpent can only be understood in terms of this testing of the vocation of Israel to be a light to the world. Having been adopted as God’s children they were now being trained for that which God called them to, to participate in God’s saving Acts – to be a visible sign of the life of God in the world, to share in God’s work of Salvation, to take the responsibility offered them by God. But they have not counted the cost. All too eager to be out from under the heel of the Egyptians, they pay no heed to what life in God’s service will mean and so they grumble and fiery serpents are sent amongst them. Like careless trainee pilots, they have lost sight of the horizon to which they are heading, they have not taken the call seriously, they do not see that they are engaged in life and death matters and so there are bitter consequences.
This is no story of a moody God who just gets angry and lashes out. No it is the story of God who so loves the world that he sets aside a people to be his vehicle of Salvation, who invests himself in living with them, showing them his Life, training them for the life he is calling them towards in ‘entering the promised land’. A people through whom one will be born who will bear all the sin of the world – a people whose vocation is to herald and reveal Him. A people who need to be trained, prepared, carefully taught all that it means – all that it will cost. The cost is great for the very life of the world is at stake.
And as it must be where God is, it is a story of Grace. The people recognise that they have failed, sinning against the God who rescued them from cruel slavery in Egypt and so God commands Moses to make the serpent of bronze – which will be for their healing; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And here to is Grace for us, for when we also take our eyes of our vocation to be God’s people, we too find that their are many poisonous serpents around us, the rapid decline of the church and many other signs of that – where will we look? There is One to whom we can look for our healing – our renewal. just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Through the disciplines of Lent – may our senses be reawakened to the seriousness of our calling – our responsibility before God for our brothers and sisters and their spiritual condition. Let us give thanks to God for the training of Lent – may we in and through the Hikoi, our mission partners visit, but above all the simple yet testing disciplines of this season find our focus restored on Jesus Christ. The One in whose life we are all called to participate through the Grace of baptism.