Updated: Mar 8, 2020
What a joy and privilege it has been to talk with Paul over the last three days about his forthcoming ordination, and vocation as priest. I did wonder initially why Bishop Murray asked me to lead Paul’s Retreat given that most of my experience has been as a Royal Australian Navy Chaplain. I thought, well I could tell Paul about how to conduct Holy Communion on the focsal using a bollard as your altar, or in the ship’s sickbay using the operating table as the altar. But I soon realised that my experience as a Chaplain in the Navy has given Paul and myself a point of common connection - Paul, you will of course know, has been Chaplain at St Columba Anglican School since 2017.
And what a humbling experience it is to be invited to preach at this ordination service. I must admit to feeling somewhat inadequate for the task of preaching today. Right at this moment, I can relate very well to the prophet Jeremiah who, when God first called him, responded, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:6)
We do sometimes struggle with our ability to fulfil God’s call; whether we are clergy or laity. Shortly, Bishop Murray will lay his hands on Paul’s head, and say, “Take authority to preach the word of God, and to minister the holy sacraments in the congregation where you are appointed. …” Perhaps at that moment, if not in the past, Paul may be asking himself, “Can I fulfil God’s call on my life?”
I think that we all sometimes feel inadequate, and in my experience that is not necessarily a bad thing for a priest, because it encourages us to do three things. (There are undoubtedly many more than three, but I have three points because as all good Anglicans know, all sermons must have three points and be no longer than 15 minutes! That information by-the-way, is not one of the points – that is bonus advice for Paul at no extra charge!)
The first point is probably the most important, and that is, when you feel inadequate …
I. Depend upon God.
The Psalm set down for today indicates that God is dependable and that his power revives failed abilities. Verses 14 & 17 tell us, ‘The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.’ The conclusion is that God is faithful, trustworthy and we can depend upon him to help us whenever we are struggling or feel inadequate.
The passage from the second letter from the Apostle Paul to his missionary friend, Timothy, indicates that Paul depended very much upon God. In verse 17 Paul, who is imprisoned under Emperor Nero in a cold dungeon in Rome, writes, “the Lord stood by me …” Paul was not alone in his prison cell - or throughout his ministry. He knew that Jesus was always with him. Paul affirms that despite his problems, Jesus gave him inward strength to carry on and to preach the gospel.
The knowledge that Paul depended upon God is encouraging for most priests and preachers, because the Apostle Paul was perhaps the greatest, most effective evangelist and missionary ever - and he was renowned as an exceptional orator and preacher.
Just one word of caution here for Rev Paul: observing how the Lord stood by the great preacher Paul, and knowing that he is dependable, does not give us an excuse to not prepare our sermons adequately!
I have often found myself having to depend upon God in the past when engaged in pastoral counselling of sailors. I am sure that Chaplain Paul will be able to relate to this. I can remember many occasions when, as I listened to a young sailor seeking help with some problem in his or her life, I was thinking, “Lord, you are going to have to help me here, because I don’t know what to say to help this young person.”
Here’s the thing – God always seemed to answer my desperate prayers! The outcome for me was a sense of awe and joy knowing that, as the well-satisfied sailor departed, God had worked through me to impart his guidance and wisdom at a time when I had felt inadequate.
The Apostle Paul had previously written to the Corinthian Church about his dependence upon God. He suffered from some affliction, and despite his appeal to have this burden taken from him, God chose not to do as Paul wished. Rather God said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul eventually came to the realisation that, ‘whenever I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor 12:8-10 NRSV)
In my understanding, this means that it is when we accept our own weakness and depend upon God, that he is able to work through us most effectively. It is at those times of acknowledgement of our weakness that we lower the barriers that inhibit the Holy Spirit working in us. And the Holy Spirit’s strength is far greater than mine!
One of the greatest joys of ministry is to know that God, in his grace, has worked through you to do something amazing.
You will hear the word ‘grace’ many times during this ordination service. The Bishop will pray that God will give Rev Paul the grace and power to carry out the many roles and tasks of his priestly ministry.
Grace is a crucial element in the ministry that is being conferred on Paul today, and I want to encourage you, Paul, to draw upon that grace and depend upon God, particularly during those times when you may feel inadequate.
But of course, like the Apostle Paul, Rev Paul will not be on his own during his ministry. While becoming priest sets one apart for God’s work, it does not set one apart from the body of Christ, the people who are our fellow workers. Carrying forward God’s mission is a team activity, and it is particularly important to remember this when the going is tough. This, Paul, is my second point: whenever you feel inadequate, …
II. Remember that ministry is a shared task.
Jesus certainly never ministered on his own. We are aware, of course, of his team - his hand-picked twelve good men – the twelve apostles who were to learn from him and subsequently carry on his mission in the world. But there were more than that in Jesus’ team.
In the gospel reading for today we read the account of Jesus sending out 70 disciples ahead of him to prepare the way for him (Luke 10:1-10). Clearly, Jesus knew that they would not always find their mission easy – in fact sometimes they would meet much opposition! “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves”, he said. He is recorded in Matthew 10:16 as saying the same thing when he sent out the twelve.
