John the Baptist, Luke 1, 57-66, 80: Jacqueline’s first Eucharist.
I would like to start by saying what an honour and privilege it is to be here to preach at Jacqueline’s first Eucharist. Thank you for inviting me.
I thought this morning that I would talk briefly about various aspects of priesthood, through the lens of John the Baptist. Now, I know that John the Baptist wasn’t a priest but the last of the prophets, so please do indulge me.
I think that through the character of John the Baptist we can gain an insight into four of the attributes of priesthood: the call to repentance which is of course followed by the act of absolution; the call to bring people into the sacramental life of the church; for John this was through baptism, for priests following the death, resurrection and ascension this has meant baptism and celebrating or presiding at the Eucharist and, perhaps, most problematically the call, like John the Baptist, to act as a prophetic voice, calling the people of God to act like the people of God, whilst simultaneously daring to speak truth to power.
If I were a participant in the Radio 4 show ‘Just a Minute’ I would have been buzzed out of contention by now, for repeating the same word over and over again. That word is ‘call.’ Jacqueline like, I hope, all priests didn’t choose to become a priest; she was called, by God, to this joyful yet challenging and unsettling state we call priesthood.
Priesthood can often feel strange, us priests can frequently feel as though we are in the ‘wilderness.’ Sometimes it can feel as though there isn’t really much solid ground beneath our feet; priests you see frequently stand in the breach between God and his people. Jacqueline is going to spend much of the rest of her life feeling as though she is the ‘wilderness,’ not knowing what she really should say, or could say. But, the really good news is that although this is true she will, like John the Baptist, become ‘strong in spirit.’ God will give her the words to sing salvation's song with humility, pointing away from herself and towards Jesus.
My hope is that Jacqueline will become strong, or stronger, in spirit simply by living out her priesthood; by being a person committed to calling people into repentance and then giving the life changing gift of absolution, by celebrating the sacraments and, by continuing to speak prophetically; daring to say those things which might occasionally be unpopular, challenging or disturbing always in the interests of a more Christ-like church and, a more godly world. All of this must of course be underpinned by a deep commitment to prayer, for it is through prayer that character grows and we slowly, but surely, grow into the image of Christ. It is through prayer that we begin to realize that it is character rather than mere competency that makes the compelling difference. It is through prayer that we become living icons for Christ.
So what of you, and your relationship with Jacqueline and indeed all priests?
Maybe I have already given the answer: to commit through prayer and the quality of your relationships to help Jacqueline, like John the Baptist, who was so nurtured by his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, to grow and become stronger in spirit, so that she, and all other priests can, live out our priestly calling.
One last thought: if you commit to praying for Jacqueline, perhaps asking in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, that she may be ‘endued with righteousness’ and be blessed by the ‘healthful Spirit’ of ‘grace,’ you too will change and grow in Christian character and, as we all grow together we become what the New Testament describes as a ‘royal priesthood,’ or the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ or even a ‘Holy Communion,’ of God’s people; we become God’s partners in achieving the breaking in of the kingdom ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
Jacqueline today our prayers are with you as you preside at the altar for the first time. Our prayer for you is that you may throughout your priestly ministry build authentic Christian community by leading God’s people to repentance, absolving them of their sins, and feeding them prophetically through word and sacrament.
2nd Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 3, 8-15, 2 Corinthians 4, 13 -5,1 & Mark 3, 20 – end
A few years ago a number of colleagues were at my house in Padbury enjoying a drink and a chat when one of them saw a photograph of a young eighteen year old Andrew, dressed in his rugby kit, and said ‘wow you used to be good looking.’ I didn’t, still don’t, know how to take this!
I love the line in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: ‘even though the outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.’ It’s pretty realistic isn’t it? Yes, we are all getting older and, yes, this implies a bodily change, but the good news is that as we mature in our Christian lives our inner nature is renewed and we become more Christ-like. The way we grow is of course through our daily and weekly habits: prayer, bible reading, and corporate worship.
All of our spiritual practices should be undertaken under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This Trinity let us seek to remain open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who leads us into a deeper relationship with the Father and the Son. Let us not forget how we start our worship each and every week, by declaring that we meet in ‘the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
As Christians we need to remain open, always, to the work of the Holy Spirit whose roles are to guide us, shape us, encourage us and lead us into all truth. To ignore the prompting, leading, and real presence of the Holy Spirit is to ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.’
When we live lives shaped and informed by the work of the Holy Spirit the remarkable thing is that we grow into our true and deepest identity. It matters not a jot how we look and whether ‘our outer nature is wasting away,’ for what matters more is the that our ‘inner nature is being renewed day by day.’ As our inner nature is renewed the really great news is that we too learn to look beyond mere externalities and the superficial things and, our whole system of valuing people changes. We begin to realise that worldly success and status aren’t important. We begin to realise that the only important thing is being committed to doing the ‘will of God,’ and that this implies living by the rule of love with its twin characteristics: ‘love of God,’ and ‘love of neighbour.’ When we live our lives under the guidance of the Holy Spirit our lives, mysteriously, become simplified.
