Bishop Mark Bryant sees the role of the priest as helping us to live more like Jesus
On her Majesty the Queen’s official birthday this year, she very unusually issued a statement in which she said, “Today is traditionally a day of celebration. This year, however, it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood. In recent months the country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies.”
The Queen took this unusual step in the light of the two terror attacks in London and Manchester and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. It is perhaps the Grenfell Tower tragedy which for me at least sticks most in the mind. For me, perhaps the defining moment of that tragedy was the man standing in front of the television cameras pointing out the tower block and saying that the disaster had happened to those living there because they were poor. In recent weeks, Grenfell Tower has come to symbolise an enormous disparity of wealth, an enormous unfairness in so much of our national life.
And that has led me to ask what it means to be the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ post-Grenfell Tower? And it causes me to ask myself: what does it mean for me to be a priest, and what will it mean for Father Alistair to be a priest after Grenfell Tower?
I want to suggest to you tonight that the priest is first of all called to be a person of light in the darkness. As some of you will know, on August 14th 1941, at the very height of the terror of Nazi Germany, one of the heroic priests of the 21st Century, Maximilian Kolbe, went to his death in the place of a young Polish man in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Those who survived Auschwitz after the war spoke of the extraordinary effect that his martyrdom had on many in the camp and somebody wrote: “We were stunned by this act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night.”
In difficult times, the priest needs to be the one who comes as light, and he comes as light because, in a very particular way, he represents the light of Christ which comes into the world when Jesus is born.
You may perhaps have seen on Christmas cards those pictures of the first Christmas, where the stable is in darkness and the Christ child is bathed in light. The priest is the one who brings light into the darkness.
I know that for Father Alistair it is very important that his life as a priest runs alongside his life as a deacon.
Those of you who came to Father Alistair’s ordination as a deacon in the cathedral last year will have heard me say that the role of the deacon is ‘to search out the poor and the weak, the sick and the lonely, those who are repressed and powerless.’ And then the quotation goes on: ‘reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.’ The job of the deacon is to look for those who are forgotten, who are oppressed and powerless.
But today Father Alistair becomes a priest and it is the special joy and privilege of the priest to pray for those who are forgotten, for those who are oppressed, for those who are powerless, as he presides at mass, as he will for the first time tomorrow. And Father Alistair will discover over the years the extraordinary joy of praying and holding up before Jesus those who perhaps are forgotten by everyone else, and who may never ever have been prayed for before in their lives.
The priest is called to play his part in reversing the sin of the world, and the sad fact is that there is so much sin in the world. The world is far from being the place that God longs for it to be, as the Nigerian poet Ben Okri has recently written: “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.” And we know that much closer to home there will be landlords who rent out woefully sub-standard accommodation. We will know that there are workers who are exploited, and even closer to home, we know our own failure to always treat other people in the way that Jesus would want us to do. The job of the priest, then, is to help us to see where our lives are not yet the sort of lives that Jesus would want us to live, and the great joy of the priest is to help us to live more like Jesus.
I hope that this sermon has not sounded to gloomy on this evening of great celebration, but there is much sadness and darkness in our world, and there is an immense responsibility on the ordained priesthood of our church to shine abroad that light of Christ and to reverse the sin of the world.
And tonight the wonderful news is that we are thanking God that we are about to have another priest who will play his part in lighting up the world with the light and the love of Jesus in places where it is most needed and where it may not have been seen before. And of course we are celebrating the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the light in our darkness, the one who has already conquered sin and death and who longs for the world to become the sort of place that he longs for it to be.
Let me just end, if I may, with a few words to those of you who are part of the local congregation here at St Helen’s. You need to understand that every new priest comes with a very big health warning.
Your new priest comes to shine the light of Jesus in the world and part of his responsibility is to make sure that you do that as well. Part of the task of the new priest is to help you as the congregation in this place to become the light of our Lord Jesus Christ in those places where that light most needs to be seen and shone. So it is not a case that you can sit back and leave it all to Father Alistair or indeed to Father McTeer. There is a call to you today to shine that light of Jesus where it most needs to be seen – and our new priest is, I am certain, longing to help you to become the lights of Jesus in a world that needs that light so much.
The Rt Revd Mark Bryant is Bishop of Jarrow. He preached this sermon for Fr Alistair Hodkinson’s Ordination on 3rd July 2017 at St Helen’s West Auckland