Salisbury Cathedral Sermon - Saturday June 28, 2008

July 23, 2008

Isaiah 61: 1 – 3a
2 Corinthians 5: 17 – 6: 2
John 20: 19 - 23          

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” cries the prophet Isaiah in our first reading.

It is not that the prophet, after calm and careful consideration, has decided to speak on the Lord’s behalf, rather he has been pounced upon, tracked down, riven through by God’s insistent urgency. This call is nothing Isaiah has sought or asked for. And the task the Spirit sets before him is overwhelming: bringing good news to the oppressed; binding up the broken hearted; proclaiming liberty to captives and also proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. This last, the Year of the Lord’s favour, is a reference to the Jubilee Year described in the Book of Leviticus: a time yet to be realised in which land is allowed to lie fallow and to rest from use and exploitations; slaves are given freedom; debts are cancelled and all the patterns of relationship that constitute human community are reordered in an all-embracing act of release and reconciliation. All structures of bondage or oppression are dismantled, and God’s justness and compassion are allowed to run free – building up, healing and making whole.

When Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry enters the synagogue at Nazareth and is invited to read, it is this same passage from Isaiah that he chooses, declaring when he has finished reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Through the words of the prophet Isaiah, the Spirit who bore down upon Jesus at his baptism as God named him the Beloved, and then drove him into the wilderness to be formed and made ready for al that lay ahead, including the Cross, bears down upon him once again.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we are told in the letter to the Hebrews. No one knew this better than Jesus and the Prophet before him. To say yes to the Spirit is always costly, however the Spirit may approach us. This call can take many forms: sometime it is the fruit of careful consideration, sometimes it is suddenly thrust upon us, and, in the case of Isaiah, it may overwhelm us.

And yet, at the same time, if a particular vocation is meant for us, it will, as one of the characters in a contemporary  novel, Evensong, observes, “keep making more of us.”

Paradoxically, however, this process of being made more of involves not only possession: new skills, greater competency, an increase in knowledge and wisdom, but it also requires relinquishment and letting go of familiar patterns of thought and action which cannot contain what is new.

At the heart of all genuine vocation, priestly and otherwise, we find a dynamic of taking on and casting off, or in classical Christian terms we must lose our lives in order to find our lives, we must relinquish in order to possess, we must abandon our effort at self-construction in order to gain entry to the self we, in grace and truth, are called to be. This occurs, in large measure, through the givenness of our vocation in all its demands and complexities. This is true if we are a barrister or a bishop, a deacon or a dentist. Through the choices and challenges that life sets  before us the Spirit shapes and forms us and confirms us to true self that God, in his loving desire and imagination is calling us to be. For Christians the discovery of the true self involves companionship and union with the risen Christ.

The Spirit who bore down upon Isaiah and Jesus is the same spirit who blows freely through our lives sometimes as a breeze but then again at gale force making what may seem to us to be impossible demands. No wonder Isaiah cried “Woe is me, I am lost,” upon his first encounter with the Divine. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I am enticed,” declared Jeremiah (not without resentment). “You have over-powered me, and you have prevailed.” Jonah fled in order to avoid the burden of carrying God’s word. Mary was deeply troubled by the Angel’s announcement and Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemene struggled intensely to remain faithful to the one who called him beloved: “Father,” he prayed, “if you are willing, remove this cup from me - spare me – yet not my will but yours be done.”

In the fullness of his humanity, Jesus yields to the demands of the present moment to which fidelity to his sense of being called by God  has brought him. Undefended in the face of divine inscrutability, he hears deep within the recesses of his heart an echo of that baptismal declaration: “You are my Son, the Beloved; With you I am well pleased.”

In the strength of that echo he is then able to embrace the fact that his vocation, his being made more of, involves death on the cross. The new creation of which our second reading speaks, is not entered into lightly or without cost. It presupposes our baptismal identification with Christ in both his dying and his rising.

