Celebrating Priesthood

Matthew 16:13-23 and 1 Peter 2:9

This week we are celebrating Jo’s ordination as priest alongside eight other curates at Coventry Cathedral. It is a very very special time. But some of you may be wondering at all the fuss. It’s lovely for Jo, and all that, but do we need to make quite such a song and dance about it? And if that thought has crossed your mind, you are not alone. Plenty of people have been a bit sniffy through the years about the celebration of priesthood when other ministries in the church and wider world are equally important. However, I think such reactions come from a misunderstanding about priesthood. We celebrate priesthood because it belongs to all of us.

Let me explain. In the Church of England, we have three orders of ministry: deacons, priests and bishops, and you become a deacon, priest or bishop by being “ordained”. At an Ordination service, a bishop will lay hands on the person to be ordained and pray for them. In, if you will forgive me, what could be seen as a sacred game of pass the parcel, this practice of laying on of hands and prayer has been a gift passed down throughout the generations of Christian believers. While some quibble at the idea of an unbroken line going back to the apostle Peter, it is certainly a tradition which goes back to the earliest days of the church (see Acts 6:6)

In the Gospel Reading, we hear the tale of the beginnings of the Church. Jesus says to Simon “You are Peter, the Rock, and on this rock I shall build my church”. Peter was undoubtedly the leader of the little band of disciples, and tradition holds that he went on to be the first Bishop of Rome. The more Catholic wing of the Church will believe it is the authority given to the apostle Peter which is passed down from generation to generation by the laying on of hands and prayer when we ordain people, in particular, to be Bishops and Priests. However, I come from the Church of Scotland, never met a Bishop until I was in my twenties and didn’t have a clue what they were for until I was into my thirties, so while accepting my Catholic friends’ perspective would add another point of view.

What if what Jesus says to Peter isn’t just for him alone? What if that authority isn’t given to one person to be handed on like a parcel? What if, instead, Peter stands for every person who gets it right, then promptly gets it wrong, who is passionate and imperfect, yet – by the grace of God – knows Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. On you, and such as you, shall I build my Church, says Jesus.

I find it interesting that it is in the first book of Peter, a letter attributed to this apostle, or at least his school of teaching, that the writer is quick to declare that all believers, all followers of Christ, are a holy priesthood. We are all priests!

But what might that mean?

It is helpful at this point to look at what Jo will now be able to do as a priest in the Church of God. She can pronounce God’s forgiveness. She will declare God’s blessing. Finally, Jo will gather us around the holy table, break bread and wine and tell us again the story of God who gave everything that we might know God’s love, a God who in being broken for us transforms our brokenness.

Jo’s priestly ministry is an effectual sign – something that both points towards our calling as a community of believers and helps make it possible. As Jo pronounces God’s forgiveness, we are freed to go and live forgiving and hopeful lives, letting people know that nothing they have done is beyond God’s love. As Jo blesses us in God’s name, we are to go and bless the world with our words and actions, finding the holy in the everyday. As Jo breaks bread at the Eucharist, we are to go amidst the brokenness of the world saying “this isn’t the end of your story – transformation and glory can yet be found because of Jesus”.

Jo is a priest so that we all may fulfil the priestly calling of the whole people of God. We rejoice in her Ordination as a gift to us all. We celebrate her Ordination as we reaffirm our commitment to our own priestly ministry in God’s world.

One final word, remember that all this is made possible by our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He is the one, by his life, death and resurrection,who makes us holy to serve God and God’s world. And by the gift of the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, we will be given the grace we need to live out our priestly calling. So may we all celebrate! Amen.

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