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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Walking on Water: an ordination retreat address

Last year I gave five ordination retreat addresses to the deacon ordinands in the Diocese of Newcastle. This year I was invited to be with them again to give their final retreat address on the day of their ordination as priests. In 2018 I took as my theme five of the "signs" of glory in St John's Gospel. I suggested that ordained ministry could be seen as a sign that bears witness to God's glory and love in the world in such a way as to evoke faith. This year I decided to continue that theme with an address on a sixth sign in St John where Jesus walks on the water. Here is my reflection.

A year ago it was my privilege to explore with you the signs of glory in St John’s Gospel. We looked at the turning of the water into wine at Cana, the healing of the Roman officer’s son, the feeding of the five thousand, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. We asked how these familiar stories shed light on our ministry as ordained men and women, specifically as deacons.

You’ll remember that John bears witness to these signs because they disclose who Jesus is and what he has come to do. They are signs of glory because glory is John’s word for God’s giving of himself in love for the world in the incarnate Word in whom, he says, we see “grace and truth”. These are not events chosen at random out of hundreds of possibilities. John tells us at the end of the gospel what his method has been. “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 21.30-31). Revealing God’s glory and bringing faith to birth – these are John’s aims.

How quickly a year flies by! When I was asked to come back and give an address on this Saturday morning of your ordination as priests, I thought, let’s return to St John’s Gospel and look at another of the seven signs that we didn’t study last year. Let’s ask the same question, how does this story speak to us on our ordination day, this time as we stand on the threshold of starting out on our life’s work as priests in the church of God.

So today let’s turn to the story in John 6.15-21 where Jesus walks on the water. I’ve often thought that ordained ministry is like walking on water. And that faith itself is walking on water. As clergy we are ministers of faith who not only speak about it but model ways of believing. We don’t pretend to cast-iron certainties but to faith in the spirit of the man in the gospels who said “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” This strikes me as hugely important in a world where everything is logic-based or evidence-led. The only evidence for Christianity that interests me is lives that are transformed by it. And to open ourselves and others up to the life-changing power of the risen Christ is to launch ourselves out on the deep, as Jesus says to Simon in St Luke. There is no shallow end in Christianity.

I’ve long treasured a saying of Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian. He says that if we think logic or evidence could lead us to grasp God objectively, then it wouldn’t be belief. “Precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith, I must constantly hold fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.” That’s a lot of water. As ministers this is our natural habitat. I remember an ordinand saying once that he wanted to explore becoming a priest because he wanted a role in life where his feet wouldn’t touch the ground.

On your ordination day last year I asked you about your hopes and aspirations and expectations as you approached this great moment in your lives. “You wouldn’t be human if somewhere within, you didn’t tremble at this threshold” I said, recalling my own ordination more than forty years ago. Now that I look back, it felt a bit like the disciples going down to the sea, getting into a boat and setting off on their voyage. Even if the lake wasn’t rough to begin with, it was now, John points out, “dark”. Ahead of them an adventure beckoned. But there was so much that was unknown to them, so much that they couldn’t know. There is risk involved in launching out on to the deep at night, as they will tell you when you visit Galilee and learn about the storms and squalls that suddenly sweep down from Mount Hermon and churn up the water treacherously.

But I think the key question concerns what is going on inside us. Van Gogh said that the human heart is “very much like the sea; it has its storms, it has its tides, and in its depths it has its pearls too”. This is a metaphor they may not recognise in poor landlocked dioceses. But we here in Newcastle know the North Sea and its fickleness, the calm still days where barely a ripple laps the pristine white beaches of Northumberland, and the storms out of the north east that crash against the basalt rocks and lighthouses and breakwaters so violently that you wonder they are still standing. We know our own selves too. On the night before Thomas Merton was ordained priest in 1949, he confided to his journal The Sign of Jonas. “My life is a great mess and tangle of half-conscious subterfuges to evade grace and duty. I have done all things badly. I have thrown away great opportunities. My infidelity to Christ, instead of making me sick with despair, drives me to throw myself all the more blindly into the arms of His mercy.” He knew about treading water at seventy thousand fathoms.

