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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: St Paul on vocation

This is a strange month for me. On this summer solstice it is just 100 days until I retire and we say farewell. The nights gradually drawing in will have a poignant significance this year. June also marks the twentieth anniversary of my becoming a cathedral dean, and the fortieth of my ordination. When I lead the retreat for this year’s new deacons and priests and preach at their ordinations, I shall recall how I started out in public ministry all those years ago and think with amazement how swiftly this chapter of life is coming to an end.

St Paul too is looking back in that colourful passage we read as the epistle today. His matchless rhetoric brings four incomparable chapters in his second Corinthian letter to a marvellous climax. He has been speaking about the ministry of reconciliation that it has been his privilege to serve, proclaiming ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. He has offered some glimpse of how fragile it all is, the risky way God is taking in making him known, entrusting to frail human beings this ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. He has explained how ‘knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others’,  which is what Christian mission means, how in all things we are ‘ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us’.
This vocation to be an apostle has brought him difficulty, frustration and pain. Paul catalogues his ordeals in today’s passage: afflictions, hardships, calamities... the list seems endless. Yet through it all, he has not lost his focus, his clear-eyed grasp of how ministry is God’s work, not our own. He lists the virtues he has coveted: ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God’. In all these things, he has told us earlier, he does not lose heart. It is a ‘momentary light affliction’ compared to the glory that is being revealed. If only all of us could look back on our decades of service in the church and say that!

But there is something Paul says that I want, indeed need to say too as I look back like him and ponder these forty years of public ministry. I hope you will not misunderstand the spirit in which I say this. ‘As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way so that no fault may be found with our ministry.’ How do I have the temerity to identify with that claim? Paul is not, I think, claiming perfection in everything he has done and how he has done it. As I read this, my favourite of all Paul’s letters, I see a man courageously laying bare his own flaws as a human being, knowing how even the best that he can attain to is always compromised, always needs to be redeemed from the corrosive taints of self-interest, envy and the sin of pride.

And that applies not only to achievement and performance in ministry, but also – and especially – to our motives. To serve God well is to be keenly aware of our brokenness, the shame of not living up to the very ideals that inspired us to offer for ministry in the first place, the peril of hypocrisy or ‘play acting’ that can haunt even our best moments. Archbishop Michael Ramsey has a beautiful prayer about this: ‘Jesus, Lord and Master, who served your disciples in washing their feet; serve us often, serve us daily, in washing our motives, our ambitions, our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake’. I doubt there is a priest in the church who does not pray that prayer often, if not in those words, then in their own. Motives are everything. They make all the difference to who and what we are, and whether or not we are trusted safely to undertake this project of ministry and hold the sacred charge laid on us in ordination.

Paul had taken the advice of the oracle at Delphi. Perhaps he had even visited it and seen for himself the famous words written there: gnothi sauton, ‘know yourself’. He knew where he was strong and where he was weak. He knew the tendencies in his own personality, his passion, his alacrity of spirit, his irascibility. He knew about the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, that so disabled him. He knew how storms rush down unbidden upon our calm and placid seas and need to be stilled, as in our Gospel reading. And yet he still made this appeal to his readers to honour his integrity as an apostle. I think he means that in his heart of hearts, he has always wanted the best for the people, the churches and the God he is serving. I hear myself say ‘always’ and wonder if I am right. Did he want the best for poor John Mark over whom he had a fierce falling out with Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles so that they could no longer work together? I happen to think that Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong in that dispute. Nevertheless, the matter that split them was precisely how the church and the mission should best be served; and if for a moment, Paul wavered, it is still true that he always longed that the church should flourish and that nothing must get in the way of God’s work of reconciliation.

Each of us in ministry can only speak for ourselves here. But here is my perspective on it. Despite my failures in ministry: the errors of judgment, the fallings-out, the mistakes, the compromises, the easy speeches, the lazy short-cuts, I hope we can always say that we longed, in Paul’s words, ‘to commend ourselves in every way’. I hope we can always say that despite everything, our motives have been honourable, and as pure in heart as we can make them, and that in this respect at least, ‘no fault may be found with our ministry’. It means having had God’s interests and the church’s interests at heart, not exploiting people, not acting out of self-interest. 

I was talking to someone last week who is researching what is called ‘dark personality’. This means Machiavellian tendencies, narcissism and psychopathy. It seems that people with such traits are often attracted to leadership. It made me think hard! Serious dysfunctions like these cause a lot of damage to people and institutions, as some of us know. But even when through cowardice, or dejection, or ill health, or lack of sleep, or sheer exhaustion we did not live up to our ordination vows, when some relief from this burden of ministry would have been welcome, I want to believe that we can say (in another echo of Michael Ramsey) that if we have not always wanted the best, we have at least wanted to want it. In that lie the seeds of forgiveness, redemption and the gift to begin again. During the past forty years of ministry, twenty as a dean, twelve as the Dean of Durham, how many times have I had to throw myself once more on the mercy and compassion of God, and his patient, kind, understanding and forgiving people!

As I near the end of this stage of the journey, I come back to Paul’s words and am strengthened by them. ‘As sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ – this is how he sums up his apostolic career. This is what I pray will always inspire my colleagues here in this Cathedral and Diocese. This is what I want this year’s ordinands to know as they stand at the threshold of public ministry. Is there any other vocation more privileged than this – our apostolate as Christ’s ambassadors, bringing the gospel’s entreaty to all whom we serve, ‘be reconciled to God’?

This is not yet a farewell sermon. But retirement offers the chance to do some summing up, try to trace patterns and meanings in our life’s work. Ministry, like human life, is a work of art. We collaborate with God in designing and shaping it, co-creating something beautiful we can celebrate when it is done. Like Jesus on the cross in St John, we can never say tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished’ until our dying breath. But we can perhaps begin to see it for what it is.

On the score of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar wrote: ‘this is the best of me’. I might wish in some grandiose way that my ministry had been a masterpiece. However, most of ministry is unspectacular, ordinary, workaday. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, nor should it. Yet as we see in this eucharist, God takes what is commonplace and makes something extraordinary out of it when it is offered with love. So, not a masterpiece. But before God and his church, I have still wanted it to be ‘the best of me’. It was all I had to give.

Durham Cathedral, 21 June 2015
2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-end

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