This started out as one of a series of meditations on the priesthood given to the clergy of the Diocese Of Albany. I am rewriting and collecting them as a little book tenatively entitled “To Persevere In Love.” I just gave this as a lecture at Trinity Episcopal School For Ministry. Thanks to the dean, faculty and students for the chance to speak with them about a topic that is important to me.
To Persevere In Love
Meditations On the Priesthood
Our talk about ministry and priesthood is oddly imageless, abstract and generic. We speak of ministry, the ministering community, of facilitating gifts, of empowerment, of spirituality for ministry, of the baptismal covenant, of circles rather than pyramids, of mutuality and mutual ministry, of the Roland Allen model, of mission and the missionary church, of reconciliation, inclusion, justice and peace. Less often we talk about the Body of Christ and very seldom or so it seems to me do we hear of Jesus hanging on the cross, appearing after the Resurrection, breathing upon the disciples, Ascending into heaven and there interceding for us as the Great High Priest. What could it mean for the church and all its ministers, lay and ordained, if this image of the Jesus, The Great High Priest were more clearly before us and more carefully developed in our imaginations. So I invite you in what follows to an exercise in imagination.
Toward the end of her life my mother was hospitalized. I was very fortunate that she was in a hospital that was between the rectory and the church and I was able to visit her easily. During the last few days she was unable to speak but our visits were still full of communication. After one such visit as I left with a very full heart I noticed the newly opened hospital chapel. I went in with expectation, hope and longing and I was stunned, dazed by what I found. The room was beautiful and tasteful. There was fine woodwork, a soothing carpet, hushed lighting and an abstract pattern that resembled clouds on the walls. It was an interfaith chapel and in the effort to be inclusive all specific content had been excluded. There were no explicit religious symbols of any kind, not Jewish, not Christian, not Buddhist. Even in the moment I understood the necessity and appropriateness of the choice but it did not keep me from feeling bereft. As I sat there with my heart full of thanksgiving and regret and a deep desire both to forgive and be forgiven, it is hard to imagine anything less satisfying than the abstract clouds floating in cones of artfully directed light. At that moment I would have given anything to see a crucifix with its assurance that God knows and redeems suffering, or a Christus Rex, with its proclamation of the Risen Christ reigning from the cross, a simple empty wooden cross, proclaiming both realities at once would have been a great consolation.
I tried to think of what could be in a place like this. While I know that our public institutions now need to be sensitive to religions outside the Jewish-Christian traditions, somehow I felt that night if I could come up with something from Judaism that could be shared there might be some hope of the emptiness being filled. Of course, Judaism frowns on images. Then I thought of the Ten Commandments which you sometimes see written on the walls of churches. The Torah, The Way, The Ten Words. And then I thought of something which I had seen but not until that moment really understood. The image came to me of Torah processions. In synagogues it is the practice for the rabbi to take the scrolls of the Torah which are vested and ornamented in procession. The people reach out and touch the scrolls with great reverence and devotion, as if reaching out for life itself. Often this is a very solemn and decorous procession. But I had once seen a film of a Torah procession in a Hassidic community. A wild eyed rabbi with long, curly, sideburns and a black suit in disarray, with fringe peeking out of it, danced about fervently until the whole congregation was literally jumping for joy. And I understood, God speaks. In the emptiness, in the loneliness, to the fullness which cannot contain itself, God speaks. God does not leave us bereft but speaks and gives us a word, a word of love, a word of direction, a word of promise. God is not silent. God speaks. What joy, what inexpressible joy. What can one do save jump up and sing and fall down and pray? And what if this Word becomes flesh, as real and and knowable as another person? What response could possibly be adequate to such a reality? First we should want to receive to the fullest extent possible this word, we would wish to reach out and touch it as if touching life itself and in so doing express our relief, gratitude and joy. We would want to offer praise and adoration which included conforming our lives to this word. Then would we not want to tell those who have not heard, have not seen, “what we have handled and touched with our own hands,” as the Apostle Peter says. Would we not want to do this even at great cost, even if the price were high? Here is a first clue to the life of the priest, whether that priesthood of which every member of the church shares or the special calling of the ordained, that priesthood has to do with revelation, with the God who speaks and with responding to the word which is spoken with relief, gratitude, joy, obedience and with costly, sacrificial witness. The priest is one who is a living testimony that God speaks and addresses humankind with a welcome word of love, direction and promise.
