This past weekend I have been away from Cornwall, up in Durham with Mrs Nomad and Wee One, to witness my close friend, and former fellow Cambridge student, Kate be ordained Priest by Bishop Mark of Jarrow in Durham Cathedral on Saturday evening and then to support her yesterday morning as she celebrated the Eucharist for the first time, in the parish where she is serving as curate. I was asked to preach at this service, and what follows is the sermon I preached (or at least the script I preached from). The scripture texts were those set in the Lectionary: Galatians 5.1,13-25, and Luke 9.51-62.
+ Loving God, take the bread of my words and the wine of our thoughts and by your grace transform them into your living Word in our hearts. Amen.
It is a deep and heart-felt privilege to be here this morning. I made the commitment to be here a while ago now, to support Kate on this special occasion, as she celebrates the Eucharist for the first time. When she asked me to preach my commitment deepened further, if that were at all possible. And then things happened, things I need not go into now, that challenged that commitment. Kate, in her usual, utterly gracious way, indicated that I did not have to come, or if I were to come I did not need to preach. Yet here I am, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be so, and as Kate knows because I told her so, nothing would have stopped me from being here this morning. I had made a commitment to a friend and, despite the difficulties, I was determined to keep to it.
Our Gospel reading this morning begins with Christ making a commitment: “he set his face to Jerusalem.” As we make our way through the Ordinary Time lectionary readings of Luke’s Gospel we move at this point from the pre-transfiguration Galilean ministry to the post-transfiguration journey to Jerusalem, to the place of betrayal, suffering and death, the ultimate sign of vulnerable love that God shows in Christ.
It is a commitment that fragrances the whole passage like a sanctuary full of incense. And it is a commitment the consequences of which have important things to say both to those ordained to the Presbyterate, the representative Priesthood, and to all who accept the call to follow Christ and enter the wider Priesthood of all believers, the one Priesthood of Christ, whose Body is the Church.
The first is this: that it will lead to times of rejection, just as Jesus and his disciples are rejected by the Samaritan village. I do not mean by this that we ought to seek rejection, but that the Priestly calling includes a call to represent God to the world and that in doing so we, like Christ, will come up against those who will not listen to us – who, no matter how graciously they are invited, will refuse to come to the banquet. I am sure that each of us can recall moments in our Christian life when we have been rejected in some way, possibly even by others in the Church – I know I have, I know Kate has, I have no doubt each and every one of you has.
In the face of such rejection James and John, the Sons of Thunder, full of righteous (or not so righteous) indignation, wish to call upon divine power and smite the village. Jesus rebukes them. “Shake the dust from your sandals,” Jesus has already told them. We must recognise our calling is to live out, in various ways, God’s love. Some will reject this but we are not responsible for people’s response to it, that is between them and God, who will make his own judgement in the matter.
Second of the consequences is this: it will require us to be vulnerable, leaving us with no place to call our own, whether literally or metaphorically. The Priestly calling, which is now Kate’s representatively, and which is always the whole Church’s corporately, includes not only representing God to the world, but the world to God. It means “Being for others”. It means breaking ourselves open that others may be fed. This ought not mean that a person ordained a Presbyter-Priest so breaks themselves being for others that they feed no-one, for just as Kate has committed to be for the people of this church and this parish so all those who are of Christ in this place ought to have committed to being for Kate, and care for her as she cares for them, but nonetheless, being for others rather than for oneself is to be deliberately vulnerable.
Thirdly, we are required to change and grow, to become as God is calling us to be rather than to be bound by what we were. In becoming incarnate, in accepting the inevitability of death, God does something unexpected, something new. Be assured that when Christ speaks those arresting words, “Let the dead bury their own dead” he is not making a general and heartless demand to all who have lost loved ones – I can say this because the Sunday morning readings between Trinity Sunday and today have reminded us of a compassionate Christ who brings transformation by raising the widow’s son, speaking up for the sinful woman, healing the man seized by a legion of demon. Rather he is speaking to the man’s attempt to acknowledge Christ’s importance while continuing to remain constant with past ways: holding to the Law in the face of him who fulfils the Law; holding to the claims of death in the light of the one who will defeat death.
The woman who will call you to Christ’s Table in a short while is not the same as she was when I first sat in class with her in Cambridge, nor the same as she was when she first arrived here in this parish – and I know that she has also brought change with her, change which has no doubt had its effect on many, if not all, of you. We are all called to continue to keep changing, as we are transformed to become more Christ-like.
And this leads to recognition of the fourth lesson Christ’s commitment to the path to Jerusalem teaches us about both representative and corporate priesthood – our focus must be on the destination, which is to become as Christ, who lived our life and died our death so as to offer new life in him. This is what Paul is writing to the Galatians about: the destination is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. They, like us, have been given the Spirit and yet they, like us, keep looking back to what they were and so stumble because they are not looking where they are going.
And if this sounds like a call to perfection then so be it – after all, I’m a Methodist and Christian Perfection is a definitive Wesleyan theology. But Perfection is the destination, we don’t start off there. We may dream of being like Mary of Nazareth, the bearer of God, or like Mary of Magdala, the first witness to Christ’s glorious resurrection. But the reality is that the models of discipleship given in the Gospels are far from being perfect: Peter the denier, Thomas the sceptic, James and John the ambitious. All of these are called by Christ. All of them, despite best efforts, make a mess of things at times, both before and after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Kate has committed to her call in the life of Christ, and has now been ordained to the representative Priesthood. It is a commitment which will require her to reach out to the world, even though it may reject her; require her to be for others, even though this will leave her vulnerable; require her to be open to change both in herself and in the ways things are done; require her, through prayer, through the sacraments, through pastoral encounters, to keep her focus on God, as seen in Christ and experienced through the Spirit, and her continuing perfection in him.
But this is not just Kate’s commitment, it is the commitment of all who choose to give their lives to Christ and so enter into the Royal Priesthood of all believers. And it is one we can all faithfully commit to because Christ has walked this way before us, and walks it with us now. By his grace Kate will, as her ordination requires, model such commitment as best she can, but as she takes, blesses, breaks and shares, for the first time, the bread and wine which are, for us, Christ’s body and blood let us not only rejoice in Kate’s next step in her journey but also remember whole-heartedly him who is our great high Priest, who for our sake set his face to Jerusalem, and let us joyously commit once again to living out our corporate responsibilities as the Priesthood of all believers.
+To the glory of him who calls us in unity with the Father and the Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.