Friday, 9 September 2011

An Ordination Sermon

Peter Lockhart
For Suzy Sitton!

What sort of person does the risen Christ entrust his church to?

As the curtain closes on John’s gospel, Jesus says to Peter, “feed my lambs” “tend my sheep” “feed my sheep”. Jesus entrusts the future of his church to Peter.

Of course the whole notion of the Petrine office and its link to the ordering church and so also ordination is much stronger in some of our sister churches.

Yet, on this night when we come to ordain Suzy reflecting on Jesus call to Peter may give some insight as to ordination and to the sheep that he is called to. To do this I want to do 2 things:

First: To consider who Peter was and what his cv looked like, and in so doing ascertain some of the qualities and challenges for those called into ordination?

And, second: to consider who the sheep that Peter was entrusted with were, so that we might know who it is we are called to care for as well.

To discover a bit about Peter’s background I began reading the gospel of John backwards to see what kind of person Jesus was willing to send out in his name.

I limited myself to discovering who Peter is in John’s gospel because this is where the story comes from. I have not included every reference to Peter in John’s gospel but certainly I am including the majority.

Jesus conversation with Peter is taking place on a beach. Why? At the beginning of John 21 just after the risen Jesus has appeared to the disciples for a second time in the locked room, Peter somewhat mysteriously decides to go fishing.

Peter’s decision to go fishing has always been perplexing. Maybe in the moment of confusion and misdirection after the resurrection of Jesus Peter is lured back to his old life. We know from John Chapter 1 Peter is a fisherman and maybe going fishing simply seems easier than dealing with the death and resurrection of his master.

In terms of ordination maybe this a reminder that each of us who is ordained has another background, another vocation, from which we have been called and which at times we may also feel lured back towards. This could be at times in which we find ourselves confused or confronted by our encounter with the risen and crucified Jesus. What are we meant to do with that? Going fishing may be easier!

Now I am going to skip back over Peter’s mini-Olympics, running to the tomb, and travel back prior to Jesus crucifixion.

In John 18 Peter’s triple denial of Jesus is set against the backdrop of Jesus being questioned by the High Priest Caiaphas.

Three times Peter is asked whether he was one of Jesus followers and three times Peter denied the association. Of course there is a clear connection to the threefold questioning of Jesus about Peter’s love in the story that we heard tonight. But it also grates against Peter’s assertion of John 13:37 when he said “I will lay down my life for you.”

As followers of Jesus, as his disciples, all of us will find that there are moments that we forget whose we are and we too will deny Jesus. Ordination is not reliant on an unwavering faith but is done in midst of the honest struggle that any of us have to hold true to Jesus. It is more than likely that like Peter it will take the cock crowing for us to realise with shame we have denied our Lord.

Now John 18 is not the best of Chapter’s for our prospective candidate, for in John 18:10 we also hear the story of Jesus’ arrest and how Peter drew forth his sword and struck the high priest slave, Malchus, ear off.

Now Jesus automatically intervenes, despite his commitment and the best intentions Peter has got it wrong.

The sword reminds me that there are times that as people who follow Jesus we may be tempted to support violence against other people in the name of Jesus or even commit violence against people. Not necessarily physical violence but the violence of judgement or exclusion or manipulation or hatred or simply apathy and inaction because we believe in doing so we are defending our Lord, but the question does Jesus need to be defended?

Retreating backwards through time and the confrontation in the garden we find Jesus in John 13 with a towel tied around his waist and Peter refusing to have his feet washed.

The towel could just as well be bound around Peter’s head. His blindness to Jesus teaching and misunderstanding seems to reach dizzying heights.

The setting apart of people at ordination is not because those ordained listen and understand Jesus any better than Peter did at this moment. To jump out of John and to quote Paul for a moment “we see through a dark glass”. The best any of can says is that we have glimpsed the Christ and gleaned some understanding of his way, as narrow and misguided as we might be in that.

Given all of these issues, thankfully, one of the aspects of Peter’s call is that he isn’t in it alone.

We know that Peter does not follow Jesus alone; he was fishing with 6 other disciples when the risen Lord came to them. As misguided as they may have been at times the disciples did support one another and encouraged one another as they followed Jesus. We know too that it was not simple this rag tag 12 that followed Jesus and got involved but many others as well.

It is far too tempting to see ordained ministry as a private and personal crusade as if we are lone rangers riding off into the sunset. This is not the case. And the presence of the minister’s from the Presbytery tonight and people from many congregations reminds us of this. We are all in this together.

Skipping back, right to the beginning of John now, in John 1 we hear about the call of Peter and of the other disciples.

And I want us to pause here for a moment because this really is what it is all about. Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple and in the encounter on the beach in John 21 Jesus determines to send Peter as his shepherd. In John 15 Jesus reminds all of the disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you”

As much as anything this is what ordination is about not the quality of the person being called but of the faithfulness of he that calls us. We might go fishing, or deny Jesus, or commit violence in his name, we might misunderstand his teaching or simply think that we can do it alone yet it is in the grace of God which calls to us and it is his faithfulness that we celebrate tonight.

It might be even said that the fallibility of the ordained ministry of the church is a parable of the kingdom of God, because as ordained people our failure to be all that we can be is a reminder that God’s grace extends even to the ordained.

So this is the person who Jesus called, Peter, whom despite his failings Jesus believes in and trusts to feed his sheep.

Who are these sheep that peter is feed? I do not want us to simply make the assumption that the sheep are congregation members but looking again to the scriptures to think about whom it is that Jesus, himself fed.

I am going to do this in short, but again want to invite some people to help me build this picture.

In John 3 it is Nicodemus – a man who represents deep and long thinking about who God is, he is a Pharisee, a person of faith who assumed he had it all worked out, but was in fact far from the truth.

In John 4 we encounter the Samaritan woman at the well. Someone from a different religion, a person ostracised by her own community, a woman with questionable morals: a woman who thirsts for living water.

And again in John 4 the royal official whose son had died. He was a wealthy man with power and influence whom Jesus reached out to in love.

In John 5 a paralysed man and in John 9, a man blind since birth. People coping with disability found at the fringe of society, in need of healing and hope, in need of community.

To step briefly out of John’s gospel “tax collectors and sinners” and “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

Beyond his own followers these are the sheep that Jesus fed. Yes we are responsible to the flock of our congregation but our congregations are ministers of the gospel as well and together we are called to all of these whom Jesus loved.

“Feed my sheep”. Indeed they are Jesus’ sheep, not ours, but we who called to follow Jesus, ordained and lay alike, are called to follow Jesus by serving those whom he loved. Our very own lives are not hypocritical failures but signs of the grace of a God who in Jesus would call even us to share in his ministry, not because we are worthy of the call but because Jesus reaches out in love and faithfulness declaring God’s peace us and constantly inviting us also to follow him.

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