by Fr Graham Sanders

A John Keble Lecture in the Series
Jesus Christ: His Person and His Teaching

Presented at St William’s College, York
on Monday 13th October 1997

Reverend Fathers, brothers and sisters, I stand before you as one who has had the task of speaking to you on the subject of the works of Jesus and the priestly life thrust upon him. have for forty years exercised the ministry of a priest in schools and parishes and could never have been accused of being an academic theologian. One of my churchwardens years ago, (himself a doctor of science and a university professor ) stated that he enjoyed my sermons because I didn’t use long words – to which I replied I didn’t know any! Indeed I am not the author, but I heartily approve, of the story of how Our Lord called his disciples together and asked them “who do you say I am?”, and they replied, “you are the Eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the Kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships, the Ontological source of all reality” and Jesus said, “You what?” However I trained at Kelham and so for four years was given a good grounding in the scriptures, in patristics, as well as a nodding acquaintance with the heresies of many modem theologians.

I want to start with an assertion based upon the scriptures. our Lord Jesus was and is a Sacrificing Priest. That this may be clear I want ( as the old evangelical preachers used to say ) to put you under a word of scripture. (John 17 v 19 )”For their sake I consecrate myself that they too may be consecrated in truth”. He was speaking of the apostles but went on to pray for all Christians ( v20) “I pray not only for these ,but for those also who through their words will believe in me”.

For the meaning of this self consecration we have to turn to the Epistle to the Hebrews – the main theme of which is that the ineffectual sacrifices of the levitical priests are replaced by the one uniquely efficacious sacrifice of Christ whose priesthood is not a temporal one deriving from Aaron but an eternal one derived from God himself and foreshadowed by the enigmatic figure of Melchizedek, King of Salem to whom Abraharn paid tithes and who made sacrifice to God with bread and wine.

So Hebrews 4 v 14: “In Jesus ,the Son of God, we have the supreme High Priest who has gone through the highest heaven”; and again in 9 “`v 11ff “But now Christ has come, as the High priest of all the blessings which were to come. He has passed through the greater, the more perfect tent, which is better than the one made by men’s’ hands because it is not of this created order; and he has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him not the blood of goats and bull calves but his own blood, having won an eternal redemption for us”.

You will recall that in the Old Testament sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple, — a living beast was offered to God by the priest. The animal was then killed by being drained of its blood, some of which was poured out on the altar and some sprinkled on those for whom the sacrifice was offered. Some parts of the animal were burnt on the sacrificial fire and the rest divided between the officiating priest and the worshippers to be cooked and eaten. On the most solemn occasions, some of the blood was taken into the Holy of Holies and offered there along with offerings of grain and incense.

In every case where an animal was sacrificed the blood, representing the life of the animal sacrificed, was the most significant part of the offering. The rest was shared by the worshippers as a symbol of their sharing in the offering and the blessing given.

At the Last Supper Jesus, our great high priest, offered to God, his Father, in prayer and by the explicit use he made of bread and wine, his own life as the “hill prefect and sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the whole world”. His death on the cross was the fulfilment of those animal lives sacrificed in the temple over hundreds of years. His carrying his risen body into heaven at the Ascension was the fulfilment of all those times the Aaronic High Priests had carried sacrificial offerings into the Holy of Holies. Because the sacramental bread and wine are the efficacious signs of his presence with us , to receive Holy Communion is the way each Christian participates, both in the offering, and in the fruits, of that one eternal sacrifice.

It follows then that the first and most important work of a priest should be the frequent celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in obedience to our Lord’s command. In this way, by the grace of God given to us, we make the one perfect sacrifice present and real in our time; or rather we open a way by which we and our fellow Christians may share, in time, in the reality of the eternal, once for all, sacrifice.

while it is the teaching of the Catholic Church that the unworthiness of a minister does not invalidate the sacrament he administers ( see article 26 of the 39 ), yet it seems fitting that we who share so prominently in the Church’s offering of the life of Christ to God the Father should not only seek to mirror the words and action of our great high priest in the Mass we offer but that our lives should as far as we are able be founded on the imitation of the life we offer. It is axiomatic that the life and works of Jesus Christ should be the foundation of the priestly life.

