Sunday 8 July
Ezk 2:1-5 & Mark 6:1-13
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Tuesday of last week I had the great privilege of going to St Paul’s Cathedral to see Simon Burton-Jones, the previous Archdeacon of Rochester, be ordained and consecrated as the new Bishop of Tonbridge. It was the first time I had ever seen a new Bishop get made and, as it happens, the new Bishops of Bradwell and Bristol were being done on the same day.
Cue obvious joke about waiting years for a Bishop and then three come along at once.
It was an awe-inspiring service, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it really was the Church of England doing pomp at its best. Although, just between you and I, when you have been in your seat for nearly two and a half hours it was beginning to verge into a hostage situation.
At every ordination service, whether for deacons, priests or bishops, there is a reading of a thing called ‘the ordinal’ which is basically the job description of the office to which one is being ordained. As you can imagine it is a great and weighty charge and Nicky has recently been writing an essay about the ordinal for the ordination of priests in preparation for her do in September. However, as I pointed out to Nicky and as I was once again reminded on Tuesday, I think that the most important part is the response by those being ordained. It is not “I will”, as in a wedding, but always “By the help of God, I will.” Actually, perhaps that should be the response in weddings too…
The response ‘By the help of God, I will’ is a reminder that the care of souls is not something that we can do in our own strength but can only be done by keeping ourselves close to God. It is, after all, us joining in with God’s ministry to his people, rather than the other way around.
And, guess what, ministry has ever been thus, right from the earliest days of the Old Testament Prophets and even the Apostles.
Our first reading this morning came from the calling of the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel is full of wonderful imagery such as the Valley of Dry Bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, and also mysterious hovering wheels within wheels and many others. Ezekiel was already a priest when he was called to become a prophet. At the end of chapter one, just before today’s reading. Ezekiel has just seen the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God (notice this is several steps removed from seeing God directly) but even this appearance causes Ezekiel to fall flat on his face. The old Hollywood films, or perhaps just our imagination, may have given the impression that the Old Testament prophets were larger than life characters who always responded boldly to God’s call:
‘Of course I am ready to do your will, Lord! The heathen shall soon bow at my, I mean, your mighty word!”
The reality is rather more real, and perhaps more relatable. The great prophet Ezekiel fell flat on his face.
And then our reading starts and Ezekiel is told to stand up. But it seems that he can’t manage even this on his own as it says that “a Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet.” It is worth pondering that for a moment. This priest and new prophet of God needed the spirit of the Lord to even help him climb to his feet. That is true dependence on the help of God.
Then God tells Ezekiel what he is to do, he basically reads the ordinal to him. He says “I am sending you to the Israelites” but this comes with an immediate health warning “They are a rebellious nation, they are obstinate and stubborn.” As parish profiles go this is a bit of a toughie. God does not promise that Israel will follow his warning or that Ezekiel’s ministry will be a ‘success’. That would be to miss the point. God says that Ezekiel’s job is simply to give the people the message that God gives him and then, whether the people listen or fail to listen, at least a prophet will have been amongst them.
This is actually really important – it is easy to imagine that ‘in the past’ everyone was much more God-fearing than they are now. Actually that is not the story we see in the bible – so much of the story of the bible is about people rebelling against God and about God’s attempts to bring them back to himself. But God knows that people can and do reject his call, no matter who delivers it. So Ezekiel’s charge is not to convert all the people, but simply to deliver the message and, if he does that then he will have fulfilled his calling and it is up to the people, those rebellious, stubborn and obstinate people, how they choose to respond.
So God is managing the expectations of this prophet right from the start – you can’t even stand up without my spirit to help you, and don’t expect everyone to follow you – merely say the words I give you, that is what you are called to.
And we see some interesting parallels to this in our gospel reading. At this point in the gospel Jesus has been active in his ministry for some time – going from town to town, preaching, healing, gathering disciples around himself and drawing large crowds wherever he went. Last week we even heard that he had brought a 12 year old girl back from death. It is clear to all those around him that Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, a prophet of God and perhaps even more than that.
And then Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth – the place where he had grown up with his family, had been surrounded by friends and neighbours – in short the place where he had been known since being a young child.
When Jesus started preaching in the synagogue things seemed to be going well at first. We are told that the people who heard him were ‘astounded’ at both his words of wisdom and the deeds of power that he had been doing. And they wondered “Where did this man get all this?” The obvious implication being that such power and wisdom must come from a place above and beyond his humanity – that it comes from God.
But in the blink of an eye the astonishment of the people in the synagogue turned to doubt and to cynicism:
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary – are not his brothers and sisters here with us?”
The crowd allowed their knowledge of Jesus as a person – a person with a family and a history – someone they may well have seen scampering around the streets of Nazareth as a child – to destroy any possibility that there was something else, something divine, going on here. And we are told that they ‘took offence at him’.
I am reminded here of not one but two Monty Python sketches. In the first John Cleese enters a room dressed smartly in a suit and his elderly mother and one of her elderly friends are there. He says “Good evening Mother” and the two old ladies are amazed that he can walk and talk until, eventually, he says: “Mother, I am the Secretary of State for Trade.” and that sets them off again.
And the other is, of course, from the Life of Brian when Brian’s mother says to the gathered crowd, “He is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.”
And we can probably understand the human nature of what is going on. Here in Hadlow, where no one knew me as an 8 year old, I am the Vicar and many people like to imagine that Vicars drop from the sky fully formed and other worldly. But when I visit friends and family I am not the Vicar, I am simply Paul and rather than getting a pulpit to preach from I struggle to get a word in edgeways.
So, the encounter in the synagogue that started well, ends with Jesus being amazed at their unbelief. It is worth thinking about that – even when Jesus himself was in the room, and healing people, there were others who still did not believe and who took offence. If people refuse to believe Jesus, and take offence at him, then why should we who follow him have it any easier?
Finally Jesus sends out the Apostles (the word Apostles of course means those who are sent) and they are sent to do mission in the surrounding villages. They are told not to be weighed down with too many belongings. As someone who arrived in Hadlow in two huge vans, at least one of which was filled with books, I can see the wisdom in that.
And Jesus gave them their job description, he read them their ordinal if you like, and he made it clear that although they would do lots of good work there would also be people and places that would not accept them or their message. What are they to do in those circumstances? Are they to worry or fret or think they are not up to their great calling? No, he says they are to shake off the dust of the place from their shoes as a testimony against that place. Their job is to go where Jesus sends them and to do the ministry he gives them but neither they, nor Jesus nor Ezekiel can force anyone to accept the message.
As Christians, as followers of Jesus, each of us are called first to follow him and become his disciples and then, as we grow, we are, in our different ways, sent back out into the world to be his apostles to those around us – our friends, our neighbours, our work colleagues. We are sent to bear witness, by our words, our actions and our lives, to the transforming power of what it means to be a Christian in this world. Never forget how truly radical and counter-cultural it is to be a follower of Jesus in this world. It is an awesome responsibility to be a witness to Jesus for all of us, it is a great charge, a great ordinal.
But God does not expect us to fulfill our callings in our own strength. He knows that some, perhaps many or even most, will be obstinate and stubborn, that some will be disbelieving or will take offence and may simply never believe. What we have to do is remember that God is not only with us, but has been there ahead of us, and that there is nothing we can encounter that has not already been encountered by the prophets, by the Apostles and by Jesus himself. So each of us, day by day, seeks to fulfill our calling not simply with “I will” but with “By the help of God, I will”.