Sermon: Saturday 27 June 2015
The Ordination of Priests
The Venerable David Newman, Archdeacon of Loughborough
1 Peter 2.4-10; Luke 7.1-10
The late Lord Mountbatten used to tell the story of the time in the Second World War when his ship, the Kelly, was sunk off Crete. Several craft, it seems, had been involved in taking the survivors to Alexandria, and after many hours at sea the Sub-Lieutenant in charge of the landing craft was ordered once too often to make another trip out to sea. He got on the phone to head office and proceeded to sound off about the order. ‘What the ***** were they playing at? Did they know what state the men were in? It’s all very well for them sitting back at HQ…’ etc. The voice at the other end replied with a solemn authority. ‘Do you know who you’re speaking to?’ it inquired. ‘The commander in chief of the Western Mediterranean.’ There was a short pause and the Sub-Lieutenant then replied, ‘And do you know who you’re speaking to?’ ‘No.’ ‘Thank God,’ he said, and slammed the phone down.
As we think about priesthood today, we might think that such a story with its military model of authority and obedience might have little to say to us who seek an understanding of a mature life of faith and service in the church, and yet there are resonances here with the gospel story of the centurion who came to Jesus to seek the healing of his servant. Displaying the thought processes of a military man he invites Jesus just to give an order rather than actually come to the house – ‘for I myself am a man under authority with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go”, and he goes; and that one, “Come”, and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this, and he does it.”’ Far from putting Jesus off by his manner, he is commended for his faith – ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ What is Jesus commending here, and what does it say to you who are becoming priests and presbyters in God’s church? What is it about the faith of the centurion that Jesus is commending? What makes it so great?
First of all, it is clear that the centurion’s confidence in effective action came from his experience of a chain of command – ‘I am a man under authority with soldiers under me.’ There was a sense of being part of something bigger and that informing his particular area of responsibility. I think that’s a helpful model as we think about priesthood today. For it has been a sometimes controversial idea in the history of the church with different understandings in different traditions. Some want to emphasise that there is only one real priest, one mediator between humanity and God, and that is Jesus Christ. Or else it is said that if we apply the term priest to people, it is only the whole church that merits the title, the priesthood of all believers. How do these understandings sit with ordaining a few with the title priest? What does your priesthood mean?
Graham Tomlin in his book on priesthood called The Widening Circle very helpfully sets the ordaining of particular priests in the context of a bigger picture of priesthood. God is always choosing a part to bless the whole, he says. He chooses some to be the means by which the blessing he pours out in Jesus Christ reaches the whole creation. So humanity has a particular role in the whole of creation reaching its divinely intended purpose. The whole human race is priest to creation. Within that God chooses a particular group, first the nation of Israel and then the church to be the means of blessing the rest of humanity – as we heard in 1 Peter. ‘Then,’ says Tomlin, ‘it is not surprising if he works in the same way towards the church – blessing the church through particular people called out from the whole to enable the church to be what it is called to be and to do what it is called to do… Priests in the church are called to enable the church to play its priestly role of declaring the praises of Jesus Christ, the true High Priest, so that in turn the rest of humanity might be restored to its proper priestly dignity and the whole earth resound to the joy of God.’ Like the centurion, you will be at your most effective when you realise your particular role in the context of the whole, and that is to lead the whole church into its purpose of reaching all of humanity, so all of humanity can assume its role in the whole of creation. ‘Priests are those Christians called out from among the church, to enable the church to be what it is called to be: a priestly community that is capable of reminding humanity of its true calling and identity.’ You have a particular role as part of something bigger. Don’t over-estimate your part – God’s project is much bigger than you or the church. Don’t under-estimate your part – you have a great calling to enable the church to fulfil its priestly role.
