Summer Sermon Series: Very Revd Nick Papadopulos
A sermon by Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.
Sunday 07 August, the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.
When I was nineteen years old, I read a book that I found utterly captivating. Words of extraordinary power reached out from the printed page and gripped me. As I read, I believed myself changed. I got up from my seat a different person.
The book was The State and Revolution; its author was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. I was a history undergraduate, and my reading had left me a convinced Marxist-Leninist. My next essay, a week later, was on Stalin’s Terror. It brought my newfound ideological allegiance to a juddering halt. I reckon I was a Marxist-Leninist for about a fortnight.
If you’re a visitor here, or have recently returned from holiday, you may be surprised to hear me talking about myself. Or you may not. But in these summer weeks my colleagues and I are sharing our stories of being called by God to ordained ministry in the Church, and are exploring what it means for God to call his people.
That exploration is what matters. Priests are not airlifted into the Church; they are called out from it. In fact, one of the wisest priests I’ve ever known once remarked rather acidly that God only calls to be priests those for whom there is no other hope of redemption. God calls all his people. But calls them to what?
I began with my fortnight of Bolshevism because that experience was the closest I have come to an experience of conversion as it is commonly understood – the experience of being changed very suddenly by an encounter of some sort. That is how many Christians speak of God’s call. I respect their experience, but it has not been mine.
Conversion is the second of the three vows that St Benedict prescribes for monks who follow his Rule. “The one who is to be accepted into the community must promise…in the presence of all, stability, conversion of life and obedience”. Benedict writes of conversion as a lifetime’s work. God is in the business not of loft conversion – the overnight re-purposing of our interiors – but of life conversion – the moulding of our lives so that they conform to the pattern of his Son’s life.
That is how I understand God’s call of all the baptized, and that moulding began for me in childhood. We were not a reading-the-Scriptures, praying-together, Jesus-is-our-buddy family. But one of the first books that I loved was a child’s Bible. Its vivid stories were brought to life by churchgoing, which was a feature of our Sundays. That’s not altogether surprising: my Grandma had been one of those PCC secretaries who sensible vicars fear (she held the office for more than three decades); while my paternal grandfather was an Orthodox priest who served in south-west Cyprus (Papadopulos means “the son of the priest”). Church neither bored me nor alienated me. I didn’t last long in Sunday School, true, and I never joined the choir, but I loved serving, and at school I excelled at Divinity (as we called it then). At that stage I didn’t excel at a lot else. And I knew that somehow the stories I read, the worship I attended, and the lessons I studied were all connected. The air I breathed as I grew up was air infused with the faith of the Church.
This is all mood music, and if you were to press me to identify the moment at which it assumed a particular form for me, a moment when I definitively accepted the faith as my own, I could not give you an honest answer. There were ebbs and flows: Charles, a Church Army Captain, asked me directly about vocation when I was in my late teens; Father Tony was an eloquent priest whose seriousness about his faith was compelling; the university Christian Union, on the other hand, scared me with its terrible haircuts and sectarian outlook. But the mood music developed. When I was a boy Jesus was a mythic or historical hero like the other mythic or historical heroes I admired – Lord Nelson, or Leonidas of Sparta. When I was a recovering Marxist-Leninist, he was the egalitarian peacenik who demanded that we love one another.
And this moulding gathered pace when I went to theological college to train for ordination. It would be odd if that were not the case: but I must place my formation as a priest where it belongs – squarely within my formation as a person of faith. The call to ordination comes out of the call to all the baptized.
But to get specific: after leaving university I studied law and became a barrister, having failed to get into the Foreign Office or the BBC, those other institutions that used to employ history graduates. Defending alleged criminals (alleged criminals) assuaged my guilt at abandoning the proletarian revolution, and making speeches to juries appeared to make use of the modest palate of gifts I’d been given.
I could have continued in that career. After all, we need barristers, teachers, plumbers, web-designers, and perhaps above all, political leaders who are prepared to be held accountable to a truth that they don’t own. But for the Church to continue as it has historically, we also need priests. And so one summer evening twenty-eight years ago I went to Holy Communion at St Thomas’s Finsbury Park, as was my habit, and my life took a new turn. I believe that God spoke to me that evening, in accents clear and still, as the liturgy unfolded. Three words: be a priest. This was not something that had happened to me before and it has not, with such clarity, happened to me since. Yet those three words seemed to touch my very deepest core, and they filled me with indescribable joy and excitement.
Was I deluded? Hearing three words in a north London church at a sparsely attended midweek Mass might seem a pretty slim basis for turning a life upside-down. But those three words were just the next stage in a journey that had begun with a child’s Bible and years carrying a candle. In the months that followed, as I waded through the Church’s discernment process, people I trusted were unsurprised. I told my oldest friend over curry on the Fulham Palace Road. “I thought you were going to say that” was his response. And I told Heather twelve months before I asked her to marry me. She still said “Yes”. What I believed had happened in that church that night was corroborated by the years that led up to it and by those I loved best. And it has continued to be affirmed by those with and among whom I minister.
“You have died,” writes Paul to the Colossians, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. Those words assure me that the hard work has been done. God in Christ has triumphed; our eternal destiny is secure. Exactly how each of us responds to God’s call during our earthly lives cannot change that. None of us, thank God, is called to be a Messiah. That’s been done. Instead, here we are: women, and men; fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist puts it; abounding in gifts and skills; between us, lacking nothing.
So what will we do? Surely God calls us to live as those to whom he is eternally faithful. As those to whom he is eternally faithful: first, growing in knowledge and love of him; and then, using what we have been given in his service. Nothing more – but certainly nothing less.