Our Lord Jesus’ active ministry on earth began and ended with prayer. The three synoptic gospels all state that his first action after his baptism by John was to go off for a retreat in the desert to be alone with God in fasting and prayer and, by the power of prayer to overcome the temptations of the devil.

At the end of his earthly ministry he prayed that his executioners would be forgiven as he was nailed to the cross and his last words recorded by Luke were “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”. If then we are to follow Christ’s example, Prayer must be a vital frame within which we lead our lives. We read of Jesus going apart to be quiet, we read of it being his habit to worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. It is clear from his teaching that he was deeply aware of the contents of the Old Testament Scriptures, and we read of his disciples coming to ask him to teach them to pray – – to which his answer was the Lord’s Prayer — Our Father — and he taught that prayer was more than a matter of repeating magic formulae or a means of showing our holiness to others. So where does that leave the priest’s prayers today? Well, thank God we have been given a number of aids to help us , of which the Divine Office is an obligation for priests. So let’s start by looking at the office.

For nearly 30 years I used the office of the Book of Common Prayer — Morning and Evening. From time to time it gave me great joy; while praying the psalms they sometimes came alive and spoke to me thoughts I hadn’t known how to put into words. Sometimes the recitation of the office has been no more than a task to be got through — but however grudgingly I came to it there was always the chance of God breaking through the words of scripture into my wandering mind. It worries me that so many priests have given up the daily office for some other form of prayer — or none. Sometimes the evening office can be as warm and comforting as a hot bath and Morning Prayer as good as a cold shower to get the day started. Alas not always! Days may go by when the task of saying them is a heavy burden to be shouldered and carried — but other days make the burdensome ones worthwhile. Sometimes the familiar words just wash over one but there is always the chance that some verse or even one word may leap out and turn a very ordinary, everyday, experience into pure excitement.

Fathers, stick to the office in whatever form it suits you best. From about 1982 until last year I experimented off and on with the A.S.B. office with its greater flexibility of canticles and much shorter psalms! but I think the Prayer Book had gone too deeply into me and I never really settled to the new versions. 1 kept going back to the old. I tried also” Celebrating Common Prayer” — perhaps I didn’t give it a fair chance but I didn’t feel it added anything to the A.S.B., and personally I found its inclusive language irritating.

I was a good little Anglican all my life as a parish priest –I said the offices in church, and yes I did ring the bell before each, in the hope that some of the laity would come and join me — very few of them ever did! But the period of my parochial ministry coincided with the death of Sunday Matins and Evensong in most parishes and one could hardly expect people to come in the week to acts of prayer they were deserting in droves on Sundays. I did however have some success in commending the shorter form of daily prayer in the A.S.B. to some lay members of my congregations, and some of them took to these like ducks to water.

For the last couple of years, since I retired, I have used the daily Offices of the Roman Church. I miss Cranmer’s prose — but I find the Office of Readings a delight with a much longer passage from the scriptures than the Anglican Office provides and a daily reading from one of the Fathers or of some more recent saint. There is always something to chew on in one or both readings — mulling them over is a very real form of prayer. With the office of readings leading one in all sorts of new directions of thought, the Offices of Morning and Evening prayer with their four weekly cycle provide a daily rhythm which keeps one in tune with both time and eternity. And if one wishes, there are the other daily hours of prayer to dip into from time to time. The more I use them, the more I get from them; but Oh I do wish someone could rewrite some of the psalms and prayers in the rhythms of Coverdale and Cranmer.

Do I go on too long about the Office? The Roman one presupposes a daily mass and where this is possible it is wonderful. Only in one of my parishes did I manage to achieve mass every day, and now I have to add the readings of the day in the missal to my evening prayer if I haven’t said or been to Mass, otherwise the Gospels would be left out of my daily praying.

The one thing that the Gospels do not show is Jesus leading a prayer meeting, and I must admit I have my doubts about the value of such exercises. The Mass and the Offices provide all the opportunity for public Adoration, Thanksgiving, Supplication for others, Contrition and Petition for ourselves that we could possibly need. However for Priest and Lay People there is always a need for private prayer in which we can be still and wait upon God –I cannot forget words from “The Principles of S.S.M.” which we had read to us early in each term at Kelham “The conversation of the brethren may help and cheer us but God’s voice speaks most often in silence!!” whether attached to the saying of the office or not, we also need to have a space for quiet in which to make our petitions and supplications to God and to wait in the hope of hearing his voice.