There has always been a choice between those religions which believe in revelation, in a God who speaks, and those which do not. Judaism, Christianity and Islam on the one side and something like Zen, which is completely agnostic about God or the gods, on the other. There has always been a choice between versions of revealed religion. There has always been the choice to believe or reject the Word spoken to us in Jesus Christ. Is this word a dependable word or no? It is of the nature of revelation that it is to be accepted or rejected. There is the inescapable choice, God speaks or not, this is God’s word or not. What is unique in our own time is the attack on revelation in the heart of the church. This fundamental choice between a trust in God’s word and a distrust is part of the theological discussion at the center of the church today. I do not mean to call into question the undoubted usefulness of exegetical tools and biblical scholarship which are of help in sharpening and refining our interpretation. But there is a feeling, which has arisen perhaps because of an overconfidence in and overuse of historical-critical methods, that the Bible is primarily a cultural artifact with very limited relevance and that Jesus Christ is perhaps one of the words which God may have spoken alongside many other words to which we also must listen. One of the giants of twentieth century theology Emil Brunner was asked about this problem of the dependability of revelation and he answered that though there is wisdom and beauty in the world’s great religions, there you will never hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling his sheep by name. The priest is one who has heard a voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd calling the sheep by name and who with rapture and with rapt attention says “listen, listen, do you hear that.” It is the singularity, the uniqueness of revelation that produces a priest, this obsessive witness to the word from beyond with which God addresses our longing and hope. The priest is a person who bets his or her life on the conviction that God speaks and that the voice of God can be heard and God help us because it is such an audacious claim, that it is possible to be a servant of this voice and help others to hear this word of love, of direction of promise as though it was directed directly to them because in fact it is directed directly to each and everyone, everyone, everywhere. This is the sort of person you send for when you are facing death, your own or of those you love. When you are facing death you want to know someone who is confident that there is a God and that God cares and that God can be known. You want someone utterly consecrated to that reality. You want a priest.
Much is made today of the reality of the mystery of God. God is inherently mysterious it is said. All we say about God is metaphorical and analogical. All we say about God is therefore thought to be limited, tentative, provisional. Very often wise things are said about St. Gregory, Nanzianan and the apophatic Greek tradition. It is claimed that it is really very ancient Patristic Theology that God is primarily and fundamentally ineffable mystery. Therefore we must be very humble in what we say and not claim too much. We must listen attentively to other claims and perhaps by collecting enough metaphors from enough traditions we will have our little theological worlds expanded and arrive at a greater approximation of the truth which we realize is an ideal term which perpetually recedes as we approach. Apparently by combining one undependable tradition with another undependable tradition and assessing the combination on the basis of some undisclosed and unaccountably dependable principle we come to truth by adding up falsehoods.
Of course there are limits to what we say about God and these limits are well known in the history of theology. But when the Fathers of the church pointed to the mystery of God they wanted to point to the superabundance of meaning in God, not to empty the word God of all meaning. St. Gregory had no doubt that Jesus Christ was the one word of God addressed to humanity and that this word was a word of personal, sacrificial love. The great thing that Christianity brought to the ancient world was certainty, revelation, dependable knowledge about God. The ancient world was weary of comparative religion and and philosophical speculation. Confusion and uncertainty had cut the moral nerve of the society and left the individual aimless, prone to ennui and jaded by the diminishing effectiveness of distractions like the games. It was the appearance of those first priests with their certainty that both attracted and repelled the ancient world. It was the appearance of certainty in the midst of uncertainty, of conviction in the midst of confusion. In a world in which people were not sure who the gods might be, there appeared a group of people who were so certain that they had heard God, had met God, that they were willing to die for God and who dying proclaimed the possibility for their persecutors to hear and know God also, even to be forgiven for the crime of persecuting God’s messenger. It was this priestly sacrificial life on the part of the Apostles and the ordinary Christians who heeded them that created the early church. Of course we must have humility and restraint and say no more than has been given to us. What has been given to us is the life of Jesus Christ, a life lived with utter conviction in the reality of his Father and the Father’s will that we should repent and return and heed the word of love and forgiveness directed to us in His Son. Jesus Christ perseveres in love, perseveres in bringing us God’s Word., perseveres in being