Which is, not literally but metaphorically what the disciples experienced on Gennesaret that night. “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” They had rowed three or four miles, says John, which can only mean that they were in the middle of the lake, out of sight of the shoreline. At the height of the tempest, they see Jesus coming to them, drawing near to the boat. “And they were terrified” says the text. You’d have thought they would already be frightened for their lives because of the storm. Yet it’s the apparition of Jesus that terrifies: that’s clear from the words Jesus speaks. “It is I; do not be afraid”.

As you know, the sea held many threats for Hebrews. They were not natural seafarers like the Philistines. To them the waters, necessary for life, necessary for flourishing, were to be respected, even feared. They harboured demonic powers that could overwhelm and destroy people. The psalms are full of references to the “dragons of the deep” and prayers for God to keep safe those who cried out from waters that were rising up to their neck. In Mesopotamian myth, creation came about because the god overcame the monster of the primordial ocean and brought forth order and safety, symbolised by the dry land. So to be exposed to wind and storm out on open water was one of the worst ordeals a Jewish disciple could imagine.

And walking over the storm-tossed waves Jesus comes. We mustn’t miss the significance of this. For St John it recalls the first day of creation when everything was tohu wavohu, “a formless void”, a chaotic “welter and waste and darkness over the deep” as Robert Alter translates it in his brilliant commentary on the Hebrew Bible. “And God’s breath was hovering over the waters.” The text is telling us that this Jesus is Lord over the deep, the One to whom sovereignty belongs because it was he who created it in the first place. St John is taking us back to the opening words of the Bible and the opening words of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” “It is I; do not be afraid.” Or as we should translate it, I AM. Don’t miss the importance of that Ego Eimi. When we hear those two words, we know we are in the presence of the one who affirms of himself that he is none other than the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh who, you’ll recall, appeared to Moses and Elijah out of the storm cloud and bid his people to be loyal to his teaching and his covenant.

Why am I telling you all this on your ordination day? What does this sign of Jesus walking on water suggest to us about being priests in God’s church?

There are two connections I want to make. The first is to do with the nature of this sign. Recall that in the gospel, Jesus’ signs reveal God’s glory and evoke faith. Last year we saw that the signs in St John’s Gospel could suggest how ordained ministry is about precisely those same two things: revealing God’s glory and evoking faith. What are deacons and priests for if we don’t publicly represent God’s presence among us and invite other people to discover glory in their midst as they find faith for themselves?

We mustn’t lose sight of the simplicity of what we are about as clergy, I think. We say in the General Thanksgiving, and lead others in saying, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory”. That says everything about glory and faith in relation to all of human life. Every sign of God unveils an aspect of glory, and knocks on our doors of perception to believe in a more profound way. And as ministers of God we are called to play our part of that movement of God’s love and grace towards his creation. A priest is a “walking sacrament” said Austin Farrer in one of his sermons. That means being “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” according to the Prayer Book’s definition of a sacrament. This is what you pledge today for the rest of your lives.

Let’s pursue the story a little further. Let’s ask what effect the presence of Jesus has on those storm-tossed disciples, and his disclosure “I AM: do not be frightened”. The text says that “they wanted to take him into the boat”. Why not say that they simply received him into the boat? I think because in their initial terror at the apparition, their natural instinct is to protect themselves from this alien presence. But now that they know who it is who is coming to them, there is a change of mind and heart: they desire him, they need him to come in among them. Only that way does salvation lie. “Immediately they reached the land toward which they were going.” John doesn’t say that the storm is stilled. What matters is that navigation is restored. Direction is recovered. The voyage is safely accomplished.

Let me put to you the idea that priesthood is about bringing God-given direction and purpose to people’s lives. You’ve already begun to discover this during your deacon’s year. You have listened to enquirers who don’t know where they are as the voices of many beliefs and ideologies clamour for attention, and have helped them find faith in God. You have sat with those in distress and brought them comfort and hope in their troubles. You have guided the faithful in their prayers and pointed to ways in which they might deepen their spiritual lives. You have ministered to parishioners at the key transitions of life – baptisms, marriages, funerals – where they are open to exploring the deep meanings of human existence. You have preached about God’s wise and loving will for the world and for us.

