Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10:35-45
When your husband of thirty years, who was a paediatrician, starts wearing a dog collar, it rather makes you think. Peter was ordained deacon in this wonderful Cathedral last July, and since then I’ve lived alongside him as he gets stuck into his curacy in Workington Mission Community. After a long and successful professional career, he’s now growing in different directions, as he attends to what pertains to God in new ways. It’s not just what he does – the baptisms, funerals, meetings – it’s who he is. I’ve been struck by his ability to listen to what’s not said, to bear the unspeakable. He does his first home communion visit with Mrs Jones, with the chalice and patten laid out, wafer and drop of wine, and listens to her loneliness, making a mental list of what to mention in the prayers. He says the prayers with care and attention to her capacity to join in. He described how she is the most important person at that moment, regardless of what’s on his mind – the sermon that needs to be written; the PCC meeting that’s coming up; the appointment with the local police to discuss homelessness.
It’s the very stuff of ministry this, and it changes us.
Richard Hooker, the 16C Anglican theologian, wrote that godliness is the highest Christian virtue. Perhaps priests and deacons have a particular public responsibility, because of the vows they have made, and the ordination they have received, to attend to the things that pertain to God and grow in godliness. We’ve been wondering, together, Peter and I, about godliness.
Public ministry goes way back. Both our readings this morning speak to those who respond to a calling to serve Jesus Christ in the world. The letter to the Hebrews refers to even older traditions as we hear that Christ was appointed by the one who said to him “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; but also that he is “a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Ancient traditions that take us back into the depths of the book of Genesis where Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out and blessed bread and wine, and was called the priest of the most high God as he blessed Abram. The order of Melchizedek speaks God’s blessing through the ages of time. Since that far distant moment there have been men – and now women – who have discerned that God has wanted something of them, setting them apart from the normal course of things to serve Jesus Christ by declaring God’s blessing. To follow a life that changes you, based on lifelong vows that make a difference, much as getting married alters you for ever.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the priest as someone who is put in charge of things pertaining to God. If godliness means anything it doesn’t mean being raised up above others – for the very next sentence talks of the priest who deals gently with others, as subject to weakness, and as sinful as the next person. No ministry in Christ’s name is about personal glory, or presumed honour. It’s not about being holier than thou, or free from sin. It’s to offer prayers to God – as Jesus did – with loud cries and tears, and seek God’s blessing in any given situation. It’s at the very heart of suffering that the priesthood of Jesus is to be found – alongside the lonely, the depressed, the anxious; those in distress.
The gospel reading also challenges the thought that ministry is about glory. Yes, say James and John – we can do that. We can drink of the cup. Maybe, says Jesus. But it’s not for me to grant that you can sit in the glory. Poor James and John – they miss the point altogether, don’t they? In a way we so often do as well. They want to sit on his right and left. They think that’s where it’s at.
A great deal of the world today is motivated by the same desire – to succeed, and be seen to succeed. To make a name for ourselves. To follow Jesus is to do something profoundly different with your life. It’s to embrace the reality of failure, and weakness – as Jesus did when he went to the cross. To be prepared to live in the shadowlands of life, where it’s hard to find the words, where sometimes only loud cries and tears will come, and find God’s blessing there. Perhaps it’s here that we begin to grow in godliness.
Even more difficult today: to be a priest or a deacon in the Church, because the Church itself has an aura of failure about it, in the eyes of the world. Numbers have fallen drastically in the decades since I was a deacon. We look around us and know the reality of decline. It’s hard to be confident, on the front foot, today, with a dog collar on. No longer is it the badge of respectability or a ring of confidence; now, more likely, there will be the unspoken suspicion of abuse. To be a priest, for ever, after the order of Melchizedek, in the footsteps of Jesus, is to know that success isn’t the first, or most meaningful, marker of Christian public ministry.
That phrase ‘pertaining to God’, from the letter to the Hebrews, is suggestive. What pertains to God? Not worldly success and making a name. Perhaps in today’s bright, brittle world, it’s what leaves us struggling with the darkness of life, the depths of a sense of failure, in the misery of illness, or grief. It’s our ability to wait with others, with sighs, tears and cries too deep for words. Perhaps then we attend to what pertains to God, finding and speaking God’s blessing in the world.
To seek to grow in godliness will take us in directions that surprise us, often into situations that leave us speechless. It might be that we are overwhelmed by the beauty and glory of something that pertains to God – the most wonderful worship, or a sunset over the western horizons that blows our mind. It might be that we are speechless because there’s nothing meaningful to say that doesn’t sound trite or cliched in the face of someone’s suffering. It might be that we’re speechless, because we don’t understand something mysterious, beyond our ken, that is of God. The Christian tradition has talked of this as the apophatic – the deep mystery of God that passes human understanding. Some call it the cloud of unknowing, others the dark night of the soul. To attend to that which pertains to God can take us into this realm, where the abundance of information doesn’t help; where to grow in godliness is to be still and quiet, a presence in the shadows.
If you think for a moment of someone you know who is godly, what comes to mind? I suggest it will be along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel: someone who is great because they are the servant of all – more concerned with the needs of others, than their own glory. Someone who has the courage to go against the trends of society, who doesn’t seek success in the eyes of the world. They will have thought long and hard about how they can attend to what pertains to God, and it will have changed them. So they are able to rest with what is incomprehensible. They can embrace that which cannot be spoken. They bless with their presence.
It might be that this is what the Church can best offer into today’s society – something deeply countercultural. A godliness that isn’t concerned about growth or mission, or success or bright lights, or information overload, on any one of a number of social media sites. Rather the still, careful attention to that which pertains to God, where blessing is found where darkness and light are both alike.
Godliness. It’s hard to speak of; to capture in words. It escapes definition, just as God cannot be comprehended. It’s a lifelong intention, to grow in godliness, and it only happens as we understand ourselves to participate in the godliness of God in Jesus Christ. We become godly as we grow in the likeness of Christ, which is to realise ourselves in the sacrificial servanthood he lived and died. It is to empty ourselves, and seek to be filled with Christ and to participate in God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who moved over the face of the deep.
From that sense of God’s presence, our ministry begins and ends in blessing.
The brazen confidence of the sons of Zebedee stirs the anger of the other ten. Jesus talks to them all and reminds them of the truth, that their lives find their fulfilment in servanthood, as the slaves of all.
He absorbed, with gentleness, the desires and emotions of those around him, and transformed them by his godliness. He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, then and now. Today, those, like my husband Peter, who take up the responsibilities of ministry, show forth the blessing of God in the darkness of the world, in the name of Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no higher calling, realised in the depths of the human condition. Please pray for those who seek to grow in godliness, and please pray for yourselves, as you respond to God, and seek to be God’s blessing in the world.