God’s Word, perseveres to the end, perseveres in the face of great hostility, perseveres to the Cross and thereby opens the way to eternal life, a new life that begins now and which the grave cannot hold. It is this perseverance in love, based on confidence in the Father and certainty about His love and purpose, which produces the sacrificial, priestly life of Jesus Christ and which has the power to bring us to redemption, to the place where we can hear and obey. The listening, hearing, obeying of the Son produces the priesthood of Christ and of His Body the Church. Within the church there are those whose ministry it is to continually reconstitute the church by virtue of their utter consecration to the reality of God’s Word. It is the sacramental priesthood of the church’s ordained ministers that makes possible a fresh hearing of the Word of God and animates the the life of believers with the conviction that leads to praise, adoration and sacrifice, to the priesthood of all believers. The figure of the ordained, sacramental priest disappears when confidence in the Jesus Christ as the one Word of God disappears, for Christ’s own priesthood is disappearing and with the loss of this confidence on the part of the ordained ministers the whole priestly life of the church in all its members begins to dissipate. In the place of relief, gratitude, joy, adoration, praise and self-offering(sacrifice is grateful self-offering) there begins to creep in a spirit of striving and pride. With striving and pride come their twins, exhaustion and despair. If there is no dependable revelation then we are condemned to an exhausting search. If there is no definitive gift of salvation in the sacrificial life of Christ then we must try and must fail to reach God ourselves and in some way fabricate our own salvation out of good works or spirituality. We should expect that when confidence in the one Word of persevering love that comes to us in Jesus Christ begins to be lost there should come into the life of the church and its ministers a restless, frenetic quality, a seeking without finding, a striving which leads to disappointment and despair.
The church lives from the grateful, joyous, free self-offering of the Son to the Father in the power of the Spirit. The inner life of the Trinity is a life of praise, adoration and joyous, self-offering, the inner life of the Trinity is a priestly life, a going out in preserving love, a return in loving praise and sacrifice. It is the mission of the Son to bring this priestly life, this sacrificial persevering love to light and so He comes in the power of the life He has with the Father, in the power of the Spirit, to be the light and life of the world, to be the one Word of divine persevering love. Yet, He cannot really bring us this love without persevering to the end with a listening, an obedience that extends even to the cross. Only when rebellion, resistance and hatred have been drowned in the blood, (the sacrificial love) of the cross–only when the tide of hate and rebellion flowing from the evil one has been overwhelmed by the tide of love flowing from the Father and pouring out through the wounded side of Christ–only then–through that total self-offering, does the new life of the Resurrection appear and it becomes possible for sacrificial, persevering love to do its recreating work. Had the Risen Christ no wounds in His hands, His feet, His side–He could not quicken us. It is the love that perseveres unto the death of the cross that is His peace which He breathes into the Apostles that first Easter. It is a peace which the world can not give. It comes from above and it is bought at great price.
This peace, this joy, this sacrifice, can not come to us abstractly, can not come as a theory, an idea. it must come as He came–in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular person. It must come by one who has heard this word, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And I dare to add, for it is said in so many words, “Persevere in love as I have persevered. Die with me so that you may live and so that by the witness of your dying and rising others may be brought to life and that which I said to you in the beginning, by the side of the lake will surely come true, “Follow me and you shall catch people alive.”
It will instantly be said that this is the duty of all Christians and so it is. The life that Jesus Christ lived was the duty of every human being but the Father had to send the Son to persevere in love, to make this life a possibility for us. So the Son provides for an effective sign of His persevering love in the midst of His people–So a particular person in a particular time, in a particular place, is ordained, consecrated, set apart to make present the death of Christ which is our life–to by a priestly life of praise, adoration and grateful sacrifice, call others to the death by which they may live and find the life for which they were made as members of the Body of Christ, as a Royal Nation, as a Kingdom of Priests.
But how is it possible to have this confidence? Is this something that a modern–an enlightened person can really do? Do we not know too much to so completely trust one claim and only one among so many claims to be the definitive word of God? Does not anyone who claims such confidence risk being a hypocrite who suppresses honest doubt? These are legitimate questions and they must be addressed. But we must see what is at stake. At stake is the life of faith itself, especially in its priestly dimension as a life of commitment, consecration, and sacrifice–a complete trust. A commitment with a reserve held back for the truth which might yet come can not qualify as a priestly service of praise and self-offering.
