Whose back do you want to put itching powder down?

Peter Seal, 28 June 2015

Acts 12: 1–11; Matthew 16: 13–19

Friday’s news: 37 dead and 36 injured after bloody rampage at luxury Tunisia hotel. Isis supporter in Lyons sticks severed head of his boss to fence of gas-storage plant, which he then tries to blow up. Suicide bombing rips through Friday prayers at mosque in Kuwait, killing at least 25 and wounding more than 200.

Just one day in the life of our world; and there are so many other desperate stories we don’t hear about.

And we are here: in sunny Winchester, comparatively safe from terrorist attack. We’re together in church, where we meet freely and without fear. We’re surrounded by folk who share a similar faith conviction. There are all sorts of ways we can grow in faith. We will be supported in times of need. We have every opportunity to respond to the life-giving challenges of the gospel.

I also know that, on any Sunday morning, many of you are hurting for different reasons. We each carry different burdens: of responsibility, anxiety or care for loved ones. But, compared to many in our world, most of us have what we might describe as ‘a good life’.

The needs of the wider world gives my theme for today a vivid backdrop. I want to talk about vocation. Please have in your hand the small, white prayer card. You’re going to need a pen too. Traditionally this weekend and next weekend are the times when women and men are ordained as priests. Some will be full-time and, increasingly, many will be part-time.

Those who are part-time are people like Mary, who give an agreed number of hours each week, to fit with their life situation. (Mary combines this voluntary role with her 21 hours a week as our children and youth work co-ordinator, for which she is employed by the PCC.)

We’re hugely blessed in this parish to have the ministry of four retired priests: Bishop John (always a priest!), Canon Philip, Canon Keith, and Neil Birkett. In addition to this we have two licensed lay ministers (LLMs for short): Gary Ruffell and Stephen Adam. Their particular role is leading services, like Mattins at St Matthew’s, and preaching. Gary often leads study groups at St Matthew’s and Stephen has developed a ministry in taking funerals. You may already know all this, but I hope it’s useful by way of reminder. As your parish priest I’m hugely fortunate to share my role with these splendid folk. They each give their time as volunteer disciples.

Much of what I’m called to do is about encouragement and support and ongoing development. I really enjoy this way of working. I believe it’s the key to the future.

At this point I must stress: in talking about those who are ordained or LLMs, I’m focusing on a small section of the resource and deep Christian commitment of many, many folk here. Each of you lives out your calling in myriad different ways. Thank you, each of you, for all you do.

Our unique, individual vocation is sown deep within us from the moment of our conception. It’s at the very beginning of our lives that God makes possible all that each of us can become. I tend not to talk of God’s plan for each of us; I prefer God’s purpose. This feels much more flexible, and far more realistic about our responsibility and the consequences of the life-choices we each make.

Our baptism and confirmation are explicit public ways of expressing all this, and thereby hugely significant.

Looking to the future, this is a risky thing for me to say, but … I hope to be here as your parish priest for the next seven years, until I retire. During that time much will go on changing in the church and the world. Working with you, I want to equip this parish to be in a strong and secure place, with the self-supporting ministers and LLMs it is likely to need.

We belong to the worldwide Anglican community; we are part of the Church of England; we are in the diocese and deanery of Winchester. We belong to a worldwide church that is both Catholic and reformed. But what is increasingly true is that it’s up to us to provide the human resources we need for the future – in every way, and especially in terms of our ministers.

So my message is this: trusting in God’s good purposes and in God’s ever-present, energising Holy Spirit, and rooted in prayer, the future is in our hands. We cannot expect some outside organisation, bishop or whoever to provide what we need. The truth is that ministers will only come from within congregations. We’re the second-largest Anglican parish in Winchester [by attendance]. The future is in our hands.

In today’s gospel reading on this feast day of the apostles Peter and Paul, we heard that extraordinary exchange of conversation between Jesus, our Lord, and his friend Peter. Peter recognises Jesus as the Messiah – Peter twigs who Jesus really is. Jesus says in reply, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock [‘Peter’ means ‘rock’] I will build my church’. Today Jesus would be using other names, including Annabel, Judith, etc. The point is that Jesus entrusted the ongoing new life he had revealed into human hands, guided, of course, by the Holy Spirit.

What I’m really wanting to say is this: we’ve got a job on. Together, we need to pray for, nurture, encourage and support new people in the particular ministry of being priests and LLMs. Serving God in this way is not really about being ‘good’. It’s much more about being forgiven. To say ‘I’m not worthy’ is a cop out! Of course you’re not worthy. I’m not worthy, no one is worthy, of the high calling of being a priest. But, by God’s grace, weakness becomes strength.

The church needs ministers as the focal people to lead others in worship. The Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is our most powerful tool of evangelism. It goes on converting people to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vocation can perhaps be understood in two different but complementary ways. First, there’s the need for the church – that is, the people of God, women and men – to step up; to offer themselves for particular roles in order to serve others. Ministry is about being the servant of the servants of God. At its best, the model the minister offers and embodies is that of the inverted triangle. There’s no place for hierarchy, only costly service.

Ministry is about being the servant of the servants of God.

So, together, we need as a matter of some urgency to pray for vocations in this parish. This is not something we can afford to put off. We can be confident that God sees us gathered here, and that he’s ready to hear our prayer.

Secondly, there’s the working of God within each and every one of us – and, indeed, in every person. You know what it feels like to get a hunch about something. For example, a phone call you should make. And you’ve probably come to realise that you should trust your hunches and respond to them, and not delay.

The work of God’s Holy Spirit is often a bit like that. People say: ‘I’ve just got this hunch, this niggle’; or ‘God seems to be nagging away at me’; or ‘I’m just wondering, though it seems completely mad’; or ‘Someone said to me, “Have you ever thought of … ?”’.

It’s a bit like an itch you’ve got to scratch!

In conclusion, the church exists for the world. It’s there in every part of the world for those who died on Friday, in Tunisia and Lyons and Kuwait.

The people of God gather in church for the sake of the world. Your ministers of today and the coming years are here to help enable worship, which leads to the service of others, near and far.

Finally, during the silence, please pray that God will give you the name, or names, of folk from our parish who you think might become self-supporting ministers or LLMs. Please, please, write those names down, keep the card safe and pray for them as often as you can. God will show us the way ahead.

Do you remember the experience of someone putting itching powder down someone’s back and waiting to see what happened? Well, that’s what I hope might happen as the result of your prayers. Whose back do you want to put itching powder down?