A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

There’s a story told that when Jesus arrived at heaven’s gate he was met by a concerned Archangel Gabriel. “Jesus, you’ve done amazing work in the last few years – preached the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, cast out demons, challenged hypocrisy, welcomed outcasts into the family. But now what? Who is going to continue this good work you have started?’ Jesus looked down on earth and saw Simon Peter, his close friend but one who so often put his foot in his mouth, acted impetuously and, when Jesus most needed him, denied he even knew him – not once, but three times. There were James and John who weren’t averse to getting their mother to creep up to Jesus when no one else was looking and ask for special favours for the brothers. There was Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector – not exactly high in the ranking of the popularity polls among the people. Simon the Zealot, an only-one-way-to-solve-problems-man, ever ready with his fists and sword.

Not too many women – or so it seemed at first glance. But then Gabriel noticed Joanna and a clutch of Marys, especially the one known as Magdalen. He felt a little better – after all, it was to her that Jesus entrusted that most unexpected message: I have seen the Lord. Mary Magdalen, the apostle to the Apostles. Jesus looked back at Gabriel: ‘There are only these people, there is no one else. I have to trust them, and I do, they’ll muddle through all right. Oh, what about Judas? Yes, even among the most carefully chosen and trusted there are those for whom the temptations of the world come before the Kingdom of God!’

Today we look upon a small gathering of four people, each with their particular story, their journey, their strengths and weaknesses, their ambition, their longing, their mistakes and successes. And, let’s not forget, their companions along the way – the people who have influenced and shaped their lives, who have opened their ears and eyes to God, who have stood by them, believed in them, loved them, encouraged, perhaps even cajoled, them into taking this step.

Jo, Paul, Peter and Des have each, in their own unique way and time, caught a glimpse of the glory of God, the beauty of holiness, and been overwhelmed by a sense of call. It may not have been the experience of an Isaiah in the time of King Uzziah, caught up in awe as he gazed at that incredible robe which seemed to fill the temple. It may not have been six-winged seraphs, the song of Glory, shaking buildings and the touch of a live coal on the lips. But each of these four people before us today has, in some way or another, both seen something of God’s glory and responded to the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Like Isaiah so long ago, like the seventy appointed by Jesus, Jo, Paul, Peter and Des have said ‘Yes’ to God, ‘here am I, send me.’ Do they know where they are going, what they will be called to do?  If my own experience is anything to draw on I suspect they think they do. The reality, as Isaiah discovered after he had said yes, is that God doesn’t always listen to our instructions of how to do things, and what should happen in order to build the Kingdom of God. Be that as it may, the important thing is the ‘Yes’.

So each of these four people stands in a long tradition of people who have said yes to God. Yes, here I am, ready and willing to do what you want of me. And more than that, they will stand here before the Archbishop not only making their own profession of faith, but hearing the affirmation of you, the people gathered here, both in person in the Cathedral, and joining us from wherever you are in this livestreamed service. You, we, believe in them. We believe they are called by God to be ordained priest and will shortly be called on to make public that belief.

It’s an awesome and holy task that comes with being a priest in the church of God, one which will be outlined shortly in the formal “Exhortation and Examination of the Priest Candidates”. It’s a call within a call, for all Christians are called to obedience and discipleship – that is a condition of baptism – “to be a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, to make Christ known in all the world.” But the particular call to which these four are answering is more than that. It is to be a priest, a pastor and teacher, for God’s glory and the strengthening of God’s people.

It’s a call that will see them go frequently to the Bible to read again the words found in Romans 12; a call that will inevitably lead to their ongoing transformation by the renewing of their minds in order to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect – in God’s sight, not that of the world.

It’s a call that will force them to rely, time and again, on the power and gifs of the Holy Spirit. They will need to recognise and acknowledge those spiritual gifts already given to them – each person uniquely and specially – and to help those under their care recognise and acknowledge their own unique gifts. It’s a call that encourages, or better, demands that love be genuine, that there is no room in the Christian and priestly life for evil. It acknowledges the power of mutual affection, the honouring of one another, the enthusiastic, intentional and focused practice of serving the Lord. And yes, being able to rejoice in hope, to be patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer. They will be changed but, perhaps a little surprisingly, they are still Des, Peter, Paul, Jo – on one level no different at all, on another, completely transformed.

We have talked about many of these things over the last few days while on retreat, and I know that they have been thinking deeply about them long before this.

Today’s ordination is just the beginning of the next part of this journey on which they are embarked. Like the seventy sent out by Jesus they are labourers in the field. The metaphor of the pairs of travellers, lightly burdened without purse, bag or sandals, is a scary one. It requires they put great trust in the sender – the one who is Lord of the harvest. And, I guess, an even greater trust on the part of the one who sends – Jesus the Christ. Who knows which of us will deny or, God forbid, betray our Saviour? There is a deeply disturbing sentence in the Exhortation which talks of being called to account and the possible judgment which will follow should one be the cause of hurt, or hindrance, to a member of the church or, indeed, the church itself.

This call to be ordained priest, to be entrusted with the sacred task of proclaiming, through Word and Sacrament, that the Kingdom of God is near, is both an awesome responsibility and a wonderful privilege. It’s one that no one, in their right mind, would dare to take on alone. Thankfully we are not alone. On more than one occasion while on retreat, the conversation has turned to the prayers, the messages, the love and support of you – family, friends, colleagues, fellow travellers on the way of Christ. On behalf of these four about-to-be-priests let me say thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness, your love, your prayers for Jo, Paul, Peter and Des. They would not be here were it not for you.

To the four of you I say thank you. Thank you for allowing me into this most special time of your lives, to walk with you through the last days of your diaconate – though we should be clear that you remain a deacon, a servant in the model of Him who took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples. As you feel the hands of archbishop, bishops and priests laid upon you, as you receive patten, chalice and Bible, you are given, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority to preach the word of God, to minister the holy sacraments and to forgive sins. Be faithful in these holy tasks.

God bless you – each one of you – as you step out of this Cathedral today, a priest in the church, and into the ongoing life of the Kingdom of God.