Reflections on Priesthood

A sermon by our curate Jo Joyce, the week before she is ordained priest.

The Bible Reading was 1 Kings 19:1-15

Before she started, Jo read this poem called Priestly Duties by Stewart Henderson

I wonder what we expect our priests to be, all things to all people, gracious, holy, able to do a multitude of things, listen to a million hurts and grumbles and still smile beatifically and rise above it all?

I thought I would explore priesting a bit today by looking at some differing expectations. I wonder what you think of when someone says the word priest, is it a person or maybe a character? There are lots of TV ones most of them completely unrealistic, from crime fighting ones in Grantchester, who really do very little vicaring, to Christmas dinner eating ones like in the vicar of Dibley.Often, they are slightly hapless or fairly benign or in Father Ted just plain ridiculous. 

Some of the reason I think for all this ambiguity is Priests remain a recognisable role in society, but fewer people know quite what they do so they become a good figure to project something onto. Those in church see them as “our person” who is for us, when sometimes what they mean is “for me individually” rather than us corporately. Outside church well it can be whatever you want…

But, even amongst would be priests the role description varies depending on a person’s background and tradition. We had a training session recently with a number of different possible job titles, a priest is a; prophet/social activist, parson, pastor, minister and priest and each person identified with different aspects of those titles. Priesthood in that way is very personal. But it is also very public, the perception and understanding of what a priest is may depend on your past experiences good and bad, and it is not unusual for people to project those expectations onto those around them. 

This week someone for the first time called me Father, and asked if I minded – of course I don’t, because they are trying to find language to communicate in some way how they see the role of a priest, even as if it is a bit odd.

If some of this seems negative, then it really isn’t. It’s just that the call to priestly ministry is not an easy one, and it’s not always obvious what people think it is. When I met with the bishop he encouraged me to read not just the words of the ordination service that we will hear next week, but also the words for the ordination of priests set out in the book of common prayer, which remains a legal rite of ordination in the church of England and sets it out fairly starkly, here is just a small part;

‘Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.’

It is quite a charge so I thought it would be helpful to look too at what God’s expectations might be by reflecting on the story of Elijah. Elijah wasn’t a priest, but he was a leader of God’s people. In the first book of Kings in the Bible we read the story of Elijah fleeing. He was afraid, threatened, and he runs for his life. Eventually he is exhausted, he has enough, but God doesn’t scold him rather he provides food and rest and after a couple of days Elijah feels better and travels on to Mount Horeb. This is a holy place. It is believed to be the same mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments. It is a place where others have met God before. Now Elijah was to have his own experience of meeting with God.

When he gets there, God asks what he is doing. Now I was pondering this, surely God knew after-all? But perhaps it is important for Elijah to express it himself. Afterall, God knows our prayers, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray them. For Elijah has spent himself on his ministry. He has been zealous for God, but the people of God haven’t just been disobedient, they have been downright hostile, rejected God, torn down their places of worship and killed all the other prophets, only Elijah is left. Its not surprising he ran away!

What I think is really interesting is how God responds. He does not immediately pronounce how dreadful this is and how he is going to resolve it. The first thing he wants to restore is Elijah’s faith. To help him to have an experience of worship that enables him to cope with the challenges ahead, because he will have to go back and face the warring people of God again, but first he needs to meet with God and remind himself of why all this is important.

When Elijah experiences the presence of God, it is surprising and gentle and quiet. God is not in the big scary things, not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire but in the whisper. Elijah, understandably afraid to look God in the face, covers his face and steps into the presence of the Almighty. God is so holy that when the priests went into the temple into the holy of holies, they went with a rope tied around their ankle, just in case they should die in God’s presence and need to be pulled out. This holy God who created the universe makes his presence known and speaks with Elijah.

This is the challenge that priests face still, to bring that sense of the presence of God into the ordinary, the quiet, the mundane into the whisper of our daily lives. Elijah had left his home, had given out all that he could until he could do no more. But he was restored by worship. That too is the call on priests today, restore the people of God by calling them to worship, helping each other to meet and experience God in new and unexpected ways. To grow faith, faithfulness and expectation, to draw people into the mystery of God and to rely on God to sustain them too. Sometimes priests today will have also given much, travelled far from home (hopefully not had the people of God misbehave in quite such a profound way), but nonetheless faced challenges and perhaps need time themselves to rediscover the mysteries of God.

And ofcourse from our gospel, alongside this is love, to love others as we have been loved, to share that love, to others because Jesus loved. In fact, the ordination service includes precisely this: With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love.

My expectations

We have thought about how priesthood is viewed by all sorts of people so I expect you might be wondering what I think. Well, I value the sacramental aspect of priestly ministry as being really important, this is what makes it distinctive from being a deacon. A deacon ministers to people, spreads the gospel serves practically but doesn’t take part in the precious and holy things such as communion or the anointing of the sick in the same way that the priest does. So, I did choose priest as a description last week, but also pastor because I think in ministry there is a significant calling to guide the people of God, to care for and shepherd them, as well as to lead them in worship. 

But there is of course more than that, because its about more than a job description. This something I have felt called to for a long, long time and so there is both the anxiety and excitement of stepping into something that has been on my heart for many years. It is daunting in responsibility, but more than anything there is a sense of overwhelming privilege and joy to be able to do what I have been called to for so long. So do pray for me as I prepare and pray for Kate for her ongoing ministry. Its not an easy calling, but it is a precious one.


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