But, something even more remarkable happens: we stop being terrified, afraid or anxious. In the reading from Genesis Adam says to God: ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked.’ What Adam had failed to realise was simply this that God was far more concerned with his inner nature than his outer nature. God couldn’t care less about Adam’s ‘outer nature.’ The great satanic trick started with Adam and continues into the present day. The trick is to get us to believe that God is somehow impressed with our outer natures: our height, weight, athletic ability, status and the size of our bank balance. To assume that God is overly concerned with these things is to relegate God’s values to the crudest of human metrics. And the trouble with human metrics is that they tend to exclude rather than include. When our impulse is to demarcate and exclude, rather than include, we distort what it means to be a ‘brother, ‘ sister,’ or ‘mother,’ in holy communion, in Christ. This is something we simply mustn’t do!
I would like to finish with a quote from the Rachel Wilson. Rachel is a priest in the Church of England. She also has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. She writes as follows:
‘I know that for some of my friends, especially Christians, the notion that God intends me (this side of heaven at least) to be as I am is controversial, but it is something that I am convinced of, and when I came to that conclusion it was utterly revelatory; if I am indeed what God has made me, then I no longer need to worry about failing to be like others, but can succeed in being myself.’
When, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, claim our deepest identity, we succeed at being our best selves, and begin to understand that God is above all interested in our ‘inner nature.’ When we refuse to listen to the voice of temptation telling us that we aren’t worthy enough just as we are we become the sort of people who build authentic communities simply by doing the ‘will of God.’
So, this Trinity let us open ourselves to the transformative, liberating, simplifying, fear-beating, and relationship-building power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit and be amongst us, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
First Sunday after Trinity: 2 Corinthians 4, 5-12 & Mark 2, 23-3,6
I once made a clay jar. I must have been six or seven. It wasn’t a particularly attractive jar, nor was it a great work of art. But, for some reason I was quite proud of my little jar. It became a venue for storing useful things; small change, paper clips, and so forth. Sadly, it never ended up in a museum or gallery!
St. Paul says that we, that’s you and me as people who profess the Christian faith, have this ‘treasure in clay jars,’ the purpose of which is to store the ‘extraordinary’ gifts that come from God. He also suggests that when we take out and use these gifts we will become light bearers and that ‘the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ It is an extraordinary thought, isn’t it, that the very life of Jesus ‘may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ I don’t know how you feel about this: perhaps its something to mull over, or pray over, in the week ahead, for prayer is one of the treasures we have been given. In fact its more than a treasure its the very oxygen we breathe. Other treasures include Scripture, the Bible, and sharing in the sacraments of the church. These three, as I keep saying, are our treasures and nutrients.
Just one more thought, less we dismiss the notion of being light-bearers, or the idea that the very life of Jesus might be made ‘visible in our mortal flesh,’ as being a tad too fanciful. You have already this morning prayed for precisely this! Just consider the words of the Prayer of Preparation where we ask that under the ‘inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly magnify your Holy name, through Christ our Lord.’ The only way we can magnify God’s holy name is through our words and actions; our bodily functions in other words. Jesus after all was a real bodily being, a physical person, fully man; that’s the point of the incarnation. Our faith is expressed through mortal flesh.
As we let prayer, true prayer, imaginatively and creatively reading the bible and, sharing in the Eucharist shape our lives two things, paradoxically, begin to happen. First, we begin to die and then we begin to grow. St. Paul captures the essence of this paradox for as he writes: ‘So death is at work in us, but life in you.’ Yes, it is true that in order to grow we need first to die. But, the good news is that we need to die to the things that prevent us from growing into the freedom of Christ: fear, anxiety, resentment, hatred, the desire to hoard more and more material possessions, to be seen as a success and so forth. We really do need to die to these things in order to grow; in order to find real freedom and security and in order to find our deepest identity in Christ. To hold on to our fears, anxieties, resentments, and the need for things and status is truly to live life in the shallow end.
This is the mistake the Pharisees make. What they are seeking is a life governed by certainties, rules, regulations and protocol. The religion they offer is restrictive and life sapping, hence their resentment with Jesus for doing good on the Sabbath. The Pharisees haven’t learnt the art of dying in order to live. Although they have an extensive rule book there is no ‘treasure’ in their ‘clay jars.’ In fact they don’t even have a clay jar, and because they don’t have a clay jar in which to keep the deepest of spiritual treasures, they have no real freedom and liberty. They are stuck and the only resources they have available to them is their rules, restrictions and protocols. It as though they are governed entirely by the clip board rather than being guided by the Spirit and as such they can never know the unrestricted joy of living life in the deep end, guided by the Holy Spirit.
This Trinity – and please let’s call it Trinity – and never Ordinary Time, let us make sure we each and every day take the treasures out of our clay jars. Let us ask each and every day the Holy Spirit to guide us in prayer and reading the bible, and to be truly present to us in the Eucharist. If you do so let me make you one promise: you will die to all those things that prevent you from finding your deepest identity and you will grow day-by-day into both freedom and the visible likeness of Christ. We will become the sort of people who ‘perfectly magnify’ his ‘Holy name.’ And that, in a nutshell, is the entire rationale for the Christian faith.
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