Jonathan Baker marks the golden jubilee of the priestly ordination of Bishop Martyn Jarrett
‘The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron and his sons, This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the Lord; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it… Whoever touches its flesh shall be holy… And the earthen vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken.”’ (Lev. 6.25, 26a, 27a, 28a.)
Well brothers and sisters, it is all Bishop Martyn’s fault; his and perhaps the Holy Spirit’s, although he is much harder to name and shame this afternoon. I mean of course that it is Bishop Martyn’s fault that I am preaching to you at this mass, or indeed at any other mass at all. In the early summer of 1990 there was a young man, Jonathan Baker, nearing the end of five years at university, pretty unprepared for useful work and with little idea what to do with his life at a Ministry Division selection conference (it wasn’t called Ministry Division then, that particular rebranding still lay some way in the future) and the senior selection secretary was one M. Jarrett. Somehow he failed to stop the selectors recommending Baker for ordination training and the rest, as they say, is history. What’s really alarming is the number of priests and bishops you’ll know who could tell much the same story as the one I’ve just told you. So if you’re fed up with the clergy you see about the place who are now in the fifties, you know who to blame!
Martyn, seriously, I’m going to thank you now for the part you played in that big step in my life on the path to ordination, as well of course for all the years we have had as comrades-in-arms, colleagues and friends since then. It is a huge joy and privilege to preach at this celebration of fifty years of your priestly ordination, thank you for the invitation to do so. Before I go any further I should say that the continuing legacy of your time as an ACCM selector and senior selector lies in the prayers which you have offered ever since for all those who passed through your hands and are now serving in the ordained ministry, and that prayer has been so welcome and so powerful—thank you.
I realized when I was checking up on various dates and timelines in preparation for today that Bishop Martyn has been Bishop Martyn for the whole time that I have been a priest—Father’s episcopal ordination in 1994 coming some months before my ordination to the priesthood. In February we celebrated 25 years of Bishop Martyn’s consecration. Now we look back another 25 years, to 1969; the year of the moon landing, Woodstock, the Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road,’ and the release of the film ‘True Grit’ (prophetic, that.) We give thanks for fifty years of priestly ministry, which even in this epoch of increasing longevity is a pretty rare anniversary to reach, and as the average age of priestly ordination rises ever higher one which will become even rarer in the future I imagine.
The readings at this mass, which all speak of ministry (whether episcopal or priestly) were, I suspect, carefully chosen by the celebrant. I want to come back to Isaiah’s great shout of rejoicing in the Lord’s anointing him to preach, to proclaim and to heal, that text which we hear every year at the Chrism Mass, and which Our Lord himself made his own in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his public ministry. So, let’s concentrate instead for now on the Epistle from 2 Corinthians and our Gospel reading from St John. A golden thread runs through both passages, and we might describe it like this: God’s gift, our weakness. They are texts which any priest, any bishop, any minister of the gospel need to go on attending to, day in and day out; and, if I may speak for a moment particularly to the bishops and priests present here this afternoon, they are forgotten by us at our great peril.
Second Corinthians is surely St Paul’s richest reflection, theologically and psychologically, on the apostolate—his own apostolate and what it means more generally to be an apostle of the Lord. Paul tells the Corinthians, and tells us, that to have been given a share in Christ’s ministry is to have received mercy. The Greek is difficult but what we are to understand Paul saying, I think, is that as we minister, so we receive mercy; the two things, the gift of being called to minister, the gift of receiving mercy, are one and the same, or two sides of the same coin if you like. That is a remarkable thing to think about: that as we are called, so we are ‘mercied,’ so we receive mercy; that, for priests, for bishops, for all minsters of the gospel, for every act of ministry carried out, the Lord has shown us mercy. What a thought. What a call to humility, to lifelong conversion of heart.
Then Paul uses this memorable image of the treasure in earthen vessels. The treasure is the apostolate, the grace to be ministered to others, the very gospel itself: the earthen vessel is the minister, the apostle, the bishop, the priest. There’s an obvious meaning—no less profound for being obvious—in the image of the treasure in an earthen vessel; the treasure is all of God, while we sons and daughters of Adam are of the earth, earthy. But we might push a bit deeper. One thing about earthen, terracotta pots is that if they are going to be any good for cooking with, they have to be heat resistant. That’s an interesting image for ministry I think, being heat resistant.
