A little over 9 months ago, it was my enormous pleasure to welcome David and Vickie into their new roles as deacons of the church. You might remember that I said then that the word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or sometimes 'messenger'.
If you want to dig a little deeper into what a deacon is, then you might like to revisit my sermon of the 15th of September last year…available at tomkennar.com, or on the sermons section of the parish website.
But as of yesterday, in the glorious service at Portsmouth Cathedral, David and Vickie have been called to an additional ministry – the ministry of the priesthood - just as I was twelve years ago. Please notice that I say we were all called to an additional ministry. We never stop being deacons. But now, by God’s grace, David & Vickie are also called to the office and role of a priest.
So, what is a priest?
There are many different answers to that question…depending on what theological tradition you come from. So what I’m about to tell you is essentially MY understanding of mainstream Anglican teaching. I’ll leave it to you to go and look up other understandings – including the long history of the Jewish priesthood, on which our priesthood is based. But I hope my words will at least help you to get a handle on what it’s all about!
For traditional Anglicans and Catholics, a priest is perhaps best described by what they are authorised and commissioned to do – that is to say, the functions of a priest which are different from those of deacons. These fall into three categories:
Let’s deal with these in turn…
The first is the ability of the priest to celebrate the Eucharist. Traditional Christians believe that during the Eucharist prayer, the priest stands in the place of Jesus at the Lord’s Table. Jesus’ disciples were effectively the first Christian priests, and Jesus said to them that whatever they loosed or bound in heaven was loosed or bound on earth. This mysterious saying offers assurance to worshippers that when the priest says, on behalf of Jesus “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, then a real, spiritual event takes place. In ways we do not fully understand, heaven is linked to earth. Bread becomes body. Wine becomes blood. Spiritually. Mysteriously. But really. And through the mystery of the Eucharist, WE become empowered to be Christ’s body in the world. The risen Christ makes himself present to us in the holy mystery of the Eucharist…so that Christ may then be made present in the world through us, the church, whom he described as his Body.
Whilst the priest stands in the place of Christ at the Eucharist, there is also sense in which the priest also stands in the place of the people. It has sometimes been said that the priest represents God to the people, and the people to God – a concept with deep Jewish roots, harking back to the veil of the temple, through which only the Priests could go. At the moment of the Eucharistic prayer he or she is literally standing on the threshold between heaven and earth…acting as a bridge between God and human kind. It’s an awesome task…and one for which all priests deserve your prayers.
That’s why the celebration of a first Mass is such a key moment in the life of any priest. For David, in a few minutes, it’s the first time that one has had the chance to participate so fully in such a holy and precious mystery. It’s a huge privilege, and one which quite often elicits an emotional reaction…so don’t be surprised if you hear David choking back a few tears!
The second function of a priest is to be able to offer Blessing. Now this one really is a mystery! Again, the idea is based on Jesus’ assurance that whatever a priest binds or looses in heaven is also bound or loosened on earth.
A priest who offers a blessing is essentially a co-worker with God, in that moment. He or she is essentially conferring, or assuring us of God’s favour and kindness towards us. The Hebrew word most often translated as ‘bless’ is barak, which can mean ‘to praise, congratulate, or salute’. We find that word throughout the Genesis story – when God blesses the sea creatures and birds, blesses Adam and Eve, and then blesses Abram as he is sent to the promised land – and promises that through Abram, all the families of the earth will be blessed. All these blessings are plainly associated with happiness and welfare.
So when David offers us God’s blessing at the end of our service, he will be conferring and assuring us of God’s will for us. God’s desire for all his children is for us to live blessed, happy, fulfilled lives.
The third and final function of a priest is to offer ‘absolution’ – that is God’s forgiveness. Again, the priest stands in the place of Jesus – offering and assuring the repentant person of God’s forgiveness. Earlier in our service, David offered that Absolution, after our prayer of confession – and it was, I’m sure, a special moment for him and for all of us. But the ‘general absolution’ during worship is just one way that absolution can be given. In my ministry – as I’m sure it will be for David and Vickie – the most valuable time that absolution can be offered is in one-to-one pastoral encounters, such as during times of confession or the ministry of reconciliation. Many times, I have found that having the authority of the church to offer and assure a repentant person of God’s loving forgiveness is a really special gift.
Eucharist, Blessing and Absolution. These are the three defining functions of a priest. They are, to an extent, the icing on the cake of a ministry which is otherwise lived out as a deacon. They are additional to the ongoing tasks of serving the people of God, through leadership, teaching and prayer….as well as unblocking the occasional toilet.
So to David, and to Vickie who will celebrate her first mass next week…welcome to the order of priests. I pray that you and all of us will be enriched by what you will both experience and offer. From working with you over the last two years, I have no doubt that you are going to prove to be a great blessing to all. May God bless you both richly in your new ministries!