Just when I thought I was back in Ely, I seem to have found myself surrounded by a sea of blue-scarved Ipswich supporters. It’s very confusing! In reality, it is of course a real joy to be back on this side of the border, and back amongst friends – so many faces I know, and so many names I still remember, though please do prompt me if I look even more vacant than usual.
Back too with a renewed brief to do most of the bishopping on behalf of Stephen and myself for lay ministers, and not least alongside our first LLM Warden of Readers, Steve Mashford, for this honourable company, who really ought to have their own Livery Guild by now.
Today we are admitting and licensing three new Readers – Ann, Andrew and Pat, whose vocation and ministry celebrate, and in the context of both a wonderful inheritance of long service by those who have gone before them, especially those who will receive their awards today, and also of significantly increased numbers of new people starting training now who we will be welcoming in the future. Whatever the future of the Church of England in these interesting times, licensed lay ministry is clearly going to be part of it round here.
What we do know about the future, even if its organisational and institutional shape is living through a time of change, is that its own vocation and ministry remains unchanged. The words that begin our Diocesan Vision statement may be newly crafted, but their sentiment is as it has always been: we pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ. And LLMs, who give so generously of their time and talents for a very visible public ministry, are part of our response to that prayer.
When St Paul wrote to the young Christians in Rome, church looked very different from how it looks now, but the calling was the same, on it as a body and on its ministers and members as individuals. He calls them to a generous life of self-giving not self-getting, which he daringly calls a living sacrifice – or lively sacrifice as those of us who were brought up on the Prayer Book remember it and which captures the sense even more richly, because we know that to give is to receive, and that the more we are generous to others, the more we are a people fully alive ourselves. This, Paul sees, is the real heart of worship: not the hymns or even the words of the prayers, but the hearts opened and offered in service to God.
Our fallen nature means that this does not come naturally to us. The Fall of Volkswagen has been all over the news this last fortnight, as the fragility of even apparently admirable human operations is exposed. It is so very east to become conformed to the way of the world. So we need to work at our transformation, at being not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. And that of course is just what Ann and Andrew and Pat have been doing during the long years of their training. Not just picking up a few useful skills, but soaking themselves in the scriptures, in prayer, in the wisdom of those who have gone before us, the three-stranded rope of the Anglican tradition which becomes our ladder to heaven. If all has gone well their character will slowly and sometimes strikingly have been stamped afresh with the image of Christ, like a coin fresh minted, gaining new worth and usefulness, new currency. It is a personal transformation in fact from which no Christian in fact can stand apart. We need to come to Christ and be formed afresh by him, or there is no life in us.
When we do come to Christ though, are conformed to him, then Paul teaches us that we start to see and understand, to discern what the will of God for us is, a will that is always good and for the good – and what other could we want. We start to share in the prayer of Jesus that God’s will might be done, and that prayer becomes our mandate and our marching order for our mission and ministry.
How can we put ourselves into that way of renewal? Paul keeps on reminding us that this is mercy and grace all the way, but we have to make our minds up to receive the gifts we are being given. And the first enemy to be fought is our self-centredness, our tendency to make ourselves the great I am, always pre-occupied with ourselves, and – because we are looking at things from our point of view not God’s – rarely getting our picture of ourselves right; and so we end up doing a Sinatra, doing it our way, not God’s. Paul concentrates on the temptation to think too highly of ourselves. That seems to have been the besetting problem in Rome. For others it will be a danger of thinking themselves as having too little worth. But for both the only safe answer is to learn through faith to see ourselves as God sees us, accepting with joy the person we are made to be; for in truth all that we are and all that we have is a gift from him.
To think otherwise is to be like the plastic model of DNA that I have just been making as a visual aid for another sermon hearing all the talk of how DNA was the building block of life, and starting to think that it was the cause of its own creation. We are wonderfully and fearfully made … but made. So we learn to deepen our commitment to him in word, in worship and in prayer, and that becomes the root of all our thinking, our strategizing, our action.
Paul’s second step towards a life conformed to Christ is that we start to realise and remember – as we learn a little humility – that we are but one gift from God in a sackful of grace, and that there is a wonderful diversity of gifts and ministries amongst us, so thank goodness we don’t have to do it all or do it alone. It’s another lesson that’s not always easy to learn, and having to sort out the mess when one person’s ministry crosses swords with another’s is never good news.
I did of course look up Luther’s commentary before daring to preach on Romans 12, and this is how he put it: “”Nothing is likely to cause so much division as when people do not stay within the proper bounds of their calling, but neglect their ministry and break in upon others…. Since it is God who distributes all gifts, but does not bestow all of them upon a single person, no-one should exalt himself as if he had all and others none, for by this the unity of the church is destroyed.”
So we grow God’s church by so growing as disciples that we grow other ones too, and new ministers and leaders among them for the future: this sort of growth is the second imperative of our diocesan strategy and one that fits very naturally with Pauls’ teaching here. And LLMs can play an important part as teachers and encouragers in our discipleship and church growth.
So I wonder which of the gifts he mentions is particularly yours as an LLM – it’s not a bad list to ponder on: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Thirdly and finally, Paul challenges us not only to be honest with ourselves about our gifting, but about our character and motivation – and if those are not right the church and the mission of God are going nowhere. Interestingly a rather later commentary than Luther’s points out that the unusual Greek constructions here suggest Paul is half-quoting an earlier – and that means very early – list perhaps in Aramaic of moral injunctions, a sort of Christian 10 commandments:
Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honour.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope,
be patient in suffering,
persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints;
extend hospitality to strangers.
Extend hospitality to strangers. LLMs are public ministers, outward facing to the community around us as well inward facing towards the needs of the church. If things are going right we are so gripped by the love of God that we are as passionate in our love for others as he is in his love for us. We can’t help it. It just spills out, out through the door and into the street as one of my favourite songs puts it, the fiery wind of the Spirit. We engage fully and courageously with the needs of our communities; and the vision and mandate is fulfilled as we start to see the kingdom come and God’s will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.
So now we cannot avoid the moment when our love is put to the test. Jesus, full of compassion, is saying to his disciples, to you and me: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ I know the power of that call. When I was wondering what my call to St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was all about I went over to the cathedral there to pray and saw the words in some sort of vision, “Feed my sheep”, and had compassion for sheep without a shepherd and knew I had to go – and I know too that my call is now to feed the sheep here. It was a renewing of my mind. Can you pray with me now that your minds and mine will daily, will this day be renewed and our call re-awoken as we seek the kingdom of God for this place.
We praise and thank you, God of the journey,
For all your gifts to us in the past.
We look to you as fellow-traveller and faithful companion on the way ahead.
Shelter and protect us from all harm and anxiety:
Give us grace to let go of all that holds us back;
And grant us courage to meet the new life you have promised us
In Jesus Christ our Lord.