A Prayer which is both public and private and which I wish more would use is the Angelus — the three times a day memorial of the annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the conception of the baby Jesus within her womb. “The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Ghost”. “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us

We pray because we believe and we believe because we pray. Perhaps if we actually said the Angelus three times a day we would be a little less likely to doubt the enormous, joyful, reality of the incarnation. Perhaps also we would be a good deal less willing to write off the newly conceived foetus as of no account, to be accepted or disposed of at will, if we were daily reminded that the word was made flesh at the Annunciation, rather that at the birth of Jesus. Yet quite recently, talking to an R.C. priest and bemoaning the fact that the bell at the church I now attend had broken, so we can’t ring the Angelus, I was told that most Roman lay people today neither use nor even know this lovely devotion. Perhaps I am old fashioned and prejudiced, but I think that the thrice daily recitation of the Angelus by a great many more Christians would do more good to the Church Catholic and to us as individuals than any number of extempore prayer meetings.

There are of course many other forms of prayer, all of them means of opening channels for the love of God to speak or act in our lives and the lives of those for whom we pray. I would particularly like to commend the Rosary. The use of beads and repeated prayers or mantras is not peculiar to Christianity. Hindus, Buddhists, and some Muslim sects use them too. However I believe the Rosary is unique because, unlike usages in other religions, it does not provide merely a way to the contemplation of god in us, but a way to meditate on the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of our redemption, keeping our hearts and minds open to events which happened in the earthly life of Jesus and his bringing that human life into heavenly glory. One who prays the rosary can use the beads and spoken prayers as a means of creating an oasis of stillness and peace in the midst of the bustle and noise of the world’s distractions, while in prayer one brings the basic truths of our Lord’s being to the forefront of his or her mind. And as well as a means of meditation the rosary can be offered in so many ways in intercession for others or in contrition and petition for ourselves.

The Priest must be a man of prayer but so must every Christian. We priests are privileged with the possibility of finding time to give to prayer which is not available to the average lay man. If we waste that time we will not be able to serve the people of God as we should. We also have the duty and privilege of teaching others how to pray.

Our Lord is the good Shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them. He always had time for those who came to him and to search out those who would respond to his call. Bishops today place great emphasis on days off, holidays, sabbaticals and courses of one sort or another to strengthen a priest’s life. But what good are they if we are not there when our people want us. We dash about from this meeting to that and, because they do not often see us around, many of our parishioners do not recognise us in the street. This bit of plastic around our neck is a rather ridiculous article of clothing but it does mean we can be recognised as a Christian minister. Even if it does get us laughed at I think we priests ought, sometimes at least, to wear our cassocks about the streets of our parishes. At the very least I have always worn a cassock on the way from home to church, and often when visiting as well. I remember when I was first in one parish being on my way to conduct in the church a carol service for the local grammar school and overtaking a group of sixth formers on their way to get things ready in church. As I walked past, one said , loudly so that I would hear, “I didn’t know it was to be a fancy dress affair” so I turned round and said “what do you mean, `Fancy Dress’? these are my working clothes”. It didn’t do my street-cred any harm! I hope the fact that I wore those working clothes outside as well as inside church pointed up the fact that in the parish I was always working. I know one man who will not darken the church door because when his young wife was having a very painful delivery she asked him to fetch the vicar to pray with her. The vicar refused to come as it was his day off: and I know of another parish where the people call the parish priest “Lord Lucan” – because they can never find him!

We must ALWAYS be available to people, like the good shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them. This can be very hard sometimes on our wives and children and it’s a fact sometimes used as a telling argument in favour of clerical celibacy. But an understanding wife can help her husband be available when he is needed, not least by keeping the rectory or vicarage open to visitors at all times and welcoming those who come asking to be recognised. And I don’t think children are harmed by this either. when my son was at University I once apologised to him for having brought him up in the sheltered environment of a vicarage. He replied “Don’t be daft Dad I bet we saw more of life’s problems and joys than most kids — everyone came to our door and you didn’t send any of them away”.

