Last Sunday, at the ordination service, Chris began his sermon by saying it was a tradition on Trinity Sunday to have the curate preach, because preaching on Trinity Sunday was such a minefield of potential heresies. At the time I thought to myself, ‘Yes, unless your curate is clever enough to arrange to be ordained on Trinity Sunday, and to ask you to preach.’
My sense of cleverness was short-lived, however, as the very next day I received an email from Chris reminding me of another tradition—that the newly ordained priest is called upon to preach on the Sunday following their ordination. So here I am.
I’m going to focus today on the Gospel passage from Matthew—Jesus calling and commissioning the twelve disciples.
A new beginning
This seems an appropriate passage to reflect on as I begin a new phase of my vocational life, a new season of ministry alongside all of you as an Anglican priest.
I was struck as I read this passage at the parallels between Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, the mandate he gives them—and the description of the substance of my call as a priest set out by Bishop Lynne at my ordination.
Jesus instructs his disciples to go out to the lost sheep, those who are without a shepherd, without protection or guidance, those who are vulnerable. And to proclaim the good news, that the kingdom of heaven has come near; that the way the world is, is not the way it has to be—it’s not the way God wants it to be.
Jesus tells them to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.
Now, truth be told, I’m quite relieved that the mandate set out for me by Bishop Lynne was not quite so onerous as all that—there was no mention of raising the dead. Phew!
And yet, in another way, the mandate given to me as a priest is incredibly daunting. I too am to proclaim the good news, and to fashion my life in accordance with it. I am not only to talk about God’s vision for the world, for our life, and our relationships with one another and creation—I am to live it out in my own life, and show others how to do the same.
I am to love and serve the people amongst whom I work—all of you—caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor; I am to make no distinctions based on class or race or life circumstances.
I am to declare forgiveness of sins—an astounding privilege and responsibility; to baptize, and to preside at table at the Eucharist. And above all, I am to pray—publicly and privately, regularly and ceaselessly, asking that we might all be nourished by the riches of God’s grace.
It is, as I say, a daunting mandate; and one that I cannot possibly hope to fulfill without a steady stream of God’s grace, and your forbearance.
As Chris pointed out last week, it is a calling at which I am bound to fail from time to time.
A daunting challenge—for all of us
But here’s the thing: while there are specific tasks that are assigned to priests in our church—declaring forgiveness, offering blessings, presiding at the sacraments—everything a priest does is done in the context of, and in the service of, a community of Christians.
All of the things that were given to me as my mandate last Sunday are really given to all of us as Christians, and the biggest part of my role is to help all of you respond to Christ’s calling: to bring good news to those who are lost, those who have no guide, those who are vulnerable.
To stand as witnesses to the world that the way the world looks now is not the way it has to be; it’s not the way it was meant to be. And to witness instead to the alternative vision of the kingdom of heaven—the way the world is really meant to be; the way the world really is, in God’s eyes.
Our task, our calling, our mandate, is truly daunting.
Somebody pointed out last week that it was the first time in months that something other than coronavirus was topping the news headlines. Covid-19 was displaced by stories that arose out of the pain of racial injustice.
These two crises together say a lot about our world. They strip away our complacency, our ability to live within a cocoon of comfort, relatively untouched by the desperate crises that have always been a way of life for our most vulnerable neighbors.
The gospel tells us that when Jesus looked out at the world then, and saw people in crisis, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” And his response is to send out the disciples to proclaim the good news, to heal the sick, to cast out demons.
‘You give them something to eat’
In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples are faced with a situation of overwhelming need, and they turn to Jesus—their rabbi, their leader—imploring him to do something to make the problem go away, to take it off their hands. Send them away so they can buy their own food, they say.
And Jesus says, They need not go away; you give them something to eat. So they gather up what little they have, and they bring it to Jesus; and in Jesus’ hands it becomes enough.
Jesus’ response to the state of the world back then was to form a community that would tell the story of what God intended the world to be—and then to enact that vision, to live it out, by being itself a community of compassion and care and healing and reconciliation.
There are a lot of lost sheep, people who are without protection, people who are harassed and helpless, in our world, and indeed right close to home too. We are contending now with a pandemic disease that is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and also with the demon of racism.
In the face of such overwhelming challenges, our first response may also be to implore our leaders—both in the church and our political leaders—to solve the problems on our behalf, to take it out of our hands. We want to sign petitions, and share posts on Facebook, hoping someone, somewhere, will do something.
But Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to find someone else to solve the problem, to heal what’s broken, to feed the world’s hungers. He says, You give them something to eat.
Jesus’ response today is the same as it was then: to call into being a community of disciples who are willing to witness to the truth: that the world as it is is not the way it has to be, it’s not the way it is meant to be.
And then, as disciples of Jesus, to take our place alongside the most vulnerable, the harassed and helpless, and to witness to them, to ourselves, and to the world, that they too are made in the image and likeness of God.
It is a daunting task, and one that we cannot possibly hope to accomplish without a steady stream of God’s grace, and one another’s forbearance.
These are strange times for us as a church. We are deprived of the things that are at the heart of our life together: our Sunday worship gatherings, and one another’s company.
And while no-one would ever wish a crisis like Covid-19 to happen, while we are stuck in this situation, perhaps we can use this time as an opportunity to grow in our compassion, and to think about what is at the heart of our life as a church, and to imagine new ways to be disciples in our time.
Finally, as I enter into this new role amongst you as a priest, I ask you to pray for me, that I may always be a good and faithful priest, that I may love and serve you well, even as I challenge all of us to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.