Sermon for Easter 5 – High Mass Sunday 14 May 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
All the biblical signposts seem to point to Fr Philip this morning.
In our first reading, from Acts 7, we were reminded of the stoning to death of Stephen, the first deacon. Probably a good moment for Fr Philip to move on to priesthood, as he does next week. In the Gospel we hear of Philip the Apostle, making his famous request for clarification from Jesus: ‘show us the Father’, which elicits the beginnings of Trinitarian doctrine. And then, in the second reading, from S. Peter:
you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2.9
This seems like a good day to reflect on our common priesthood as the people of God and the offical ministerial priesthood to which some of us, somehow, are called. When addressing ordinands or preaching at ordinations I always begin by sharing my personal maxim about the priesthood: God calls those to priesthood whom he can save in no other way. We are in this together.
Fr Alan is celebrating 40 years of priesthood this year. I, a sacerdotal babe by comparison, am clocking up my silver jubilee. I would like to start the rumour now that on Sunday 2nd July, as well as a visiting preacher, there will be Champagne.
At my first Mass I received some excellent advice which I want to pass on to Fr Philip as we look forward with him to his ordination next Sunday. The preacher at my first Mass was Fr Christopher Colven, now our neighbouring parish priest at St James’s Spanish Place. He began his sermon, 25 years ago next month, with this quotation:
The priest must be in a good and true sense a happy man. A short time ago … the mother of a priest was dying. She drank a glass of champagne with her son and then said: “Go home now and sleep well, and I shall sleep into eternity. Don’t be too sad about it. If priests look sad, nobody believes what they preach.”
Karl Rahner, Meditations on Priestly Life, p. 162 [fn 107]
The quotation is from Karl Rahner and I suspect it is a personal story. That dying mother’s words to priest son, ‘if priests look sad, nobody believes what they preach’, express a deep truth. The priest is first and foremost a sign to the people of his own generation. And it matters what that sign looks like. It speaks well or badly to people of the Faith, and so of the common priestly characteristics of the whole people of God.
A priest is to be a sign of faith, and that the faith is good news. That is easier some days than others. And yet a priest is a sign of faith, just by the fact of giving his life to this quixotic, even slightly barmy, vocation. In order to be a sign of faith a priest must be present, and visibly a priest. We are called to be recognised as public Christians in a way that not many other people are these days. And, as that mother’s words to her son imply, because of our public vocation we are also called to be integrated and consistent people. ‘If priests look sad then nobody believes what they preach’: we have to refresh ourselves in our priestly ministry and learn to rejoice in it, above all by the celebration of this most Blessed Sacrament and in prayer and contemplation and study, but also, importantly, in joyful conviviality within and beyond the Christian community. Champagne, which you’ll notice appears at that mother’s deathbed too, is an excellent metaphor for this, though Champagne may actually be many different things, depending on context – it may be football, music, films, travel, even work; anything we can share and enjoy and in which our humanity is enriched in relationship with others.
All this is true because we are all called to this joy. To put that another way, ordained ministerial priesthood doesn’t let the rest of you off the hook. St Peter reminds us this morning that we are a priestly people, commissioned by our baptism and confirmation as representatives of Christ. The Diocese of London Capital 2020 Vision commissioning of ambassadors for Christ sometimes elicits a groan. The groaning should be only because that suggests that we aren’t all called to be those ambassadors.
Next Sunday afternoon Fr Philip will spend some time lying prostrate, face down on the floor there, before he is ordained by his Bishop. Each time a priest comes away from the altar he has been back there on the floor and has got up again with the risen Christ. The story of the dying mother and her priest son speaks here as well. The Mass, which Fr Philip will soon be celebrating, contains within it the risen life of Christ, not just the death. S. Stephen, the first deacon, died happy, with a vision of heaven before him, not with a sense of desolation and regret. Some Christians get hung up on the death of Christ to the point where Easter never seems to happen. But Easter happens every time we gather and receive communion and are given the new life which God offers us in this sacrament and that is the source of our joy.
At the heart of the sign-value of the priest is a paradox: the gospel is full of paradoxes. While a priest is a sign of faith and prayer, and a sign of the larger Church community, he remains a human being; all too human, many of us. If we get it right, our weakness signals the sort of weakness out of which God fashions his strength; we are then a sign of the possibilities for all, with God. Ours is not a calling to inhumanity, but to aspire to that transformed humanity to which we are all called: for
you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2.9f.
We can all rejoice in that mercy of God which brings each of us, however mad, bad, or sad, into his loving embrace. As Pope Francis reminds us, the joy of the Gospel is most easily found in contemplating the mercy of God, and exercising it.
A priest is called to be a sign of that joy lived out as the whole of life and recalling his fellow Christians to it; what the world calls foolishness but we believe is yet the power of God and the wisdom of God. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always fun; but it has within it a deep joy, the joy of the new life of Easter.
I have found that joy in this vocation as in no other part of life and I have tried to share it, doubtless often failing in the attempt. I know I’ve failed when, occasionally, someone from a congregation looks me in the eye and says, ‘what are you smiling at?’ It should be obvious.
Conscious of those personal failures I have chosen to share joy with you through the medium of champagne on my silver jubilee Sunday in July; I think the sign-value of champagne may be clearer than anything I can say about the life of celebration to which we are all called.
I do not mean that to be flippant or trivial in saying that. I pray, fervently, that Fr Philip will find that joy and be nourished and renewed in it as he enters on this vocation, which he shares and exercises with us.