Who is fit for the priesthood?

I read the following on Twitter today, posted by @clroters, “No one should be sponsored for training until they’ve been a communicant member of the CofE for at least 5 years”. It got me thinking about what kind of people I, as a lay person, want as clergy to minister to me. I would agree that a good grounding in the Church is important before a person should be ordained. The discernment process, as I am currently experiencing it, seems quite rigorous at ensuring candidates have a sufficient understanding of Anglicanism, have thought about their own beliefs and how their personal beliefs fit into the rich tapestry that is the broad church of Anglicanism. I believe that the discernment process only puts forward candidates for ordination training that are sufficiently mature in their faith to be able to make good ministers.

I have never met the author of the original tweet, but his profile picture suggests that he may be considerably younger than I. This leads me to wonder if there should be a minimum age for candidates for training. Surely a good minister needs sufficient experience of life before they are sponsored for training. Surely a person who has completed a degree at university and then gone straight to ordination training as soon as they are able would not have sufficient experience of life to be able to guide his or her flock? Have they been alongside families when one of their number is dying? Have they sat alongside a train driver who has just been involved in a suicide? Have they been through cancer? The answer of course is probably not. Does this then make them ineligible for sponsorship to ordination training?

Where do we draw the line with deciding who should, and who should not, be allowed to be sponsored for training? Perhaps the celibate should be barred because how can they give advice to couples coming to them for marriage? Perhaps the childless should be barred because they can’t give advice to baptism families? Perhaps those who have not yet suffered a bereavement should be barred because how can they come alongside those who have suffered a loss?

When I look at members of the clergy whom I know, I would suggest that few actually have had all of the experiences that I mention  above. I’m sure though that most will have had different, and difficult, experiences which serves to equip them their ministry. I also know that when I have experienced difficult times in my life there has been someone there whom God has sent to minister to me in my time of need. In the main they haven’t had the experience that they’re helping me to deal with, but they do have that certain something that all ministers need.

So if we determine purely by life experience who should, or should not, be sponsored for ordination training we would soon come to the conclusion that every man and woman on earth should be barred for lack of this quality or for want of that experience. Thus we conclude that there has only ever been one man who could truly be called a priest. The world was so grateful that God had sent us such a man as this, such a man as could solve all the world’s problems, that they crucified him.

Only Jesus, then, is good enough to be our priest, to make that ultimate sacrifice for the sin of man. So how do we select our clergy? We have the discernment process aforementioned. The idea is the candidate is laid bare in this process, is forced to examine every aspect of their life, and the candidate is presented to the much vaunted BAP. I have yet to experience BAP or, indeed, a diocesan panel; but I find the idea of attending quite daunting. Why should I be daunted by it? Because surely its purpose, if it to be meaningful, is to discern the will of God. God’s will is not always what we want or what we expect, but if it is the will of God then thats what must happen. We cannot duck it. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, … thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

Was David equipped to deal with Goliath? On his own ability I would opine he was not. Was Noah equipped to build an ark and cope with the flood? I read no mention of him having ever being apprenticed to a shipwright. Was Moses equipped to lead the Israelites through the wilderness? But God equipped them all to do his will. He gave them what they needed when they most needed it because they were his faithful servants. God treats each of us as individuals. He knows that we all grow at different rates to one another. He know that it will take some of us longer than others to reach a stage of maturity in our relationship with him to be equipped to do whatever it is he has created us to do in the first place. I offer you the case of Revd Katherine Price, Chaplain to Queen’s College Oxford. In her book “I think it’s God calling” she describes herself as a cradle atheist. This author clearly had no background in the C of E nor any other Church. She experimented with the notion of God being real and came to realise that, not only does God exist, but that he wanted her to be a minister in his Church. A bit like St. Paul really, he didn’t’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. I don’t think he had five years in the Anglican communion before he started preaching the word to all and sundry.

So it’s good that we have this discernment process so that those involved in it can prayerfully and sincerely discern God’s will for each candidate on their own merits because nobody is wholly suitable for the role. We each have our gifts that we use, we each have different gifts from our neighbour, and God ensures that we have the right gift, in the right place at the right time.

