Day three of the ordinands’ retreat
Acts 12: 1-11
In the name of the Father, and of the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If I had been able to I would have set Charles Wesley’s great hymn And Can it Be for the service tonight, but sadly the editors of the new English hymnal didn’t really consider it kosher! Those of you who know it well will know the verse I’m thinking of, which places every Christian in Peter’s place in the prison cell of which we heard in our first reading:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray:
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Petertide is a really interesting time of the year for the church. It has become one of the, if not the, main times of the year when the church ordains men and women to new ministries within the church. 19 of you gathered here this evening will be ordained in this Cathedral over the coming 36 hours or so. 12 new priests for God’s church, seven new deacons for the ministries to which you are called.
And so on the surface there is this wonderful kind of joined up theological unity about ordaining people at this time of year. Saint Peter, as we heard in the gospel reading, kind of identified by Christ as the “rock”, receiving this prophecy or promise, or perhaps threat, from Jesus that on this rock he will build his church. But this is the same Peter who is referred to by Jesus as Satan, who will deny that even knows Christ when things hot up in Jerusalem, and who will get into a fairly big scrap with the man who the church gives to Peter to share this feast day, Saint Paul, Evangelist, church planter, with whom Peter did not see eye to eye, and of his theology Peter is described as calling it “hard to understand.” Not something a prospective ordinand would want written about their sermons in their Bishop’s letter.
So what are we to make of this double festival today, for all of us gathered here to worship, and what might be of use to you ordinands, going into your final evening before the ordinations begin?
Well I would like to go back to Charles Wesley. And to the hymn that we haven’t sung tonight. Wesley, no theological slouch himself, takes the account of Peter’s imprisonment and makes it his own. He makes it an example of the life of every Person who encounters Christ. This is what it is like to be a Christian, he says. It is as if you were in a dark enclosed room, your movement restricted, your future at best uncertain and at worst brief and painful. And then Christ simply walks in and transforms everything. “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.”
In the service of ordination of priests which we will be about halfway through by this time tomorrow the Bishop will say to the candidates for the priesthood “with all God’s people you are to tell the story of God’s love.” I think that is the most important line in the entire service. For it is a reminder that the experience of the place where we are suddenly becoming so much more, our future suddenly becoming so much more interesting and meaningful, the parameters of our life becoming the kingdom of heaven is for all of us. This is the gift of God to his people: faith. We say that at the baptism service. If you walk this way, if you take the risk of inviting this God, this Jesus, to be an active part of your life, well, the dungeon is just going to get blasted to smithereens. Now that’s not a gift to priests, or a gift to deacons, or even a gift to bishops. That is the gift of God to his people, and the people of God is, or are, all of us. The laity. We don’t stop being a member of the laity if we receive ordination. That identity becomes a bit more specific and a bit more focused may be,; and doubtless many gifts will be prayed onto and into the 19 of you to be ordained tomorrow and Sunday, but that is nothing to the awesome call upon the hearts of all who have received the only primary and essential ordination: baptism by water and the spirit into the laity, the people of God. Baptism into the people whose task it is to “tell the story of God’s love.” Saint Peter and St Paul managed that in pretty much the same way that the church still staggers forward: bickering, disagreeing, taking sly shots at each other when they thought the other one wasn’t looking, sinning and repenting and drawing again from that deep well of love about which it is all of our task to tell the story; and rejoicing, always rejoicing, that just when we thought all was dark and gloomy and hopeless; look “the dungeon flamed with light.”