Sunday 30 September 2018
James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For those of you who weren’t in Rochester yesterday, or who are perhaps simply visiting us this morning, I should say that this is a very special weekend in the life of St Mary’s. Yesterday our curate Nicky was ordained as a priest or presbyter in Rochester Cathedral, and what a wonderful service it was too. And today is special because Nicky will shortly be celebrating the Eucharist for the first time, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Nicky has been amongst us as a Deacon for the past year and, before that, for some time as a licenced lay minister and, before that, on placement during her ordination training. I remember spotting Nicky in the congregation during her very first visit here, when we spoke briefly about her coming here for a placement and, during that placement, we spoke about her coming here as curate, and here we are now. So, if you are visiting us for the first time today, be very careful what you say to the vicar after the service!
To be a Deacon in the Church is a great calling, and there are some who are called to always be Deacons and never priests; one lady I trained with remains a Deacon to this day, and she holds an important job in the Diocese of Europe. If you remember the reading from last week we spoke about the last being first and the call to servanthood, and to be a Deacon, a diakonos, is to be literally one who serves at tables. I can say confidently that Nicky has been a great servant of the church for the last year.
But Nicky was not called to be a permanent deacon but has been called and now ordained to be a priest in the Church of England. The main difference between being a deacon and a priest, for all practical purposes. is that Nicky is now able to preside at communion, to consecrate bread and wine, and to be a focal point for our collective Eucharistic thanksgiving for the gift which Jesus gave his church, which is his presence amongst us. Nicky is also now able to announce God’s forgiveness of our sins at absolution, which she did earlier in this service, to pronounce God’s blessing upon us, which she will do at the end, and to anoint the sick and the dying, which she may have to do if I speak for too long.
But, in all seriousness, our reading from James this morning spoke about the sick asking the elders of the church to pray for them and to anoint them and for those who have sinned to be forgiven and those are both part of the priestly calling and ordination.
Whilst we should always resist the dangers of clericalism, which is the danger of treating those who are ordained as if they are the church when, of course, we are all the course, it is also true that it is a great privilege to be able to stand at the altar and say the words of Jesus at the last supper, in which he shared himself with his followers. A priest is, quite literally, standing in the place of Christ, in persona Christi, at that moment. For many years the Church took the view that to be in persona Christi meant that one had to be a man, because Jesus was a man. Some still hold to that view and the Church of England recognises their right so to do. But for the last 25 years the Church has ordained women to the priesthood because it recognises that to stand in the place of Christ at the Eucharist has no more to do with gender than it has to do with the fact that Jesus was also Jewish and in his 30s. Most Anglican clergy would fail both those tests.
We are all called to be Christ-like, to conform ourselves to Jesus more and more as we live the Christian life, but that has nothing to do with becoming more male, but it has everything to do with becoming more the person that God called and made each of us to be. This weekend Nicky has made some important steps in her own journey to become more Christ-like both by being ordained and, shortly, by being in persona Christi at the altar.
Now I don’t know for sure but I suspect that Nicky is feeling a bit nervous about celebrating communion for the first time. We have been through it together, as you can imagine, but there is a world of difference between rehearsal and opening night. When you have been doing something for a few years and you then have to show someone else how to do it step by step it can be quite surprising how much there is to do and to remember. Nicky may well be thinking not just about reading the words from the page but about the 101 little details which surround the words, about remembering to give herself communion in the midst of everything else, and trying to be a worshipping Christian at the same time. If she wasn’t worrying about those things she probably is now.
So I just wanted to share with you, two things which I have already mentioned to Nicky, in a hope to allay any nervousness.
Firstly is the story of my own ordination as Deacon. That service took place in Canterbury Cathedral and the president was Archbishop Rowan Williams, whom you may have heard of, and who is quite an experienced celebrator of communions. As new Deacons myself and my colleagues had to stand behind the altar whilst Rowan celebrated. The large chalices of the Cathedral were filled to the brim with wine and as he raised his arms to consecrate them his hand caught one of the chalices and sent it and its contents flying all over the altar. It would have been easy to panic and to flap and to start mopping up spilt wine. Instead the chalice was simply refilled and Rowan continued with hardly a pause – most of the people in the congregation would hardly have noticed a thing. So keep calm and carry on, come what may.
And the second source of comfort for the priest may be found in the 39 Articles of Religion, which is one of the foundational sources of Anglicanism, and which Nicky recently swore to pay heed to. Article 26 makes it clear that the effectiveness of the sacraments which we administer is in no way affected by the minister themselves, because we don’t minister in our own name, but in Christ’s name. So to knock over a chalice, to mess up a prayer or to forget one entirely, as I have done probably more than once, or even to feel unworthy or unwilling to celebrate because of stuff going on in our lives, none of that stops this sacrament doing what it needs to do amongst those who receive because it is not our ministry that is really going on, it is Christ’s ministry to his church, and that happens regardless of what we get wrong.
I want to close with this final thought from our gospel reading this morning. At the start of our reading the disciples were scandalised that someone who wasn’t part of their group was going about healing in the name of Jesus. Last week they were all about who was the greatest, this week they are all about who is in and who is out of the club. This is a boundary issue and people love boundaries, because they give us certainty. But Jesus seems much less bothered by such things and he tells them that whoever does a deed of power in his name will not be able to speak evil of him.
This tells me that when we as priests, and all of us who are the church, minister in the name of Jesus it is not just those we minister to who are changed but it is also us who are changed – doing deeds of power in the name of Jesus changes who we are and how we relate to Jesus. So, Nicky, as you celebrate the Eucharist for the first time today, you will be doing a deed of power in the name of Jesus, and standing in the place of Jesus, and so this is not simply an important event it the life of this church but it is a huge event in your continuing journey to be the Christ-like person that God has called and made you to be.