 

Be still, and know that I am God.                                                                                              Psalm 46:10

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A prayer of gratitude for silence

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Lord, we thank you for the silences that punctuate our lives.
We thank you for the joy that can be found in stillness,
And the rest that it gives us from the bustle and haste of our daily lives.
We ask that you help us in those silences not so much to try to love you,
As to delight simply in allowing you to love us.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Joseph accepts Jesus as his son.

Matthew 1:18 – 25

 

I was sitting in Costa reading through this passage from Matthew on my iPhone trying to work out what it says to me. While I was sitting there a young woman came and sat down opposite me. I looked up and recognised her as someone I had taught to drive several years ago. So I asked how she was and enquired about her driving. She was grinning like a Cheshire cat and told me that being able to drive had made such a huge difference to her life. She told me that I was amazing for having the patience to teach her to drive. I recall that she had been an especially nervous learner with very little self confidence and that I had, at times, doubted my ability to get her through her driving test. But it’s not everyday that I get young women coming up to me in Costa and telling me that I’m amazing. Over the years I’ve been called a lot of things, but I don’t recall being told before that I was amazing.

I thought about how I had actually managed to get her through the driving test. I had actually almost given up on her. But I didn’t quite give up, instead I prayed. I prayed the universal prayer of christians all over the world in time of desperation, “O God, HELP!” I offered myself to God as an empty vessel, and God poured His Holy Spirit into me and gave me everything that I needed to help this young woman to learn to drive. So it wasn’t me that was amazing at all, what this young woman saw was the Holy Spirit at work.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Mary and Joseph in the gospel reading. Well the Holy Spirit is clearly at work here in bringing Jesus to earth in human form. Mary has given herself to God as an empty vessel and He has poured in his Holy Spirit and Mary has conceived a son.

The Holy Spirit, or as it is called in the OT, “the Spirit of God” is the means by which God gets things done in the world. It’s the means by which He created the world, it’s how He brings about redemption, its how He inspired His prophets and directed their ministries and it is how He equips His servants for their appointed tasks. Christian reflection on the Biblical word about the Spirit has led to the understanding that the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

We too can submit ourselves to God as empty vessels to receive His Holy Spirit to equip us so that we can fulfil Christ’s ministry in us. Fulfilling that ministry is not just for the ordained or the licensed ministers of the Church. Fulfilling that ministry is what we all signed up to when we became christians. That ministry might be in music – singing or playing the organ, it might be to serve on the PCC or to welcome God’s guests here to our acts of worship, it might be to do battle with the council’s planning department so that we can have a new graveyard, it might be to organise the wonderful Christmas tree that we’re all enjoying in church as we approach Christmas. Some of you might be thinking, “I’m 83. I can’t climb a ladder to clean the church guttering out”. Well that ministry might simply be to pray, and to be an example of faith, hope and charity to those people that you meet each day. Whatever it is, we need to open ourselves up to allow God to pour his Holy Spirit into us, to allow us to fulfil the ministry to which God has called us.

So what about Joseph? Well the compassion and faith that he demonstrates here is incredible. Marriage, at this time, was a two stage process. First the couple were betrothed. They continued to live with their respective parents but betrothal was a much more serious thing than an engagement is today. During this time the couple were referred to as husband and wife. A betrothal could only be broken by a divorce, not by a text message. The second stage would take place after about a year. This is when they would become married in the way that we understand marriage in our culture.

Initially Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly in order to maintain his personal righteousness. The penalty at this time for a woman committing adultery was death by stoning (we all know  the story, in John’s gospel [8:7], of Jesus telling the accusers of the adulteress, “Let he who is without sin, throw the first stone”), but Joseph was obviously a very kind man and didn’t want her to have to face such an ordeal. Even though he clearly believed that she had been unfaithful to him.

Joseph’s faith in accepting the word of an angel that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit is incredible. How many of us would believe that in his situation? How many of us would believe that we had received a visitation from an angel?

