This is a great day, a day of days, when a newly ordained priest does what priests are called to do – to hasten to the supreme sacramental expression of our faith in Jesus Christ, in which Jesus is our host, our priest, our guest: and having received yesterday a privileged share in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ, our dear friend Stephen stands where the Lord bids him to stand, between the people of God and God himself – not as an obstacle, please God, but as a channel of God’s grace, forgiveness and joy, and a channel also of our prayers and deepest longings. Priesthood is a pontifical role, to be sure, even if that adjective is normally preserved for bishops; he is pontifical in that he is called to build a bridge between God and the people he serves.
The place of the priest is a place of great privilege and honour. It is also an uncomfortable place, and at times a very lonely one. So permit me to acknowledge with gratitude the journey which both Stephen and Judith have taken; some of it has been visible, and much more of it hidden from sight. It has been a long and a faithful journey. When Stephen first applied to train at St Stephen’s House, the photograph attached to his application showed a youngish man, with a profusion of red hair. We can only assume that, like Moses, he has seen the face of God, and his countenance has been bleached white with the glory of God – or that he had the picture taken a little while ago.
And do not forget to remember Judith in your prayers – today and every day – that her own serene yet profound and challenging Christian witness may be enhanced and enriched by these great events. In any case, priests – especially those who are Durham music graduates – are murder to live with, and she needs our prayers.
Priests can only flourish in a community of people – we can never be priests merely for our own sake. We are ordained only in relation to a specific community, a local church. You are also in a position of great privilege and responsibility, for the presence of a new priest among you is a sign not only of rich blessing in God’s providence, but also that you have something to offer him. Today is a day to ask how you, as a community here, can best help Stephen shape the habits of discipleship and priesthood in such a way that he will bear maximum fruit for the Kingdom of God. What is it that we, individually and together, are called to do and be here? For as we shape our clergy, by the priorities we share, the manner of our conversation, the way we act, the depth of our prayer, so we ourselves are shaped in return, both for good and ill. If you do not wish your priests to speak ill of others, for example, do not do it yourselves.
Part of the clue for how we might attend to this formation, this shaping of a priest (and, by extension, of ourselves) is found in Jesus’ final words in this morning’s gospel. It is an enigmatic statement.
‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
The importance of salt in the lives of the people Jesus spoke to was beyond doubt. It was part of the domestic, but also the religious life of his listeners. In Leviticus we are told that all grain sacrifices should contain salt – a substance which at once preserves, purifies, and flavours food. This ‘salt’ then, is a profound quality of goodness which should permeate the life of the whole church community, as we are preserved in Christ, purified and sent out to flavour the world in which we live. It is the animation, the essence of divine presence, which brings things to life.
The two priestly Stephens in this parish – and I’m sure that plans to tell them apart are well in hand (but, if it helps, the handsome one is called Stephen) – have a role, both pastoral and evangelistic, to ensure that there is sufficient salt preserving, purifying and flavouring this parish. To do this, they call upon the Holy Spirit, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead, to infuse the church with his living presence. Why is this so? Because this parish is entrusted with a repository of treasure – a treasure as essential to the world as the air we breath. This parish is entrusted with the Good News of Jesus Christ, in whose ministerial priesthood Stephen now shares. It is Good News for everyone – all of us here today, everyone who lives in this parish, in fact everyone who has ever lived anywhere. We have been entrusted with this treasure – the news that in Jesus Christ God acts definitively in the life of all creation, the salt which renders the ongoing sacrifice of our lives acceptable. And by his dying and rising Jesus has done away with our estrangement from God, by being God with us, God among us, God within us. Here in this Eucharist Jesus is once more present, to preserve, to purify, to flavour the people of God. There is no better news than this, simply none. This is the salt which flavours, and ultimately gives meaning to, our lives.
And when we have good news – ‘Mother and child doing well’ ‘got into university’ getting married’ ‘it’s twins’ ‘got a job’ – we cannot help but rush round to our neighbours, breathless at the anticipation of sharing this news. We take to the pages of Facebook, to see how many ‘likes’ we can get. We share the news, simply, with joy, and the sharing brings about a great celebration.
Yesterday Stephen declared his faith publicly, and in the strongest possible terms, as he assented to the words of the ordinal. He pledged to be salt for you – one who is a channel of grace, used by God to preserve, purify and flavour the people of God here, not always as you wish it, but as God would have it.
Brothers and Sisters, I urge you to be prepared for God to act in this community, at this moment. Be prepared to be challenged by goodness, by grace, by forgiveness, by the values of the Kingdom of God which turn the world upside down. For if we truly knew the power of what we do this morning we would not do it lightly. We would be issuing hard hats for protection, and distress flares, not hymn books and orders of service. We come to the Eucharist not in the hope, but in the expectation that Jesus will change us, convert us, and we should be ready for that.
Not only salt, but people who, so flavoured, will be at peace with one another. One of the hallmarks of the presence of God-with-us is peace. We live in an age of turbulence, of bewilderment and uncertainty. Let this be a place of true peace – not in the sense of mere absence of conflict, but in the sense of being a place where conflict is gently challenged, worn down, and where we learn again and again the lessons of reconciliation and forgiveness which are overwhelming signs of God’s presence. Your priests should be as your community should be – a people who challenge the seemingly given environment of hostility and defensiveness with the radical vulnerability of divine love. This gift we need, perhaps above all, at this time. We need it across the globe. We need it in our towns and cities. We need it in our homes, our families, our hearts. This new priest is here to remind you that there is always a pathway back to God, no matter what we have done or what the world may witness. To be a people of peace is a narrow path indeed, but in the end it is the only one worth travelling.
My prayer for my dear friend Stephen is that he will be priestly salt in this place, a constant reminder of God’s utter desire for his people, a disturbing and subversive influence who challenges the status quo, one who plays his true and authentic part in the the sanctification and perfect peace of the people of God as a priest. And, Stephen – may the joy, excitement and perhaps terror of this moment never leave you, and continue to animate you in all you are and do, until Christ is all in all.