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

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Ordination of Deacons

‘One of his disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”.’ I’ve been privileged to spend the last few days on retreat with these good men and women who are to be ordained today. We have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer, and how it speaks to us about public ministry in the church.

The Lord’s Prayer is the best known and best loved of all prayers. In two of the gospels Jesus gives it to us as the model prayer. Yesterday I spoke about St Matthew; today it’s the turn of St Luke. Jesus has been at prayer. When he has finished, a follower asks for instruction. Disciples are literally ‘learners’ who want to be taught. In early centuries, this was how they learned; they attached themselves to a wise master who could teach them. Sometimes they formed little communities of prayer in deserts and remote places, which is how monasteries began. Both John the Baptist and Jesus stood in a tradition of spiritual leaders who would teach followers how to practise their faith.

This work of helping people to live the spiritual life continues today in many different forms. Among the most visible is through the calling of Christian ministers. It is one way in which the church responds to what was asked of Jesus, ‘teach us to pray’, for this question is asked by people of all times and all places. Anyone with an ounce of faith wants to learn how to pray because it’s the fundamental act of faith, basic to our relationship with God. When Jesus prays to the God he calls his Father, he shows us what faith is meant to be: not intellectual theory or wishful thinking or ‘morality tinged with emotion’. It is to enter into God’s tenderness towards us, and love him in return. It is something known and felt.

Let’s listen to the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer again. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ We don’t always recognise how radically new that way of addressing God would have sounded. It isn’t to ‘the Lord’ that Jesus teaches us to pray, or to ‘God Most High’ or ‘the Eternal One’. It is simply Father, or as Jesus would have spoken it in Aramaic, Abba. This is how a child would address ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’. Prayer is as personal and intimate as that. And this is what prayer embodies. It takes us back to the God of our forebears, the Lord who once spoke to us out of a burning bush and summoned us, as he did Moses in our first reading, to know him by his name, to hallow him in life, to serve and obey him. But let’s notice the difference. ‘Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God’. But Jesus teaches us not to be afraid but to pray out of trustfulness and a profoundly intimate love: ‘Our Father’.

When you are ordained as a deacon, you become a public minister of the gospel, a man or a woman called by the church to represent it to the world. Yes, every Christian is called to public witness and faith sharing: in baptism we are told never to be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But when you become a member of the clergy, you cross a threshold from being simply yourself, an individual believing, praying Christian into becoming a public example of one. In public ministry it’s vital not to get so absorbed in our work and activity, the good and proper demands of ordained life, that we lose touch with our relationship with God and neglect to say ‘Our Father’. If we are not practitioners ourselves, we shall never help anyone else to learn. That’s why the first words of our gospel are so important. ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place.’ What he teaches others, he has just been doing himself. He has once again given himself to prayer, perhaps it’s not too much to say lost himself in prayer, for we know that his relationship with God was everything.

What we teach others we must have been doing ourselves. Not because in our roles as deacons, priests and bishops, people scrutinise us daily to discover whether we live and minister and pray out of those virtues of trust and love. It is because of the integrity of our calling itself. Believe me, how we set about our prayers, how we practise the presence of God as a lived spiritual experience, this is right at the heart of public ministry. And how we are with other people is inextricably linked to how we are with God. The Lord’s Prayer makes this explicit when it says: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. To be intimate with God leads directly into our becoming intimate with the human family by serving it as Jesus came to serve and to give his life for us all. ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This is the distinctive role of the deacon, called to a lifetime of self-giving love of the life in ordained ministry.

I was ordained exactly forty years ago last Monday. I hadn’t been a deacon very long when I found that people were looking to me to provide insider knowledge in answer to a range of hard questions. Why do human beings suffer? Why are there tsunamis and avalanches and earthquakes? Why do virtue and goodness go unrewarded while cruelty flourishes? Why do people go on killing and maiming one another? These questions are always with us. On Friday we kept silence in memory of the victims in Tunisia and Kuwait and France; on Tuesday we shall keep the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. It began to teach me how perplexing religion is to many people. But just as important, it helped me see that Christian ministry must always be close to the pain of the world, feel for the sufferings of human beings and respond in any way we can.

In public ministry, you will be expected to have something to say about all this. Even if you can’t solve the riddles of the universe that have baffled the wise since the dawn of time – and no-one will seriously think that you can – people have a right to expect you to help them in what is basic to faith. What is a church leader, a deacon, a priest, a bishop, for if it is not to do what Jesus did and teach people how to practise faith in a living way? ‘Teach us to pray.’ The first task of public ministry is to nurture good, wholesome religion, put it back at the heart of life, allow it to bless our communities, help people seek truth, glimpse the love, the joy and the peace that God wants for the human family. Above all, it reawakens hope. When we teach people to pray, we help them to live in the light of tomorrow when the kingdom of God comes. That gives a wholly new perspective, makes it possible for life to begin again.

It’s obvious on an ordination day that religion is the central business of the clergy. To nurture men, women and children in the faith of Christ is what the ordination service insists lies at the heart of a deacon’s calling, and to clothe the words of faith with the actions of dedicated service of others. That sacred trust that is given to you today is not simply to represent the church before the world. It’s to represent nothing less than God himself, and the Son of God crucified and risen.

That is your duty and your joy day in, day out. As clergy, you do not need to be awkward or reticent about what you are about as the church’s minister in places where people are inarticulate about religion, or baffled by it, or plain sceptical. Whatever their beliefs, people expect you to be a man or woman of faith; many, and this may surprise you, will positively want to hear what you have to say about it. Some will even ask you to teach them to pray. Encourage it, especially among your own church. If no-one ever wants a conversation with you about faith, prayer and the spiritual life, ask yourself if you may be sending out the unconscious message that you don’t really welcome it when people get too interested in religion.  If faith is at the heart of your ministry, and your habit of prayer is deep-seated, you can expect that people will want to hear more about it by drawing on your experience and your insights into the spiritual life.

All this is part of what it means to ‘bear witness’ in our public roles. So on the day of your ordination, may I urge you to keep the Lord’s Prayer close to your heart? Its longing for the kingdom to come and God’s will to be done articulates our universal human hunger for a future worth living for. It gives us words to live and to die by. It will keep your expectation alive and give you the confidence to kindle it in those you serve. It will give you a treasure of inestimable value to share with those to whom God sends you and whom you are called to build up in faith.

There is no higher privilege we can have than to be given the task by the church of imitating our Master and helping others to seek God and find him, and know him. Forty years on, I can say that there is nothing else I would rather have done with my life. I trust it will be the same for all of you today, and in the years that lie ahead.

Durham Cathedral, 5 July 2015
Exodus 3.1-6, Luke 11.1-13

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