Our Lord Jesus was a teacher. With authority he taught the word of God to his disciples and to the crowds who flocked to hear him. He used the incidents of their daily work and home life to open to them the being and love of God. As occasion demanded, he sometimes gave them instruction straight from the shoulder, sometimes he told them stories that they could ponder, and the truths those stories hid would become clear gradually and so enter their minds and stay there.

Priests must be teachers, if WE don’t teach the faith, who will? And there are so many ways in which we teach. The sermon is important; I think preaching is a neglected art these days! but a homily in the middle of an act of worship has to be brief and very much to the point. what is more we must be careful to preach the whole Gospel not just those bits that appeal to us most. The A.S.B.’s lectionary with its thematic approach was an attempt to ensure that preachers did cover all the themes of the faith. The trouble is the lectionary makers were themselves limited in their choice of themes. The three year lectionary (Roman or Revised Common — they’re almost the same ) is much better because the WORKS OF JESUS AND THE PRIESTLY LIFE 6

Gospels themselves rule the thoughts of our worship rather than the arbitrary choice of a committee however well intentioned.

However the sermon is not our only way of teaching. Teaching in small groups is important too. House groups can be a great way of helping people to understand the Faith, but the priest has to teach the leaders first and visit the groups regularly himself Democratic discussion is all very well, but, without firm and well informed leadership, it can lead people down blind alleys of heresies which have been tried before and shown to be unsatisfactory.

Like our Lord, we must teach with authority; it has been given us, but it must be His authority not our own. Before we went out to India my wife and I spent a term at a Missionary College in Selly Oak, Birmingham. I had just completed four years as a curate. The Chaplain was ill while we were there and I, as the only other priest available, was asked to celebrate the Mass each day and on Sundays to preach. Some of the staff accused me of arrogance because I used to say “the Church teaches” when they thought I should say” it seems to me”. In humility I took their strictures to heart, but now I think I was wrong to do so. We have a gospel to proclaim and proclaim it we must. “It seems to me” has its place in the house discussion group! “Thus says the Lord” is what should come from the pulpit. But it must be what the Lord said in the Scriptures and the age old teaching of the church — not just the preachers own opinions however dearly held. There is far too much heresy being preached and taught today by people who should know better.

There are also more subtle ways of teaching. They include the ways in which we order the worship of our churches and conduct ourselves in them, the ways in which we train our servers and choirs, readers and those who lead intercessions to play their part in worship, the way in which we insist on the cleanliness of hands, vestments, linen and vessels [[and even shoes and necks]. All these things are ways of teaching the glory and holiness of God and the infinite importance of the way we serve him.

And then again we often have to work through intermediaries. I was first taught the faith by my mother and godmother, very simply as they had learned it themselves. After them I was taught by my choir master who talked about the meaning of the hymns and psalms and the canticles and anthems we sang at Matins and Evensong and the meaning of the Eucharist and why we bowed and genuflected and made the sign of the cross when we did. I did go to confirmation classes at the age of nine ( a very progressive parish! ) but I honestly don’t remember learning anything from them. I knew what was being taught already from choir practices and Sunday worship. But I also knew that the choirmaster had long sessions with the priests of the parish who made sure that what he taught us was the Catholic Faith. From among those who were in the choir with me five became priests, and one is a Bishop. I honestly believe that the Church’s failure to continue the tradition of boys choirs is one of the reasons for the drop in the number of young ordinands. I never went to Sunday school and I’ve always been a bit wary of them. They are seriously in danger of so simplifying the faith to bring it within the reach of the children taught, as to “water it down” so that it inoculates children from catching a healthy dose of Christianity later in life. Children in school, I hope , realise that as they are grounded in the sciences or history or geography or Eng. lit. they are only scratching the surface of knowledge and there is always more to learn. 

In a good Sunday school they should learn that the riches of the Christian Faith, far beyond their understanding, will open gradually to them as they grow and mature and that none of us will know it all, until we ourselves enter into heavenly glory. They will not learn this in school. So the priest must instruct those who teach the children. Somehow the priest has to show all his people, young and old, that there is always more to learn about the infinite glory of God – and he has to believe it himself and never think he knows it all. The Lord alone knows all that there is to know. Even the most holy and erudite theologian, or the most gifted preacher, or the most able parish priest, is still a learner as well as a teacher. Perhaps we most urgently need to go on learning more and more about how better to worship and pray to God and then constantly to teach these arts to our people, because if we get the worship and prayer right then right belief will grow in us and them too.