There are two parts to this question. In part this a philosophical and theological question. It is a matter of foundational choices about first principles. To assume that there can in principle be no one trustworthy Word of God is a foundational choice, a faith in itself, an ultimate commitment which can be justified on the basis of no other more ultimate principle. It is a choice and commitment of the same nature and structure as the choice to believe in a God who speaks, who reveals himself in a gracious word of persevering sacrificial love. It is not inherently more rational, more plausible to disbelieve in a definitive revelation. The conviction that such faith is overreaching or lacking in intellectual integrity comes from an uncritical, excessive trust in the illusion of a disinterested, critical principle. So in part the charge of a faith that overreaches needs to be met by the unmasking of an overreaching, critical-rationalism. Martin Luther once called reason a whore by which he meant that it is all too easy to rationalize our denial of God. The introduction into the heart of the church of a distrust in revelation as a first principle more basic and dependable than a fundamental trust in the goodness of God and effective desire of God to be known is precisely the sort of thing of which Luther was speaking and which must be condemned as a false intellectualism and a kind of anti-theology.
Once it is established that the conviction that revelation is undependable is not inherently more intellectually respectable than the conviction that there is one dependable Word of God, there remains another part of the problem–the problem of the human heart which both yearns to give itself totally and completely and which yet, draws back at the moment of commitment. We can have hesitations that are not only intellectual, but which have to do with the fear of vulnerability which comes from such total commitment which in my own case I freely admit is over determined and irrational. Even if I can come to a moment of clarity, conviction and commitment, it is hard to sustain and soon I am assailed by doubts which no strength of argument can suppress. Once we acknowledge that the one Word of God addressed to us in Jesus Christ cannot be said in principle to be untrustworthy how do we bring ourselves in actual fact to trust and commitment? How do we silence the voices within and without, which tell us to go slow, be cautious, hedge our bets and to protect ourselves by refraining from the kind of total commitment that can lead to a terrible exposure, to an insupportable vulnerability?
The call to Christian Faith, to bet your life on Jesus Christ is not a call to silence all those interior or exterior voices. It is not a call to be completely sure and confident before commitment. It is a call to die–to bet everything–holding nothing back. We want all questions to be settled first and then we will commit ourselves. We will always have doubts, fears, voices within and without which will give us pause, which will hold us back. There will never be an end to this kind of hesitation. The order is not first the elimination of doubt and then commitment, faith, the life of obedience and sacrifice, the priestly life. The order is trust, commitment, sacrifice, the priestly life, and from this comes the growing conviction of the faithfulness of God which draws forth praise and adoration. In this growing life of faith, doubts and hesitations can have a dynamic role and lead to greater assurance and conviction. As the priestly life of sacrifice and praise is pursued in the face of doubts and fears and God is again and again found faithful to save, as the profound dependability of the Word of persevering love which has come to light in Jesus Christ becomes more evident, the adoration, praise and sacrifice, the consecration of the priest grows and so does the effectiveness of this sacramental presence of Christ in His church.
It is appropriate, it is necessary, it is indispensable to the life of faith and especially to that life as a priestly life of praise and sacrifice that solemn and in principle irrevocable commitments should be made in spite of doubts and fears and with the realistic expectation that doubts and fears will never completely disappear, that they even have a providential role in God’s plan of salvation. But it is not doubts and fears that are meant by God to determine the shape of human life but unswerving commitment to the One Word of God’s persevering love addressed to us in Jesus Christ. So the promise to trust Christ and follow Him as Lord and Saviour which is made in Baptism is regarded as an irrevocable commitment. It cannot be allowed that the mistrust of this commitment can lead to the life for which we were made. There are no fears or doubts that can release us from our moment of commitment. The nature of the commitment is that it is to be maintained in the face of doubts and fears. The promise is that in this struggle faith and character will grow.
Over and over again in the life of the church Christian people are asked to deepen their commitments to Christ and each other in the face of and in spite of fears and doubts. Those who have been baptized at an early age are asked to renew their covenant in Confirmation. A man and a woman are asked to bring alive in a unique way, Christ’s irrevocable commitment to us by making an irrevocable commitment to each other. We are asked Sunday by Sunday to renew, reaffirm our faith and these requests come with an understanding and acknowledgment of the doubts and fears that assail us. The teaching office of the church subverts itself when it speaks without seeming to have knowledge of or sympathy for these very real doubts and fears. Nevertheless, it is the reaffirmation of faith that gives the gift of a life of praise, thanksgiving and sacrifice. It is the renewal of faith in the face of doubt that arises in a suffering and sinful world that is meant by God to structure our lives, and give life and hope.