Secondly, the centurion’s faith recognises the urgency of the situation and takes action in the light of it. His servant was about to die and he is determined to do all he can to prevent it. Indeed a military model of leadership comes into its own in situations of life and death, where effective action has to limit space for questioning and reflection. However it is also true that leaders who want to work up their following can create a sense of crisis to enhance their programme of leadership and their particular solution. A tyranny of the urgent becomes manipulative and self-serving . Woody Allen once exposed that kind of game in his usual pithy way when he said, ‘More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.’ However it is the task of leaders to define reality, to read the times and discern priorities. There is talk of terminal illness around in both the world and the church today. Scientists tell us that global warming is escalating to the point of irreversible climate change and a radically different world faces our children and grandchildren. Furthermore you are entering a church that is recognising the demographic time bomb that threatens its sustainable presence in every community and urgent programmes of reform and renewal are on the table. These are the anxious times we live in. They require clear-sighted, non-manipulative, emotionally intelligent, yet determined leadership that recognises reality but holds its nerve, channelling energy into faithful action. God has called you to some particular role within the whole and you need to discern it and then pursue it with complete commitment. The centurion recognised the urgency of the situation for his servant and acted with focused determination.
Because thirdly, the centurion displays great faith in God’s unconditional goodness. This centurion is portrayed as a good man. He valued his servant highly, and is concerned to do all he can to help him get better. Even his potential enemies, the elders of the Jews recognise this. However this does not become the ground of his approach to Jesus – quite the opposite. It may be some relief to know that your effectiveness in ministry does not depend entirely on your worthiness or expertise or getting it all right. The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy based simply on dessert. You may develop competences in ministry and come to a clear understanding of your particular strengths but that won’t begin to say everything about your effectiveness as a priest or Christian minister. The centurion was well aware that his effectiveness came from the authority and power of the military chain of command, and our confidence is in the unconditional grace and goodness of God. It may sometimes be our failures and weaknesses that glorify God most effectively.
‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel,’ says Jesus of the centurion. The centurion knew his place within something bigger; he recognised the urgency of the situation and was able to act; he trusted in God’s unconditional goodness and his faith was rewarded. His servant was healed. However the military image is not a comfortable one. It can convey glory and triumph but also battle and sacrifice. Certainly we are not offered a picture of ministry as a route to easy recognition, status or affirmation. The model of Jesus, the living stone depicted by Peter is as one chosen by God but rejected by human beings – a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. There is sacrifice at the heart of priesthood. And the spiritual house is built through the offering of spiritual sacrifices.
One of the big sacrifices for me in my Christian discipleship and calling has been about leaving a familiar place and moving on to a new ministry when God has called me – I hate transitions. However I learnt a powerful lesson once about trusting God as we were preparing to leave one parish and move to the next. We were trying to run down stocks of things in anticipation of our move, so when my children said they wanted to do a Blue Peter bring and buy sale for Water Aid in a moment of generosity I suggested that they do a bottle stall. It was January and over several Christmas parties we had accumulated a good stock of bottles of wine which I gathered up for their use. However behind them I discovered a rather good unopened bottle of malt whisky which I had been given by the GP who lived next door. Sacrificing various bottles of plonk was one thing; malt whisky was another. Well I wrestled with my conscience, and eventually the perspective that this was in aid of those who lacked even basic water won through, and the whisky was handed over. The bring and buy sale came; the bottle stall was a great success, and the quality of the bottles seemed to ensure good takings. Next Sunday I was saying goodbye to people on the door of church, when a man came up to me and handed me a package. I was at a Blue Peter bring and buy sale yesterday he said, and I won this on the bottle stall. Can’t stand the stuff myself, but rumour has it you are not averse to wee dram. He handed it over and there was my bottle of whisky returned.
In all the sacrifice of moving and letting go, the bottle of whisky became a little symbol for me of God’s gracious provision, and giving back in the light of the sacrifices we make.
Whatever God calls us to, we cannot out-give God. Like the centurion we are called to trust in his unlimited, undeserved grace and goodness, to take action in the light of that trust and so be a part of that great chain of priesthood, a blessing to the church so that the church can be a blessing to the world, so that the world can be a blessing to all of creation.
© The Venerable David Newman