Thursday, 29 March 2018

Chrism Mass 2018   St Paul's Cathedral

Luke 22 : 24 – 30

Of the gospel writers, it’s only Luke who locates the dispute among the disciples next to the Last Supper narrative. It’s a sadness that the institution of the fellowship meal is followed immediately by dissension and strife – though it’s perhaps unsurprising. We have an infinite capacity, as the Christian Church, to make that which should be unitive a place of disunity and disagreement. For the disciples, it progresses from “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” to “My betrayer is at hand” and then almost immediately into both the questioning and confusion of trying to identify the betrayer and then the wrangle about which was to be regarded as the greatest.

What makes this passage a sobering subject for reflection in the context of a service of Renewal of Ordination Vows is the fact that it raises pointed questions for us about our ministry.  I recognise here that I’m preaching to deacons, priests and bishops, but also to licensed laity and the baptised people of God, and so some of the questions, although we apply them to the ordained, are pertinent to us all as we exercise the ministry God has given us.

There’s a Peanuts cartoon (showing my age now!) where Linus, Lucy and Charlie Brown are lying on their backs staring up at the clouds. And the conversation goes like this…

(Cartoon) - outcome = you need real imagination!

So, supposing we were to address this passage with a bit of imagination?

What would happen if …

·        We took seriously our call not to be the greatest?

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them… those in authority are called benefactors.” Benefactors here has a somewhat more sinister meaning than that which we afford it in these days of charity. These were authoritarian figures, arbitrary hierarchs, beyond challenge and contradiction. And, talking of bishops…

I spent an uncomfortable two weeks, reading daily the full transcripts of the IICSA inquiry. It was a salutary experience reading how the past leadership of the Diocese of Chichester so badly failed victims and survivors by their inaction, systemic dysfunctionality and refusal to act against wave after wave of abuse inflicted on children and young people. And also realising that, although Chichester was under the spotlight, there is evidence from the Past Cases Review that the whole Church of England has failed in its duty to those who were abused and has ignored their voices and their concerns. And that at least part of the blame for that lies at the door of the hierarchs – the bishops and archdeacons who didn’t do their job and who side-lined those with responsibility for safeguarding.

There is of course no virtue in hand-wringing, though we do need to repent. Unless we make a real change to our culture, our structures, and our openness to hear and respond to criticism, we shall deservedly be tagged with the badge of the Church that failed to listen, failed to act, and failed the survivors who want to see justice and change. Of course we are now giving these matters proper attention – but when IICSA reports, do not be surprised if they make far-reaching recommendations about our life as an institution. And we cannot wait for IICSA – victims want to see change now. We need to act coherently and purposefully.

Might one of the changes be that we embrace a new model of episcopacy and priesthood as non-hierarchs? “That is not how it is with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest…”  In this service, the Bishops are asked by a young person to reaffirm their vows. In the Passover, it is the youngest child who asks “What makes this night different from all other nights?” The youngest was not always significant in Jewish culture. But it is the “youngest” that Jesus bids us become. I would love to see us explore and live how that might become real in episcopal ministry and in our life as a Church. Bishops who live as though they were above contradiction probably ought to become history. No more hierarchs. No more Benefactors. “It shall not be so with you,” says Jesus.

What would happen if …

·        We took seriously our call to be servants?

To an extent, this is built into our liturgical acts today. All of the ordained are reminded that we are deacons – and never stop being so. (We’ll leave aside the oft-recurring question of whether LLMs should all be deacons too – that’s a question for another day!) But the Jesus who tells us that “I am among you as one who serves” is present among us. The presence of deacons with the oils, the questions about our vows which involve foot-washing, service and partnership, St Paul’s words that we proclaim not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake – the servant motif is unavoidable.

What does it mean in practical terms? At one level, it is interconnected with what precedes it. Not the greatest, not the hierarch. But it’s the obverse. To be  a servant is to develop a positive mind-set and a practical holiness of the kind that waits at table. How might you and I change our style of ministry to become more authentically the servants of God?

What would happen if …

·        We took seriously our call to put the Kingdom first?

Then there’s a change of style. Jesus reminds the disciples that they have continued with him in his trials and have been assigned to be part of the kingdom. At first sight, this looks like a return to privilege and rule – until you contextualise the Kingdom of God In Luke and recognise its priority in Jesus’ ministry. If the first part of the passage is about laying down hierarchy, and the second is about embracing servanthood, then the third part liberates us to celebrate the life of the kingdom – the rule and reign of God which is the ultimate goal of God’s new creation. And that draws together our proclamation of the gospel, our fulfilment of the great commandment to neighbour love, our life as the community of the Church, the sign of the Kingdom, and our life of prayer.

A quick detour here to remind you that Thy Kingdom Come will take place again between Ascension Day and Pentecost – and that copies of the Novena of Prayer for Thy Kingdom Come are packaged up and ready to be collected as you pick up your oils after the Chrism Mass.

A Church that lives and proclaims the Kingdom is one that will transcend our factions and pettiness – and we will be drawn into the adventurous boundless and overflowing life of God the Trinity.

No more hierarchs. Always servants. Focussed on the Kingdom. Amen.