The gospel too speaks of a new creation.  In an act reminiscent of God at creation breathing life into humankind, the risen Christ breathes upon the disciples and in the power of the Spirit transforms a gaggle of grief-struck and terrified men into participants in and agents of his risen life and continuing work of reconciliation. They become in an act of radical recreation “ambassadors for Christ”. And so it is that this work of reconciliation continues and is carried out not just by the ordained, but by all who have been baptized into Christ and, in many cases, by those whose faith is known to God alone.

I have had the great privilege over these last few days of being with the ordinands on retreat. When we first met, I asked them to share something of their experience since being ordained deacons. Again and again, they spoke of you present here this morning as well as of others, and of the support and encouragement they had received from their families and friends, and from the congregations and communities from which they had come and to which they had been sent. They spoke also not only of their ministry to you, but your ministry to them, and of the way in which, in the body of Christ, roles can be reversed and the ministers find themselves ministered to. As one who was ordained priest 45 years ago Monday last, I cannot begin to count the number of times God’s word has been proclaimed not by me but to me. Sometimes it has been a word of encouragement, and sometimes a word of criticism which, though painful to receive, contained within it necessary truth.

The priestly ministry, to which these men and women, gathered about the altar, are to be ordained this morning is a particular articulation of Christ’s eternal priesthood and ministry of reconciliation which belongs to all who have been baptised into Christ. All of us, whatever our vocation, are called to be ministers of the Gospel, and ambassadors for Christ: that is agents of God’s all-embracing love and profligate compassion in an anxious and fear-filled world in which the dignity and well being of its people are sacrificed again and again to political and economic  expediencies.

“Enable with perpetual  light, the dullness of our blinded sight” we will sing in the ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit prior to the ordination prayer. Acuity and clearness of sight are gifts we will ask the Spirit to bestow upon our newly ordained priests and upon us as well, living as we do in a world which prefers unawareness and not seeing, lest the awful burden of knowing and therefore being obliged to speak or act overwhelms us.

Isaiah might have been overwhelmed, and Jesus as well, had not the Holy Spirit, who bore down upon them,  companioned and sustained them in all that was set before them. The challenges rooted in their sense of being called made more of them, and allowed them to be the persons God most deeply desired them to be, for Jesus being made more of involved treading the way of the cross, passing through the narrow door of death and entering into the forcefield of resurrection, and thereby becoming  the risen Christ.

In true Bishop’s address which immediately follows this sermon, the ordinands will be reminded that at the heart of the priesthood to which they are about to be ordained, is their willingness to be formed by the Word, that is the risen Christ, in order that they may, along with others, grow up into Christ’s likeness.

The church may solemnly ordain and authorise its ministers but there is also an authority and authenticity which is the fruit of intimate and personal companionship with Christ. To be sure, such companionship is enabled by the Spirit, but it requires the willing collaboration and sustained availability of those who have been ordained otherwise they are in danger of becoming “technicians of the sacred” rather than ministers enlivened by the very gospel they proclaim in word and sacrament, or, echoing St Paul, lest having proclaimed to others, they find themselves disqualified.

In a collection entitled Fragments of a Diary, Alexander Yelchaninov, a Russian Orthodox Priest reflects upon his experience of priesthood. He writes: “Priesthood for me means the possibility of speaking in a full voice.” What I think he means by “speaking in a full voice”, is that priesthood is an integral part of who he is: it keeps making more of him. In no way does it eclipse or devalue other dimensions on his being or jeopardise the relationships which have shaped and sustained him, rather priesthood confirms and deepens all that he has been.

It is therefore my prayer for you, my brothers and sisters, who are about to be ordained that, in the days ahead you may indeed speak in a full voice, and that the particular articulation of Christ’s own priesthood to which you are being ordained will, well past your imagining or expectation, or even your perceived capabilities, keep making more of you. 

Amen.

 -- Bishop Frank T. Griswold is the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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