New beginnings. New chapters. New possibilities. Great hope. This morning, this afternoon and tomorrow morning 24 people are being ordained and launched into new ministries in this diocese. Of these 24, 12 are being ordained as deacons and 12 are being ordained priests or presbyters. Having got to know them over time and having spent the last three days with them as they have been preparing for their new ministries, I can say with confidence that the Church is getting a pretty good deal out of this. They are offering themselves to God for these ministries and they will bring many blessings both to the Church and to the communities in which they will be serving.
This morning 11 women and men are being ordained priest, beginning a new chapter in their ministerial journey. They are like paragliders casting themselves off the top of a mountain, taking a risk, a leap of faith, confident that the winds of God’s Spirit will carry them along, but knowing that, like all paragliders, they can’t ultimately be sure where the winds will take them: this is the exciting and scary part of ministry. Yes, they have been in ordained ministry for one year and they bring wisdom and experience from their past, but today is something fresh and new. So what is so new and different about this ministry? Is it not a continuation of what they have been doing for the last year as deacons? Well, yes and no.
They will be remaining in the same parishes and working with the same people, but they will be growing into a different relationship with parish, people and themselves. And the reason? They will now preside at the Eucharist, they will be conducting, surrounded by the people of God, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and a number of other responsibilities will flow from this. As deacons, you already have authority to preach and engage in ministry, but at your ordination to the priesthood we shall be praying that God’s Spirit will inspire and strengthen you as you undertake this new and awesome responsibility of presiding at the Eucharist, surrounded and supported by God’s people. And presiding at the Eucharist isn’t simply a church matter, but it has much wider ramifications. It also shapes both the ministry and the character of the priest. In the grounds of the retreat centre where we have spent the last three days is a large pond with the sign, ‘Danger. Deep water.’ Well, those of you being ordained this morning are just about to enter it.
In the Gospel, Jesus says to his followers, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ On the night before he died, Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, celebrated the Jewish Passover meal with his followers. It was at one level an ordinary Passover meal which family groupings would have been eating all across the country, but at another level Jesus transformed it into something quite amazing. Jesus’ followers discovered that whenever they ate this meal in the spirit in which Jesus handed it on, that, in some ways that are still difficult to grasp, Jesus Christ was present. For 2000 years Christians have attended this meal, acknowledging Christ’s authority in the world and celebrating in a very real way God’s ability to transform and bring life. ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,’ said Jesus in the Gospel. Just as he transforms very ordinary bread into something quite extraordinary, so too he transforms very ordinary people into the very best that they can be, so that they can fulfil their God-given potential. They in turn have a responsibility to carry this vision, this miracle out into the world and encourage others to fulfil their God-given potential and this will mean challenging the injustices and fear prevalent in society which hold people back. This meal, known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, can too easily be domesticated and kept within the walls of the Church.
But it is far bigger than this. When we celebrate it, we do so in the middle of the world, not simply in the church. It is the role of the priest to make the connection between what happens inside the Church and what happens outside: it is the role of the priest to preside at the Eucharist in such a way as to ensure God’s desire to transform and bring life break through the doors of the Church into the world outside. That is your calling as presiders at the Eucharist. But it can get you into deep water because it challenges vested interests. There will be resistance from those who do not want change. And some have paid a heavy price. Let me give some examples.
Fr. Bernard Moore, a priest in New Britain, Papua New Guinea, was said to have been shot in 1942 by advancing enemy forces because he refused to leave his people when their freedom was threatened. He was presiding at the Eucharist at the time. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was shot when he was celebrating Mass in 1980 because he spoke out against poverty, social justice, assassinations and torture. In our own partner diocese of Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2008 the Bishop was thrown out of his church and threatened with arrest by the police in the middle of presiding at the Eucharist because he challenged injustice and rescued his people from a path along which they did not wish to go. Other clergy in Harare were arrested doing exactly the same thing. I was recently reading of hundreds of priests imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp who risked their lives (and some lost their lives) to celebrate mass for their fellow prisoners.
These dramatic examples are reminders of the heavy responsibility being placed in your hands. It is unlikely that you will be called to such extremes, but who knows where the winds of the Spirit will take us. But these are important reminders that our role is to ensure that the Church of God is turned out to the world and it is by this that the faithfulness of our ministries will be judged.
May your ministries be full of joy as well as struggle: may they be full of laughter as well as tears. May you bring blessings to those with whom you have to do – and may you always be aware of the presence of God who is pure love and pure forgiveness.
Ordination Of Priests At Rochester Cathedral: 26th September, 2015.
Readings:Isaiah 61.1-3;Philippians4.4-9;John 10.1-16