All of this continues when you become priests but in a more focused, intentional way. As priests you are explicitly called to represent and hold together the wholeness of the church’s ministry when the Bishop presents you with the Bible. “Receive this book as a sign (there’s that word again!) of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.” Bearing witness to glory and evoking faith – that’s what a sign is for. And that means, in the words of the collect, bringing order to the unruly wills and affections of us mortals. The ordinal is clear about this. “Priests” the Bishop will say “are called to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and admonish, to feed and provide for his family in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” That’s the image of the desert rather than the sea. But the message is the same. When Jesus gets into the boat with us, our moral and spiritual compass is restored. We are safe because the voyage finds its direction again. We make landfall. There is order and stability once more.

The second connection I want to make between Jesus walking on the water and our ministry as priests arises out of the setting of this story in St John. It’s intriguing that this sign of glory is embedded in a story about another sign. Today’s narrative separates the account of Jesus feeding the crowd from his teaching about it. You need to read the whole of this chapter to get the connection. After Jesus has multiplied the loaves and the fragments have been gathered up, the crowd clamours to make him king, this “prophet who is to come into the world”. So Jesus withdraws from them, and disciples get into the boat to cross the lake to Capernaum. After their encounter in the storm, John takes us back to the crowd that has gone looking for Jesus. This is where he speaks about himself as “the living bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. This is John’s equivalent of an institution narrative where Jesus talks about “eating my flesh and drinking my blood”, sacramental language that took us directly to the eucharist and our celebration of it as the heart of the church’s life.

I’m saying that strange as it may seem, the sign of Jesus in the storm belongs with the sign of the bread of life. The Lord who feeds the crowd is the One who saves his followers from disaster by walking on water and getting into their boat with them. Which is to suggest that what I’ve called bringing safety is profoundly linked to the sacrament of the eucharist. On one day the disciples hear Jesus say in the tempest, “I AM: do not be afraid.” The next day they hear him promise: “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that we may eat of it and not die…Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever.” Salvation and sacrament seamlessly bound together in this story of two signs.

For all of you, to preside at the eucharist for the first time will be a day you will always remember. I’m sure you have prepared yourself for many weeks and months, offered it to God and asked to be worthy of this great and wonderful act you will be performing in the name of the crucified and risen Lord Christ whose table it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every eucharist recaptured the hungers and hopes we bring to our first! I’m sure that when you stand at the altar for the first time as a priest, you will echo Thomas Merton. “The greatest gift that come to anyone is to share in the infinite act by which God’s love is poured out on all humanity.” He describes how, in the joy of his ordination and first mass, “a new world has somehow been brought into being…full of sublimity and of things that none of us will understand for a year or two to come”. Or even after a lifetime, I think. He is speaking of every privileged occasion when we feel ourselves caught up in God’s mission to bring reconciliation and healing to the human family. And he says it of himself as a new priest who is deeply aware of his role in the eucharist, the focus of all that the church proclaims good news about the God who so loves the world, and who wants to bring about its redemption.

And that’s the link between these two signs which both bear witness to glory and evoke faith. As a priest at the eucharist, your vocation is to take, bless, break and give the living bread that is God’s pledge of eternal life, so that the world may be saved through Christ for ever. The story we tell and act out in the eucharist is the template of the redeemed life. In our disorientation and darkness, it resets our compass, gives us back our sense of direction, re-orientates us so that we travel safely and arrive where we should be. Precisely as Jesus does when he walks on the water and gets into the boat. As priests, you take your place in both these stories. You inhabit these signs in your own selves as ministers of grace and truth. As walking sacraments, you are ministers of God’s love who speak about it and live it out as the purpose and ground of all our being. In the name of your Lord, and as signs of his presence, you too have come so that people may have life, and have it in all its fulness.

“Who is sufficient for these things?” asks St Paul in his Corinthian letters. Not me, not you, not any of the men and women who will be ordained priest today and tomorrow. Knowing our frailty and fear, our ambivalence and uncertainty, the inner storms and tides Van Gogh wrote about, but knowing too the pearls and every other gift we have to bring, there is only one thing we can do. To pray Veni Creator, “Come Holy Ghost” so that we may be cleansed and inspired and equipped as only God’s Spirit can. And kneel humbly and open our hands to receive the living bread that God wants to give us. For we know that Jesus is in the boat with us, whatever storms we face on the journeys that lie ahead, however many fathoms deep are the waters we are launched on.

Which is why we are deeply, deeply thankful for all that has brought us to this point in our lives today. God be with you.

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