Feast of Saints Peter & Paul 2016
What was your reaction to the news on Friday morning? Mine was immediately to pack my bags, and I will be leaving the UK on Tuesday evening. Please don’t all clap at once! Whether you were pleased or dismayed with the outcome of the Referendum, uppermost in my mind is the grieving family of Jo Cox, only one of the tragic consequences of this unnecessary Referendum. Listen to what the Bishop of London said to the Diocese on Friday morning.
“The referendum result has not changed the facts of geography. There will clearly be a period of turbulence and I am very conscious of the fact that the large majority of those under the age of 25 voted to Remain. We shall have to work hard for national unity under these circumstances. Meanwhile, we in the Church will continue to cultivate our already-close relationships with Christians throughout Europe, and indeed throughout the whole world."
The Referendum has opened up huge divisions for us – divisions between and within families, divisions between communities, divisions between London and the rest of the nation, divisions between nations, and divisions within the whole world. Listen to just two of them which I witnessed on Friday. One was a younger person (under 25) saying to a middle aged person, “You have stolen my future.” The second was a woman in her 90’s who came to Notting Hill from the Caribbean in the early 1960’s as part pf the Empire Windrush generation. She said “I have not heard the language about immigrants which we have heard over the past weeks since the race riots of Notting Hill in the 1960’s. I feel we have been put back 50 years as a society.” So in these circumstances, we in the Churches cannot sit by as passive victims. As the Bishop said, we have work to do in helping to heal the divisions, so let’s Take Back Control and start that work now. Just spend a moment or two talking to your neighbour, and suggest just one way you personally can reach out to someone you know voted in the opposite way to the way you did.
In societies which work and are holistic, any way forward for the Common Good will involve both sacrifice and joy, which in some senses are the opposite sides of the same coin. Today we are given a good focus for that twin approach on the day on which we commemorate two of the pillars of the Church in Saints Peter & Paul. This time is known as Petertide and is the traditional time in our Church when deacons and priests are ordained. I was ordained deacon and priest on this day somewhere in the mists of time. Ordination involve of course both sacrifice and joy, so it’s those two things I want to speak about.
First, sacrifice. Making a commitment for life, be it through marriage or ordination inevitably involves sacrifice. When we are organically bound to other people, or to another person, we will not always get what we want. This is healthy as any parent knows in rearing children – a child continually given what it wants when it wants it will not grow up into a rounded individual. It is the same with us as adults, and certainly true in the ordained ministry. One of the things you are told in the ceremony of ordination is “You cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength, so pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We wear red vestments today to honour the ultimate sacrifice of life as we commemorate the death by martyrdom of both Peter & Paul. On the one hand, pray God that we are not called to that ultimate sacrifice, but on the other remember the words of T S Eliot who wrote, “A Christian martyrdom is never an accident.” This is not something for the mists of history, but is real and alive today – I think of our brothers and sisters in the faith in Iraq and Syria, or Pope Francis in Armenia this weekend commemorating the million and a half martyrs of the Armenian genocide 100 years ago. This helps to give me perspective in the ordained ministry on bad days when the priest is using as the punch bag for people’s unresolved fears, angers, and frustrations, or when people in our own society simply treat the Church as a commodity to be accessed whenever it is personally useful to them, and the prophetic ministry of the priest seems to be subsumed into being Chaplain to family life of a congregation. Regular health checks through spiritual review are vital for the priest in these circumstances. Personally, I have found working with the Windsor Leadership Trust very helpful in restoring balance and vision. In that context, I was asked recently, in front of quite a large group and with no notice, to pick out the two most significant moments of my ordained ministry. The two which came to my head were sacrifice and joy. The first one was lying in my bed in a sealed cellar on the day the air war began in Baghdad, gas mask by my bedside, together with the syringe to inject myself with anti-nerve agents, if they were necessary. I put on loud music, “The Final Countdown” by Europa to drown out the wailing of the air raid sirens. Never have I felt more alive, or more called to be doing what I am to do as a priest than then. In the sacrifice came the joy.
And now Joy. I have a vivid recollection, in my School Chapel, of one of the most miserable looking priests I have ever seen talking to us about “The Duty of Joy.” I didn’t get it. It is of course intimately linked to sacrifice – in that when we lose ourselves for another, we are taken out of ourselves, and above and beyond, to the place of joy. And joy, of course, is completely different from happiness. Joy comes partially from being set free from the tyranny of the self. Now to the second personal insight which I was asked to give. I think the second moment for me as a priest to feel so alive I was tingling was the day I resigned from a job which I had done for just one year and in which I was deeply unhappy. The sense of stepping out of depression into joy, and at the same time of sliding off the greasy pole, as I gave in that resignation letter was something quite palpable. This was simultaneously joy and sacrifice, as I had no idea what I was going to do next. But we are actually never alone in what we do. For Christians, of course, this joy comes from being organically bound into the Body of Christ especially through our sacramental participation in its deepest joys, Baptism and Eucharist. So it is a double joy today to be baptizing Jasper and Rory into the Household of Faith, giving them the wider support they will need as they grow. Filipino baptisms are especially joyful, in this context, as the child will often have 30 – 40 godparents. When I asked about the reason for this, I was told “Don’t you know it takes a village to raise a child.”? So congratulations to the family and supporters of Rory and Jasper – what a fantastic day for twin brothers to be baptized, on the feast of Saint Peter & Paul.
In conclusion, as we celebrate Peter & Paul, please continue to pray for the ordained ministry – especially the 32 deacons and 45 priests who will be ordained this year in our Diocese at this season. And as you remember them recall that all ministry is rooted in Christian baptism, which is both joy and sacrifice. Remember the 5 people from this Parish who are presently considering a vocation to ordained ministry and will be at an important event tomorrow. If you know people who may be considering this call, give them a prod. And as we remember Peter & Paul, we recall Peter’s confession of faith after he had betrayed his Lord three times, and then three times redeemed himself with his confession of faith that Jesus is Lord. In good modern democratic societies such as ours, societies that are exclusively inclusive and intolerantly tolerant, the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is rather unfashionable - if not entirely jarring and subversive. So in a climate such as ours it may well be tempting for the church to bend the word of truth to suit our own expectations. Our word of truth right now is that division can and will be healed – using the iconic image of Paul embracing Peter shortly before their deaths as martyrs. Here joy and sacrifice meet, as we Take Back Control for the Common Good. Thanks be to God.