Joseph had to accept Mary as his wife to ensure that the prophecy of the Messiah being a descendant of King David was proved. It was Joseph who was descended from David, not Mary. This is a real test for Joseph. He might now believe, having heard it from the mouth of an angel, that Mary had not been unfaithful after all, and that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. But who else would believe it? By marrying Mary he would be effectively admitting publicly that the baby was his; that he had broken God’s command by sleeping with her before their marriage; that the baby had been conceived in sin. For a righteous man like Joseph this was a lot to ask. Was he prepared to lose his reputation in the community, his reputation in the synagogue, his loyal customers for his business, on the say-so of this angel? To do what God required meant potentially losing a great deal of what he had gained. But Joseph’s faith was strong. He trusted God in the face of incredible difficulties. Joseph gave himself, like Mary, as a wonderful example to all of us, as an empty vessel to receive God’s Holy Spirit.

The healing of the official’s son

Miraculous signs were not a new phenomenon. There are various examples of such signs throughout the Bible. Examples include Gideon and his fleece in Judges 6:36-40, Elijah defeating the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:30-40 and Doubting Thomas in John 20:24-39.

The official is expecting Jesus to have to go to Capernaum in order to heal his son, but Jesus is able to do this from where he is in Cana. We can learn two things from this. Firstly no matter how distant we may be from Jesus, in a spiritual sense, we need only to ask and he will hear us and help us. I am reminded of the parable of the prodigal son in Matthew 15:11-32, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Remember also the words of the post communion prayer, “… when we were still far off you met us in your son and brought us home.”

Secondly we learn about faith and obedience from the example of the official. How many of us, when sending for a doctor, would be happy if the doctor stayed in his office and said the patient will be fine. What immense faith the official must have had. This reminds me of the hymn, to which the chorus is,

Trust and obey,

for there’s no other way,

to be happy in Jesus

but to trust and obey.

Or, in the words of John Wesley, “Draw near to God in the full assurance of faith. Don’t be afraid, only believe, for the God of justice justifies all who believe in Jesus.”

The feeding of the multitude

In John’s Gospel, chapter 6, we read about the feeding of the 5,000. Of course this is 5,000 men. I expect that they had women and children with them as well, so perhaps there might have been as many as 20,000 people. Jesus asks Philip how they are to feed so many people. On mere human terms this seems like an impossible task. But to Jesus, of course, all things are possible. Andrew finds a boy who has three small barley loaves and two fishes. This is a ridiculously small amount of food to feed so many people. But Jesus can do it. He breaks the bread and the fish and after everyone has eaten their fill the apostles collect 12 baskets  of leftover food. How must that little boy have felt when he saw what Jesus had done with his tiny offering? When we are engaged in doing God’s work we may only have a very little to offer. Our meagre contribution to the task may seem to us to be insignificant. But God can take our small input and magnify it until it is enough, and more, to complete the task. If we give our little, then God will give a lot. Sometimes when we are faced with those seemingly insurmountable tasks, if our task is God’s will, then God will put his turbo on our engine and make us big enough to tackle the job.

 

Jesus walks on the water

How would you feel if you were in an open boat, in the dark, with a rough sea, there or four miles from land and you see a figure approaching you apparently walking on the water? I think you’d be afraid too. But Jesus calls out to the disciples that it is he, and they take him into the boat. Such is the narrative in John’s Gospel. I find that Matthew’s account resonates more with me. In Matthew’s account Peter asks Jesus to summon him out onto the water with him. Jesus calls him and Peter obeys faithfully (an example, perhaps, of Bonhöffer’s faith and obedience) and walks out onto the surface of the water. Peter, of course, becomes afraid because of the weather and starts to sink. He calls out for Jesus to save him which, of course, Jesus does. I think that this resonates so strongly with me because in my own personal walk with Jesus i know that once, if i were Peter, I would have reached out for the boat to save me. I would have put my trust in man and his abilities. Nowadays I know better and I would also call out to Jesus to save me. We must accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and put our trust wholly in him

The healing of the invalid by the pool.