Our Lord Jesus was a healer — if the healing miracles are taken out of the synoptic Gospels, (particularly out of St Mark which is still recognised by most as the first to be written in its present form) there is not a great deal left. Not only did he heal the sick; on at least three occasions — Lazarus, the Widow of Nairn’s son and Jairus’s daughter – he raised people from the dead to a continued life on earth. Such miracles were also a part of the regular ministry of some of the apostles, and the sick are still healed through the power of prayer today, though more rarely and perhaps less publicly than in our Lord’s Day. However visiting the sick, praying for them , laying on of hands and anointing them form an important part of the priest’s ministry today as indeed they have throughout the history of the Church! and inexplicable cures still happen. However, for all of us there is the time to die and our Lord did not call back from the dead, or heal from mental or physical illness, more than a very small fraction of the people ill in Judea, Galilee and Samaria of his day. All the same his contact with everyone was in the context of healing and like him we are called to heal all sorts of troubles in the hearts and rninds and souls of those we serve. Not least we exercise the healing ministry at times of bereavement by helping people to come to terms with their grief and look to the future with hope. There are many illnesses in the world that God only heals after death, and those who are left behind need to feel his loving care of them too. A caring priest who takes trouble over funerals, and follows them up with after care of the bereaved is, I believe, fulfilling a much greater healing ministry than many a so called evangelist whose stock in trade is highly dubious healing miracles. But this is not to say that we shouldn’t hope the that sick for whom we pray will get better and be restored to normal active life. Many of them do and who can say what part prayer played in this recovery. If we believe that each human being is a creature of body and soul and that the pain of the body can affect the soul and the troubles of the soul can bring sickness to the body (and these seem self evident truths) then sacramental healing of the soul and the prayers of the priest and of all Christians can only work to make healing of the body more likely than it would otherwise be.

This brings me back the ideal of the priest as a shepherd. Its so easy for a hard pressed priest to get immersed in administration or in various secular activities that are good in themselves, but perhaps could be better left to lay men or women. Our Lord drew people to him by showing his loving care for them. We can build up the body of Christ by giving our time and our interest and our love to Christ’s people now. Time spent preparing young couples for marriage and encouraging them through the difficulties they often encounter after marriage; time spent in preparing parents for the baptism of their children, and keeping in touch with them over the succeeding months and years. Being there when our parishioners want a sympathetic ear to hear their troubles whether it be within the context of sacramental confession or less formally. Time spent sharing peoples sorrows and their joys in family celebrations or over a pint in the local. Oh how I wish I bad found more time over the years for all of these things. We must be ready when we are needed to be with people as our Lord seemed always to be.

Now I do not claim for a moment to have any particular charismatic gifts, and looking back over my life as a priest I can find all sorts of occasions in my memory when I wish I bad behaved differently, but, in a time when the Church of England has been in decline, my experience has been in every parish I have served, growth in numbers. I truly believe that where a parish priest gives his time to his people, his mistakes are forgiven and he can open a way for Our Lord to convert the people we serve to a new and living way in Him. Mind you I have never served, until now in a part time capacity, in an inner city parish where there are now many more Muslims of Hindus than Christians, and where every death reduces the size of a congregation and there is nowhere to look for replacements. There the priest can only hang on and hold up the banner of Christ before the largely hostile residents of his parish and suffer with Christ the rejection all the time, that we all feel occasionally.

Our lord was a suffering servant. He foretold that by being lifted up on the cross he would draw all men to himself In the mass we constantly lift him up to the gaze of his people. In benediction we lift him up to bless their lives — but we also are called sometimes to suffer with him, to suffer false accusations as he was, to suffer the sorrow of being rejected and despised, to suffer physical pain through illness or injury. We can serve him by offering our small pains and sorrows in union with his, and when we come to die and stand before our great high priest to be judged it won’t I hope be counted against us that we did not have many talents or any great successes. I hope and believe that it will be counted in our favour that we put our trust in the Lord Jesus and that we tried to serve and have not been broken by failure. The man to whom the Lord did not say ” well done good and faithful servant”, was the one who took no risks but hid his talent in the ground for fear he might lose it