Lent V ~ 29 Mar 2020, SMC
Jesus looks at the crowds and feels sorry for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep with out a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). If sheep are lost without a shepherd, let me tell you it has been quite odd this past week being a shepherd without sheep physically around! I’m sure we have all felt discombobulated and disoriented: routines shattered; alone; dependent on others; unable to do much of what we enjoy; fearful of what we see in the news.
It’s perhaps then not a bad Sunday in this Lent sermon series entitled “Who’s in the Church,” for us to consider those ordained to particular lives within the Church. We kicked off this series looking at churchwardens and a reminder that we all have tasks to do in the building up of the Church. Today, we see that particular men are set apart to be shepherds of the flock in the Sacrament known as Holy Order. This is not just a matter of there needing to be someone in charge and it doesn’t matter what we call them or what the structure is. St Paul is clear that the ordering of the Church is a matter that God is interested in (Ephesians 4:11).
There are three rungs within this ladder of Holy Order: Bishop, Priest and Deacon. These are terms we begin to see emerge towards the end of the New Testament period, especially in the first letter of St Paul to Timothy. In the Bible “overseers” become bishops; “presbyters” or “elders” becomes priests; “ministers” become deacons. Those who knew the apostles, people like St Ignatius of Antioch knew a Church that was to be ordered around bishops (see St Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4). A crucial element of this Sacrament of Holy Order is that the individuals are sent, just like our Lord sends the apostles. This is to give you, God’s people, confidence. There will be plenty of other men and women who can preach better sermons than me, who are better at relating to people, who always say the right thing at the right time. It’s great they have those gifts and we praise God for them. But the authority given to bishops and priests is a spiritual authority which means when the priest repeats the words of Jesus saying, “This is my Body;” or when he says “I absolve you from your sins,” or when he reaches out his hand in blessing and says, “May almighty God bless you,” you can know that has happened. You can have confidence. That that is how God has chosen to order His Church.
A lot of what the clergy do is to care for God’s people through providing the Sacraments for them. Priests say Mass, the offering of the New Covenant, just as priests in the Old Testament had to offer all sorts of things to atone for sins of the people. I and priests in the Church offer the Blood of Jesus our Great High Priest in which we have been washed clean (Hebrews 9:11-28). Priests can also forgive sins because of the authority given to the apostles by our Lord (John 20:23). They anoint the sick, as James 5:14 records. Priests bless things and people. Deacons assists priests in the ministry with a particular concern for the sick following the details of the first ordination to the diaconate in Acts 6. Bishops oversee all this, handing on the faith as received by the apostles from our Lord Himself, so our Lord says to Peter, “On this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:13-20).
The compassion of our Lord for people comes out clearly in today’s Gospel from John 11. Lazarus’ sisters are proud to refer to their brother as one whom the Lord loves. We heard in the Gospel how Jesus sees Mary and Martha crying and because of his own sadness at the death of Lazarus, He too then begins to weep. It’s the only time this is recorded in the Gospels, but what an important memory it is. It is out of this same compassion that Jesus has for His people that bishops, priests and deacons are ordained, that they might convey the love of God. Love is never just about words or intentions, but actions and so it is that God’s love is revealed in sending His Son in the world and by nourishing His people with the Sacraments, the preaching of the word, through the ability to bless and encourage.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, as we heard at Mass on Lent III that worship of God must be offered in spirit and in truth. It is not then to be chaotic or disordered, but offered in a way pleasing to God. The Spirit brings order where there was chaos in the beginning (Genesis 1:1). The ordination of Bishops, Priests and Deacons is part of how the Spirit vivifies the Church. We heard of the Spirit’s activity in our readings. God promised to put His Spirit within His people despite the vision of dry bones that confronts Ezekiel. Paul reminds the the Christian in Rome in the second reading we heard of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness when we don’t even know how to pray as we ought.
The Spirit is present in all the baptised, but equips each to a different task. As bishops, priests and deacons are ordained the bishop ordaining cries out, “Send down, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, upon your servant for the office and work of a bishop/priest/deacon in your Church.” Those who are ordained are not expected to do everything for the people of God. It’s not expected that a priest will be able to run websites, set up coffee tables, play fifteen instruments, organise coach journeys, attend every social engagement, dance heartily or do a hundred and one other things that might become associated with the parish priest. The priest is to say Mass, bringing the people of God before our Heavenly Father. The priest is to represent God, speaking words of pardon and encouragement to God’s people. The priest is to represent the Church, ensuring the faith is taught, that others might in turn teach it too.
We will struggle as a Christian community locally if we don’t all understand what it is we’re all about. I mustn’t think that you, the people of God, are simple here to do what I tell you. You mustn’t think I have to sort out your relationship with God with no effort on your part. Christians must each have their personal relationship with God: only you can sort that out. As Jesus says, we must go into our own private space and shut the door and pray to our Father in secret. Jesus can’t have been thinking of our own bedrooms when he spoke of this for he was speaking to a community where people often slept in the same room. He was rather speaking of our heart, that is the private space where we must commune with our Maker. (Matthew 6:6). The bishop, the priest, the deacon is to provide God’s people with the graces that you need to commune with God. Priests aren’t not counsellors or therapists but we can say Mass for you, we can tell you when something is wrong or unjust, when you need to repent or when you need to extricate yourself from that which is sinful.
I love being a priest because of the call to a have a particular relationship with Jesus, who says “I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep and they know me,” (John 10:14). I love being priest because it’s a privilege to be invited into people’s lives. When I baptise your children, when I come to pray at the parties remembering your departed loved ones, when I hear your Confessions, I stand there with two thousand years of Christian priesthood, unworthy to do so in my own strength, but reassuring you that you also don’t need to approach the throne of God in your own strength. It should be a cause of sadness for us that no men from this congregation have heard the call to be priests for decades, if ever, though it’s great we help Pastoral Assistants and Curates to be formed in those vocations, who come here for a season. I wonder if we haven’t had any guys from our community hear the call of God to be priests because we need to pray deeper into what being a priest is all about.
In this season of Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit to enliven us in our spiritual disciples, so disrupted because of the Corona Virus fears. And may we have a clearer sense of why Christ has ordained that His Church be gathered around a priesthood: to bless, to offer Mass, to assure people their sins are forgiven, and to remind the whole people of God of our priestly vocation to worship.