It’s a great joy and privilege to be with you here this afternoon, as it has been to journey over the past four days with these 10 wonderful people about to be ordained priests.
Those of you who were here this time last year, supporting these women and men as they were made deacons, may well be wondering why we’re seemingly having to do it again! You may also find yourself wondering what on earth is happening, as the moment of ordination comes and the person you’ve come to support disappears under a sea of clergy. What is going on?
There are, of course, similarities with what went on last year. Each of these deacons is saying, in a very public setting, another ‘yes’ to the ministry they feel called to exercise. And they’ll be making the necessary vows and promises to be faithful to that calling. The church too is also saying another ‘yes’, and so affirming that sense of call with the authority to exercise a priestly ministry. The Bishop, as last year, calls down the gift of the Holy Spirit to confirm them in their priesthood and to equip them with all that they’ll need to live out the call entrusted to them.
But there are two significant differences. The first is the very powerful visual symbolism of the priests of the church, as well as he Bishops, sharing in the laying on of hands as each deacon is ordained. They are literally surrounded and covered by the supporting clergy. This is not only a symbol of authority that we share by virtue of it being delegated to us from the Bishop. It also symbolises the collegiate nature of priestly ministry. Priesthood isn’t ours to be exercised in isolation. Nor is it a private matter that’s simply about our relationship and call from God. It’s a ministry shared across the whole church, and sharing in the ordination is an important reminder of the Body of Christ under his headship, to proclaim the good news of the gospel and to further God’s kingdom of earth.
The second difference lies in the specific ministry that’s entrusted to those called to be priests. It’s a ministry of blessing and absolving, of presiding at the sacraments and of leading the people of God in prayer and worship. Priests don’t stop being deacons. They continue to be servants. But they’re also called to be shepherds, as we’ll hear in a few moments,
There’s nothing glamorous about being a shepherd! Forget “Springwatch” and the rather rosy view we get of unnaturally clean pens made fit for TV consumption. Shepherding, even today, is hard work and filthy. A couple of years ago my sister and her husband bought a small holding on Dartmoor and decided they wanted to keep some sheep. They’re not commercial farmers by any means, but they started with 6 ewes and now have nearly 20. Even so, it’s a full time job. They have to move them from field to field for the right pasture and occasionally have to treat a field if poisonous plants begin to take hold. Additional hay has to be sourced and distributed, morning and night once the grass has stopped growing. Fences and boundaries have to be kept secure and the drains cleared to prevent flooding. The sheep have to be protected from foxes which can harass them at lambing time, and from magpies that can peck out the eyes of the new-borns. Last Easter, she described having to help a ewe delivery her two lambs in the middle of the night in a soggy field in the pouring rain with the only light coming from the torch her husband was holding.
In Jesus’s time, because the shepherds lived alongside their sheep, they were considered unclean and amongst the lowest of the low. In one sense, then, it’s more than a little surprising that Jesus chooses to describe himself as a shepherd, albeit a good one, and in doing so he’s clearly making a powerful statement. God is to be found living alongside his people, even those on the margins of our society and those considered to be beyond redemption.
Because the shepherd lives alongside her sheep, she knows them intimately by name. She understands their foibles and funny ways, their particular needs and idiosyncrasies, their individuality and uniqueness. This is the ministry entrusted to these soon to be ordained as priests. They’ve to get to know their flock by living alongside them, remembering always that the flock for whom Christ died is not just those who attend their churches but for all who live and work in their parishes.
They’re to tend their sheep and feed their lambs as they walk on together; offering to them the nourishment and refreshment of Word and Sacrament, loving and caring for them after the pattern of Jesus the Good Shepherd of us all. They’re to journey with their flock in good times and bad, leading and guiding them in times of confusion and uncertainty.
And that pattern has the sheep firmly at the centre. Shepherding is not about self-interest or what’s in it for the shepherd. It’s not about doing a good job whilst everything is going well, then running away like a hired hand when the going gets tough. It’s not even about loving the job of shepherding, as if our calling was about us. For the Good Shepherd , it’s the sheep that matter, always, and caring for them after the pattern of Christ, although a costly ministry of self-giving, is also a joy, a privilege and great blessing.
It will require these priests-to-be to go to those uncomfortable places where they feel out of place and perhaps not welcome, but learning to discover God there nonetheless, already working in people’s lives.
It will involve them reaching out with a big heart and a generous spirit to those with whom they profoundly disagree and working with others to build bridges of reconciliation where families and communities are divided.
It will involve seeing humanity at its worst as well as at its best and still trusting in the goodness of God and the hope of the Gospel.
It is indeed a high calling to which these deacons are about to commit themselves and, as the Bishop reminded them a few moments ago, they’ll not be able to bear the weight of this call on their own, but only by the grace or power of God.
What better prayer then, than the one which the writer to the Christians in Ephesus penned, and which we heard as our first reading. If you’re unsure how to pray for the person you’ve come to support then this is rich material for you to turn to. For in it, the writer asks that God would strengthen the Ephesians with power through his spirit in the depths of their being; that they would come to know the immeasurable love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, and that they might be filled with all the fullness of God. What more could we ask as these deacons prepare to be anointed and sent out as priests in God’s church!
And the final sentence of that prayer for the church in Ephesus is a reminder to us all, that however confident or nervous we are, whatever our competencies or gifting, this is God’s work not ours. God, working patiently and persistently within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or conceive. It is to him that we commit these deacons today as they go from here, priests in the church of God, to serve him in the church and in the world.