In the midst of the necessity, the demand, and the difficulty of renewing faith and making irrevocable commitment, the commitment of the sacrificial, sacramental priest has a special role. The invitation of Jesus Christ to follow Him in complete trust, complete dependence, total self-giving to the Father, comes to the life of the faithful, gathered together in a congregation, not as an abstract principle, not as a theory but through a unique person who embodies a unique irreplaceable and irrevocable commitment to Jesus Christ and to his Church. It is vital, indispensable and uniquely constitutive of the sacramental priesthood that the priest makes an irrevocable and life long commitment to the service of Christ’s Church in Word and Sacrament. Such a commitment is made not by silencing voices within and without that protest the extravagance of such a vow, but in spite of them and with the determination that faith and not doubt shall determine the shape of this life. “As for me and my house we shall serve the Lord.” The priest makes ordination vows knowing many doubts and fears and knowing that many more will come. Moments of deepening faith will bring a deepening crisis of doubt and trust. It is the reckless and wild abandonment of such a commitment that Christ uses to keep alive at the heart of the church His own recklessness in love and wild abandonment to the will of His Father. The grace of ordination works in and through the commitment of the priest, the abandonment of the priest to the priestly life, to elicit commitment and sacrifice in the people despite their doubts and fears.
One of the things that gives many people pause when they contemplate the vocation of Holy Orders is the obvious dependence of the parish priest on the life of the congregation. It is perceived and rightly so, that the priest is at the mercy of the congregation, that failure and rejection in this role can be devastating in way that threatens to overwhelm and from which recovery is hard to imagine. Sometimes this reality keeps people from the priesthood, sometimes people try to minimize the effect by choosing specialized ministries like teaching, chaplaincy or pastoral counseling. Such efforts are ineffective. This dependence and vulnerability are inherent in the priesthood because they are inherent in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He makes Himself uniquely and irrevocably dependent on us. He makes Himself vulnerable to being rejected by his own. His passion–the suffering of the cross–is the suffering of one rejected by His own. It is not possible to embrace the life of the priest without embracing the cross, this death by which He gives life, and the cross will be there all the same in the classroom, the hospital and the counseling session. The priest will be there with this vulnerability that comes from complete abandonment to the one Word of God’s persevering love and with the necessity to persevere in the face of rejection and hostility. Vulnerability is part of the sacramental witness of the priesthood to the priestly life of Christ in our midst as He calls us all to risk all with Him for the sake of His Father and His Father’s children. The endurance of hostility and rejection are part of the life of every priest and part of the life of the priestly people of God. For most parish priests most of the time this is balanced by the real love of the people for the faithful priest. Many priests have experienced at some time a very complete rejection by the people to which they have committed themselves. Such a rejection is perhaps not inevitable but it is a likely experience at some point in the priestly life given both the frailty of priest and people. But even in such a moment there is not a failure of the sacramental sign which Christ gives to the church in the sacramental priesthood. Even in failure and rejection, even when removed from office because of relational incompetence or popular demand, the vulnerability of the priest to the loyalty of the people brings to light the way in which Christ puts himself at the disposal of His people and the way in which the redeeming presence is at work in our midst, suffering our indifference and rejection.
Less and less do I feel that effectiveness in the exercise of the sacramental priesthood has to do with skill and competence and more and more I feel that effectiveness has to do with surrender, abandonment, dependence and vulnerability. This should not be confused with an imprudent disregard for developing skills and competencies appropriate to one’s office. We are duty bound to be diligent and disciplined. We must try to infuse our relationships with our fellows with warmth and Christian affection. But these things only grant the occasion, the opportunity for the grace of ordination to work and that grace is dependent on the living response to a Word that is revealed. The grace of ordination depends on surrender to the costly, sacrificial, persevering Word of God’s love by abandonment to that Word in the care of God’s people. It is the willingness to die with Christ that we might rise with Him that is at the root of the priesthood of both the sacramental priest and the priestly people. It is trust in His Word that if we would find our lives we must lose them.
©Leander Harding 2003