A Sermon preached at a Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart
being the First Mass of Fr Oliver Petter
Thursday, 18th June 2015
Readings: Deut vii:6-11: Psalm xxiii Ephesians iii:14-19, Matt xi:25-30
‘…that you may be filled with the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3.19)
A First Mass is a thing of great joy. It is a great joy, of course, for Father Oliver, for his family, for those of us who are his friends. We have, Father, along with you, waited and prayed for this day for a long time, and it is accomplished, and you are, by grace, what God has called you to be – a priest in his church. But the point of this amazing gift is that the joy is not and cannot be confined to these people, and to this place. A new priest is always a sign of great hope, not just for Camden, not just for this Diocese, but for the whole Church of God. It is a sign that God continues to sustain and shower gifts upon his people to lead and guide them to their true home in heaven.
So thank you, Father Oliver, for your faithfulness, for your generosity in responding to God’s call – evident to us all – in your life. Tonight we gather to celebrate, to share your joy, and to pray for you, for the flourishing of Father Oliver Petter, that many may be blessed through you, and through your apostolic labours recall many to the love of God, the reality of his Kingdom, the joy of that journey home.
Tonight we celebrate a Mass of the Sacred Heart, a Mass shot through with the overflowing love of Jesus for his church. Often we describe people who love in abundance as ‘big-hearted’, and of Father Oliver that is most certainly true. He is not, however, as big-hearted as his Saviour our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, whose heart is as big as all time and space. A new priest must earnestly seek ways to increase his ‘heart-space’, because he must carry the needs, fears, hopes, desires, joys and sorrows of many people in his heart. Father, every relationship you have ever known expands tonight, and your capacity to hold all these before God is an essential part of the life you now live. And you must hold them serenely, calmly, before God in the stillness and silence of your heart, not replicating their fear and anxiety but presenting them to God through Christ, whose priesthood you now share. Your life is now a sacramental focus of the fact that the Church is called to be a school of excellence in loving and being loved, and enabling others whose capacity to love and trust has been stunted by the challenges of life to trust and love again. This is a great deal of what it means to heal and to reconcile. It is costly, it is God-centred, it is, Father, privilege, sacrifice and joy.
The author of Deuteronomy reminds the children of Israel that they are called not out of any virtue of their own, but by the simple truth that God loves them. The Psalmist writes of a Shepherd who is driven by love to provide the most extraordinary care for his flock, with abundant blessing which is more than any of us could otherwise hope for.
Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that their lives are a continual process of being drawn ever closer to God, through being ‘rooted and grounded in love’, and his wonderful prayer for them finds its ultimate focus in ‘knowing the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge.’ The whole universe basks in the assurance that we are loved, completely and utterly.
In St Matthew’s account of the words of Jesus, we are startled to have an insight into the colloquy between Son and Father. Jesus thanks the Father because he has hidden the things of the Kingdom from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed them instead to infants. In other words, we are reminded of our true nature – as children of God, those who rely on God for everything.
Tonight, as part of God’s plan to sustain, to redeem and to complete his love for the us, Father Oliver’s hands will hover over bread and wine, and again Jesus will be with us, as surely as at his Nativity, as surely as in the gospels, as surely as at his crucifixion, as surely as at his rising. He is present through the action, and words, of his new priest and his renewed people.
And this is not just for show, not just because ‘God can’. It is so that we who are here tonight will also be filled with the fullness of God, so that we may leave this place healed, restored and fed, with larger hearts than before, to love his people more and more, and to so demonstrate this love that others will know it too.
This Mass is a very public, the most public, of moments. It feels like the conclusion of a lot of years. But the truth is that this is the greatest of beginnings. And however public this evening may be, it will be out of the public gaze that so much of the ministry to which Christ calls you will be conducted as a priest. ‘The daily round, the common task’ John Keble called it. That fine priest John Young called such ministry ‘the chores of grace.’ Part of the great pastoral Patrimony of Anglicanism consists in finding grace, and glory, in the commonplace, whether in the hours of unseen personal prayer and study, the quiet round of visiting and encouragement, the endless, endless, thinking and reflecting about the conundrums of ministry in sometimes uncongenial and even hostile situations. The priest today must know how to endure, and more than endure, in these sorts of circumstances. Indeed, if I may borrow an over-used word, we need to learn to flourish, and flourish joyfully. That involves a host of things, such as proclaiming the gospel undefensively, seeking and finding the hope expressed in the New Testament, faith and adherence to the loving purposes of God. As a priest your first instinct will be to find these things for those you serve. But remember also that the promises of Jesus, with his Heart as big as the universe, are for you too. The joy of priest and people are so often interdependent – a miserable and exhausted priest isn’t a great advert for the gospel, any more than a miserable and exhausted congregation – and so I will say what you will expect me to say at this point, Father.
Jesus, whose priesthood you and I share, says to us,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”.
You have been called, set apart, by God, to share in the Priesthood of his Son. There isn’t a greater privilege in the world. And you must bear fruit, Father, fruit for the kingdom. You can only do so by looking after yourself, eating properly, and resting in the midst of the hard work you undertake as a priest of Jesus Christ. Do these things, seek always space in your heart for Christ, as you already dwell within his Sacred Heart.
Father Oliver, may the joy you feel tonight as a priest be your joy every day, for it is the joy of the intimate presence of Jesus Christ, whose Sacred Heart is glad this night in the sight of his new priest. And may that joy so illuminate your life that others will see, and know, the joy of a life lived in Jesus, and long for it to be theirs also.
Preached at St Michael and All Angels, Camden: 18th June 2015