s102e00 Somerton Park Lent 5 9/4/2000

"a priest forever" Hebrews 5:6.

I thoroughly support the ordination of women. I would have thought that gender would be the very last consideration when it comes to ordination. I can't recall Jesus ever raising the issue of gender. I do recall him saying that we should not "lord it over others" (Matt 20.25 &//s, 1 Pet 5.3). And it is an unfortunate fact that so often throughout history men have lorded it over women, or at least women allowed men to think that they did :-)

I have sometimes thought that the words "a priest forever" a daunting threat rather than something to be expected or even hoped for. It's a bit like marriage - even convicted felons in prison get time off for good behaviour. A priest forever ! :-) One doesn't have to be a little crazy to do this job but sometimes it helps - just ask Catherine :-)

In recent times, I have been trying to preach on the lessons I haven't preached on before - generally this means the Old Testament lesson or the epistle for the day. However in some ways what I have to say is not mine, by my own choice, but what is given me to say.

So a couple of weeks ago, as I was having my quiet time of prayer before the reading of the gospel and the sermon, as is my wont; I was praying that the words of my sermon might not be heard as confronting to anyone in the congregation. And then the gospel was read, the so-called "cleansing of the Temple" from chapter 2 of St John. And I was made to realise that implicit within the gospel proclamation was and is always a rebuke to those in self - appointed positions of power and authority over others. That St John recalls the "cleansing of the Temple" so early in the ministry of Jesus, in chapter 2, and not just a bit less than a week before Jesus was killed, shows St John's particular perception of the truth of this. So perhaps my fondest wish for "peace and harmony" may never be granted.

We are given in Jeremiah the promise that "they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest". (Jeremiah 31:34). So in some senses when I stand up here and expound the gospel as the rubrics and our tradition require me to do, I am by this very act denying this promise of God. You all, from the least of you to the greatest, already "know the Lord". You do not need me to introduce God to you. Indeed you may well "know the Lord" better than I do.

Yet the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes about the Son, and takes on a teaching role to the readers, who he or she, perceives "need milk not solid food", "unskilled in the word of righteousness", who faculties have yet to be "trained by practice to distinguish good from evil". (Heb 5:12-14).

Now I would have thought that distinguishing good from evil is a relatively easy thing to do. We all know what is good and what is evil. Even people who don't come to Church know the difference between good and evil.

Yet the suffering that Jesus experienced, the suffering by which "he learned obedience", which I suppose includes the day to day misunderstandings and opposition, even in his own home town and synagogue, as well as the final fatal blow, all was at the hands of the religious authorities. They knew right from wrong; they were trained in the law of God. Yet they could not see that the good things that Jesus did were good. They perceived the good things that Jesus did as evil, because it affronted their positions of power and authority.

So the role of the Church and hence the role of the priest is not, as is so often assumed, to get more people who don't, to "come to Church", to get more "bums on pews". The priesthood of Jesus was to God's own people, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, people who were already included in the covenant relationship with God - as their birth right. Still Jesus was sent to these people, to clear out the debris of those who assumed they "knew the Lord" and others didn't - to teach them the "ways of righteousness" - to accept others.

The last thing I need to do is to get you to know the Lord; the thing that I do need to do is to get you to know good from evil - to accept others.

So often evangelism is portrayed as presenting the gospel, as telling people about God, about whom they neither know or recognise. If that is the case then that is the easy bit. The real difficulty is to get to know how to distinguish good and evil, to be honest and true in our relationships, one with another.

Ultimately it does not matter if the Church is successful or not, with lots of people in here or not. What does matter is how we relate to others.

Now if you get my drift, there is an inherent schizophrenia in being a priest. One has to love all those who come to Church, the sympathetic and the less than sympathetic, as well as all those who don't come at all. That love includes teaching those who indeed "know the Lord" good from evil. So a priest is in the unenviable position of having to teach those who are essentially the source of his or her income, a teaching which is inherently unpalatable. It is unpalatable because it is an offence to say to good people who know the Lord and who give so much to the Church, that God calls them to put aside their contributions and love others. Love those who give equally with those who don't, those who come as well as those who don't, those who believe as well as those who don't. One has to preach in an institution and it is easy to concentrate on building up the institution, neglecting that Jesus' teaching caused those "institutional" authorities in Jesus' day to have him crucified.

Over my years of being a priest, there has been the odd occasion when some have made some comment about what they thought was the role of a priest. I suppose in the normal course of human society it is hardly surprising that those who contribute to the paying of my stipend should have some say in how I exercise my ministry. But the gospel directs me to say that every self appointed position of power and authority be questioned. My role is that which the Lord directs through my personal study of the scriptures and traditions of the Church, and participation in the sacramental life of the community of faith. When I depart from this you have a right to dismiss my words. It is not a role to which I appointed myself. Indeed as I have already indicated, the words I say are not entirely mine. I should be "happier" if the words given were indeed more palatable. But no, I am content that the words closely match what the Lord would have me say.

I think that it is a particular perception of John that Jesus' role was to the people of Israel, the religious institution of Jesus' day - the people who were already "in". "Salvation is from the Jews" he recalls Jesus saying to the woman at the well.

May I suggest that the institution of the Church also suffers from an inherent schizophrenia, needing to have an authority and structure, yet also knowing that authority and structure can be alienating. Perhaps the issue that precipitated the Reformation was a perceived abuse of the selling of indulgences. If people wanted to contribute to the Church, and wanted "something for their money", all well and good. The danger was and is that others not so blessed with the wherewithal to pay were excluded. The Church has always used money given to it for the relief or the poor or the advancement of the arts and music. As the people at NASA are wont to say, all the millions spent on space missions stays firmly on the ground. So it is with the artistic treasures of the Church. The money used fed and clothed and housed artists and artisans. The world would indeed be a poorer place without the contribution the Church has made to art and music.

I have already alluded to the fact that I don't choose my message. The message is chosen for me by another, as is the case with everyone else ordained to the sacred ministry. The author of the letter to the Hebrews affirms that "Christ ... was appointed"; that Jesus did not take this role upon himself.

Being a priest is an incredibly privileged position of being paid to explore one's faith and try to express it to others. To be a priest is also to be invited into the most intimate parts of people's lives, and the trick here is most often to tread gently and without comment.

The "word of righteousness" that the author of the letter to the Hebrews talks about, again is NOT about getting ourselves or others to lead upright moral lives. It is about how we sinners allow God's salvation to extend to other sinners in God's creation, people who think, act and believe differently from ourselves.

The perception that I, or another priest, should use their authority to get others to do things or support this or that activity - just to keep the institution going or growing - is I believe a complete misuse of the message and the authority given.

 

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