Father, perhaps there were times when we were serving together on the Revision Committee for the first women bishops’ measure when we were called to be heat resistant. We certainly were in the heat of the kitchen, and sometimes it felt pretty much like we were on the stove. I reckon there will have been plenty of times when you’ve had to be heat resistant over the last fifty years, and I know that there will be large numbers of lay people and clergy who will be hugely grateful for that.
And then, if we are thinking about cooking with earthen vessels, there is that specific reference in Leviticus to the pot in which the sin offering has been cooked. After the sin offering has been killed, and cooked, and eaten by the priest—the pot is broken, and presumably thrown away. Well, we live in a church in which increasingly attention is given to clergy well-being and to creating an environment with working agreements and statements of particulars and the like in which the church’s ministers can minister in a way which is sustainable and not harmful. But all the processes and procedures in the world cannot smooth away the fact that to share in Christ’s apostolate will be to share in his suffering, to share in the brokenness of the cross and a ministry which, on Good Friday, appeared even—no especially—to Our Lord’s closest friends and disciples to have ended in failure and defeat. Father, I think you have known what it means, at a point or points over the last 50 years, to feel like a broken pot, a broken vessel. And of course, thanks be to God because you have ministered authentically and in all the glory of your God-given humanity as a consequence. ‘The wounded surgeon plies the steel’—T.S. Eliot’s line from East Coker captures the heart, and the cost, of this authentic ministry. Father, all who have been the beneficiaries of your ministry have seen what it means to be an authentic, truly human bishop and priest in whom we see resilience and wisdom born out of the wounds of experience received and offered back and rarely concealed.
St John in chapter 21 and the story of the commissioning of St Peter to feed Christ’s lambs and tend his sheep gives us the heart of the pastoral ministry: that it is never to be exercised for the sake of self, but always and only for the sake of Christ’s flock—that ‘great treasure,’ In the words of the Prayer Book Ordinal, ‘committed to [the priest’s] charge… the sheep of Christ, which he brought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.’ St Cyril of Alexandria, commentating on this Gospel, states it plainly: ‘Instructors in religion cannot please the Chief Shepherd that is Christ unless they take thought for the health of the sheep of His fold.’ St Augustine writes, ‘They who feed Christ’s sheep, as if they were their own, not Christ’s, show plainly that they love themselves, not Christ… Let us love therefore, not ourselves, but Him, and in feeding His sheep, seek not our own, but the things which are His.’ Bishop Martyn, we are so grateful that you have faithfully fed the flock of Christ across fifty years of priestly ministry; that you have steadfastly fed the flock in this portion of the vineyard called the Church of England; that, when you had not sought it or expected it, you responded, out of obedience, to feed that part of the people of God who look to the Bishop of Beverley as their shepherd and father-in-God, a ministry which (to return to our earlier theme) is certainly not without its deep costliness and profound sacrifice. But then you will have been mindful of St Gregory the Great’s teaching in his Pastoral Rule: ‘If they [Christian pastors] refuse to accept a position of spiritual leadership when they are called, they forfeit the majority of their gifts—gifts which they received not for themselves only, but for others.’
Paul the Apostle, the earthen vessel, ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in [his] body.’ Peter who knew his need of forgiveness but who, reliant in himself alone, fell, to be restored only by the grace, power and mercy of the risen Lord: examples prompting serious reflection on the ministry to which bishops and priests are called. These are perhaps serious times. But we must end with the joy—with the oil of gladness of which Isaiah speaks, the oil of gladness with which priests are anointed at their ordination, the oil of gladness which is shared in Christ’s name in proclaiming the kingdom, preaching the word and of course ministering the sacraments of the new covenant, the sacraments of salvation, supremely this sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, the bread of heaven, the new wine of the heavenly banquet, the coming Kingdom of God. Father, what a lot of gladness I and so many others have had in your company over the last fifty years. You’ve welcomed this unreconstructed Tory into your home, it’s just amazing! You’ve fed him at the Farmers Club and pub-crawled with him around Oxford. Seriously, and to be personal right here at the end of this sermon, you have given such support to me in difficult times and in every sense ministered to me the oil of gladness. And Betty too of course. Betty how have you managed it. But thank God on this day for you, Betty.
Thank God for you Bishop Martyn. Thank you for calling us together here today. Thank God for the gift of his priesthood in which you have shared for fifty glorious years. Thank God for the earthen vessel. Thank God even more for the treasure. Amen.
Bishop Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Fulham. This sermon for the golden jubilee of the priestly ordination of Bishop Martyn Jarrett was preached at Worksop Priory.