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This story is the story, in miniature, of God’s redemption of mankind through the death and resurrection of his son, our lord, Jesus Christ. The invalid has been lying by the pool for thirty-eight years. Surely it is no coincidence that the Israelites spent thirty-eight years in the wilderness before they crossed the River Jordan. Jesus asks the invalid if he wants to get well. Perhaps he has lain there for so long that he no longer has any ambition to get better. His previous life reflects, perhaps, our life of sin. It also reflects the old covenant that God made with Abraham and all those dusty old laws in Leviticus. Jesus tells the man to get up, pick up his mat and walk. And the man does exactly that! Surely this represents the new covenant that God made through Jesus. It also represents us turning from our sin (so far a we mere mortals are able) and following Jesus. The man doesn’t know Jesus or who he is. John 1:10 says that He was in the world but the world did not know Him. A recurring theme throughout John’s Gospel. We are also reminded of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Chapter 6 v 2 to 4 instruct us when we do a kind deed to do it in secret and not to do it to gain praise from other men. Jesus did not flaunt this miracle that he did, though of course the miracle glorifies God. The other healing miracles require the recipient of Jesus’s attention to have faith in Him, but this sign shows that it is not always necessary.

So the Jews tell the man that he shouldn’t be carrying his mat on the Sabbath. This was hardly the kind of burden that Nehemiah was talking about. Surely he has to take his mat home with him for safekeeping or, perhaps, he needs it when he gets home. And, of course the Jews berate Jesus for carrying out this healing on the sabbath day. Surely healing the man is simply pouring out God’s love for the invalid. It is not work like hewing coal, it is an act of love and kindness. God said that we should rest on the sabbath. This is important for our physical recovery from a week of hard work as well as our spiritual recovery brought about by worshipping God in church. Of course God needs to keep the world turning on its axis even on the sabbath and Jesus says that as his Father is working then so is He. By referring to God the Father as “my” father then Jesus is claiming a special relationship with God. Indeed he is making himself equal to God. This, in the eyes of the Jews, is blasphemy and leads them to persecute Him.

The Wedding at Cana

The Wedding at Cana

Tonight’s subject for our Bible study was the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. Like most people I have heard and read this story so many times that it was just in the background not doing much. Preparing for a Bible study group meant that I had to dig a little deeper rather than just take it at face value. So what is all this turning water into wine stuff about?

Running out of wine at a wedding would have been hugely embarrassing and may have had consequences within society. You may have lost the respect of your friends and business associates.You would certainly be talked about in less than glowing terms for quite some time to come.

So Jesus’s mother notices that they have run out of wine and tells her son about it. Jesus didn’t come to earth to give everybody what they want and he doesn’t want to be told what to do by his mother. His time isn’t come yet, that will be later when he’s crucified and comes back to life again. But Jesus gets involved anyway and instructs the servants to fill those big old stone water jugs. They’re not intended for drinking water but for ritual washing. I guess they symbolise the old covenant that God made with Moses and all that dusty old stuff we find in Leviticus. Well Jesus is the new covenant and things are going to be different. The wine, always present at joyful occasions in the old testament, that comes out of the jugs represent, for me anyway, the new covenant. So there were six jars and each held twenty or thirty gallons. Thats a minimum of a hundred and twenty gallons of wine! Such an abundance of the stuff. Just like the abundance of love that God has for his people.

The master of the feast, we are told, had no idea where the wine had come from. So Jesus isn’t shouting about what he’s done, he’s keeping it quiet. Just like those healing miracles where he tells the healed person to go home and not tell anyone what has happened. I suggest this reflects Christ’s individual love for each and every one of us. It’s about that personal relationship we have with Jesus. It’s one on one stuff.

The master of the feast is so impressed with the quality of the wine. He praises the bridegroom for keeping the best until last instead of starting off with some good stuff and replacing it with cheap plonk as the guests become more and more inebriated. So this is telling me that what Jesus provides for us is going to be infinitely better than we could ever envisage even in our wildest dreams.

So what does that have to do with living in 21st century England? Well I would opine that if we form that personal relationship with Jesus he will provide all that we need. As the Psalmist says we can cast our cares upon the Lord and he will sustain us. And whatever Jesus does to sustain us will be infinitely better than we could imagine and his gifts to us will be given in such abundance that we shall want for nothing.