God’s Porters: Ordination of Priests 2023
It being Glastonbury season, I was reminded last weekend how, when working for a slightly smaller music festival some thirty years ago, I once appeared to meet Eric Clapton. He had arrived at the gates in the back of a chauffeured Mercedes, wearing shades, and was so obviously the legendary guitarist that security just waved him through.
All night, he stood backstage in unapproachable fame until in the VIP bar afterwards, we dared draw near and ask the faintly ridiculous question: ‘is it you, then?’ To which his equally ludicrous response was ‘it is - but I’m not him’.
Suitably refreshed, he proceeded to explain how he spent the summer being let into music festivals by giving a plausible impression of Clapton and being welcomed behind the velvet rope, there to enthusiastically partake of all that Hospitality had to offer. You had to admire it, really.
Being given access is doubtless an appealing thing - as is being the one who grants it, which endows a significant degree of power on those who hold the keys.
Read Matthew 16 vv18-19a.
When Jesus says to Simon Peter, ‘I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ he obviously doesn’t have a physical set of keys to give him but is entrusting the impetuous Apostle with a huge spiritual responsibility, both for the church and for what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven (which is why of course we get all those jokes about people dying going up to heaven and meeting St Peter). But Peter could have been forgiven for thinking this was some kind of joke, because he wasn’t really the first person you might pick to entrust these things to; he wasn’t what we might call saintly or spiritual – a fisherman, as we know; impulsive, prone to fly off the handle; one minute massively enthusiastic and the next deeply downcast – he was all over the place, really. But what he did have was the insight to recognise who Jesus was. Whilst he often got things badly wrong, he got one thing entirely right, and that was when Jesus asked him ‘who do you say that I am?’ and he answered, ‘you are the Messiah, the son of the living God’. And that recognition proved to be crucial – as it does for all who respond.
And perhaps the most significant thing about Peter was not what he was when we first meet him in the Bible, but what Jesus saw he could be in the future. Jesus looks at this feisty but flaky youth - Simon, as he was called to begin with – & says to him – ‘I tell you, you are Peter and, on this rock, I will build my church’. He only became a rock, curiously, when the ground beneath him gave way and he began to sink. As when attempting to walk on water and, unsurprisingly, finding he couldn’t – or when Jesus was arrested, and Peter denied he even knew him. Likewise, for us, it is often when we sink (and discover that what we rest our lives upon is not as sure as we had thought) that we discover Christ beneath us: a firm foundation, whose love and strength never give way.
Dear friends now to be ordained priest, local ministry has a way of teaching us this! So be encouraged that your vows – like all vows – are a starting line, not a finishing post. If we are not careful our sense of self can be tossed about pretty roughly by this role. In an instant, priesthood can overinflate to bursting the conceit that we are some kind of saviour to those we serve. The next moment it can puncture our confidence to the extent that we feel little more than frauds in frocks. You may not need me to say this, but you are neither of these things: just the usual blend of saint and sinner that your friends and family know and love (and tolerate so graciously).
What changes today is that the church is sets you apart for a particular and holy charge, which is to draw people, not to yourself, but to Christ – the only one who is worthy of our praise and who, in offering himself, reconciles the world to God. Christ it is, and Christ alone, who in one movement, brings the life of God to our door, and leads us to the gates of heaven.
We live in a society in which so many feel locked out - of opportunity or justice or just genuine, loving relationship. Many, likewise, privately long to approach faith in God but feel like an imposter in church and struggle to gain access without passing themselves off as someone else. That happens to clergy too. So, for those who follow St Peter in that long apostolic succession, what an opportunity and privilege to those who follow in the footsteps of St Peter, to fling the church doors generously wide!
As God’s Porters, priests often find themselves at thresholds: not only of the church, but of homes, workplaces, and schools, or at personal thresholds of love, life and death, places of profound crisis or giddying festivity. At each of these boundaries we serve the one who called himself ‘the gate’. And while there will be things to loose and things to bind, at his side, your duty and your joy is to release the locks and grant access all areas to the Church of Christ – to proclaim afresh: ‘dear friends, the way to life is now unlocked – come on in!’