The opposition that the apostles were to encounter would be of both a physical and a spiritual nature. Parish ministry & School chaplaincy is not that different - and being ordained priest doesn’t exempt one from any of this. The old model of the deacon being the one who goes out, while the priest is the one around whom the people gather, unfortunately doesn’t really apply these days. The priest cannot simply minister to those who are baptised members of the church as his or her ‘flock’.
The priest & chaplain must have a much wider view of ministry than that. William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury who was ordained priest in 1910 said: “The Church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.”
And, just as Jesus told the disciples in verse 2 of the passage that, ‘… the labourers are few …’ so today, the workers are few. So, the priest must go out a great deal in addition to the traditional priestly role, and occasionally will encounter opposition and discouragement from both within and without the church. Paul tells me that complaint and opposition is a particular burden for school chaplains, given the current social issues that impact young people and schools today.
Sometimes, this can be very discouraging. And sometimes the difficulty and the enormity of the expectations upon the priest today can become overwhelming - and those feelings of inadequacy to carry out the calling that God has upon the priest’s life can surface.
It is at these times that it is important to remember that you don’t have to do it all on your own. You are part of a team, and you can reach out for support from your parishioners, your wardens, your fellow priests, and your Bishop.
Robert Hovda noted in his book, Presiding in Liturgy that, “Presiders, like other specified liturgical ministers, need very much to know the congregation not merely as those who are served … but also as those who support and heal and encourage the presider and are active in the dialogue.” And of course, today during the Ordination liturgy, we here, you and I folks, will have an opportunity as Rev Paul’s fellow workers to affirm our willingness to support, heal and encourage him.
The reality is that as the priest serves his or her people God binds us together. And as the priest depends upon God during difficult times and draws upon the support of the ‘body of Christ’ in recognition that ministry is a shared task, then the priest will grow in spiritual maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. We are all works in progress, and we must work at our progress - which leads me to my third point which is that if you feel inadequate for the calling that God has upon your life, you should …
III. Commit to a lifetime of learning.
Now of course you should do this even if you don’t, and never do, feel inadequate. After all, this is a requirement for the priest to be ordained! During the exhortation and examination in the Ordination Service, the Bishop will ask Paul,
“Will you be diligent in prayer, and in the study of the holy Scriptures?” and “Will you undertake such other studies as will help you in your ministry?”
In verse 13 of Pauls letter to Timothy, Paul indicated that in addition to his need for friends and warm clothing, he also needed his books. The theologian and ‘reformer’ John Calvin, commented on this verse saying:
‘Still more does this passage refute the madness of the fanatics who despise books and condemn all reading and boast only of their enthusiasmous, their private inspirations by God. But we should note that this passage commends continual reading to all godly men as a thing from which they can profit.’ (Calvin, p.341)
If you are to be an effective priest, one who has a compelling spiritual life, a passion for the Gospel, one who clearly knows and loves God and our Lord Jesus Christ, one who has a vison for the church’s ministry and a desire to guide people to greater faithfulness and spiritual depth, then attending to your own learning and spiritual growth is essential.
Committing to a lifetime of learning is particularly important in these days of rapid technological growth and change, and also for multigenerational faith formation that seems to be a more effective way of passing on our faith to the younger generations.
No doubt Rev Paul will have a head start on some of the new ways of connecting and communicating that younger people use these days – for me it was a steep learning curve. But it is important to stay abreast of that because you need to speak their language and to be familiar with their technology to be able to effectively communicate with them. And you need to know what their values and life concerns are so that you can effectively connect with them.
In the very busy life of a priest and chaplain, it may be hard to find the time to devote to your own development. It is too easy to just let all of that go. Nevertheless, attending to your own learning and spiritual growth is essential to maintain your own health in both the spiritual and physical sense.
Also, the priest must commit to a lifetime of learning and growth to minister more effectively to those within the church. In the 2 Timothy passage today, the Apostle Paul charged Timothy to, “Preach the word!” (2 Tim 4:1-2). Preaching is an important task and to continue to be a good preacher it is necessary to commit to continual learning in both an academic form and in social trends and issues.
There is so much more that I could say about the requirements of a priest and I am sure, Paul, that all your fellow priests here could add lots more wise advice on how to succeed in the vocation to which God has called you.
It has been a joy and privilege for me to be with you as you prepared to commence this journey. I can assure you that neither I nor any of the people around you tonight have any doubt about your calling and the rightness of your vocation.
Yes, we acknowledge that you are entering the priesthood in interesting and challenging times, and there will be struggles - but also many joys and blessings ahead for you. There will be times when you may feel inadequate as I sometimes do. So, as you go out tonight as a priest in God’s Kingdom, I encourage you to depend upon God, remember that ministry is a shared task, and commit to a lifetime of learning.
My prayers and blessings are certainly with you and your family, as I know will be the prayers and blessings of all who are here this evening.