Isaiah 41. 9b–13; Ephesians 4.1–6; John 17.11b–23
a sermon at the Licensing of Canon Jon Bell as Bishop’s Senior Chaplain and Executive Officer at St Peter’s Chapel, Auckland Castle, on the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas
January 28 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Sometimes when you’re out on a walk in the country you have a sense that everything is perfect. The sun is shining, a cool breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, a magnificent view is opening up ahead. And then, quite suddenly, you come upon a small flower, tiny but perfect, a hidden gem worthy to stand alongside, and give deeper focus and meaning to, the sunshine and the mountain scenery. You thought the day was complete already, but here is something extra, something unexpected, something that fits perfectly and enhances everything, but which you wouldn’t have missed if it hadn’t been there.
That is the kind of effect St John produces, twice over, in his astonishing gospel. The story moves forwards from the early days with John the Baptist, and the wedding at Cana, through the marvellous scenes with Nicodemus and so on. Jesus’ powerful but mysterious teaching reaches a peak with the Good Shepherd in chapter 10; the signs of the kingdom unfold, reaching their climax with the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. Then, in chapter 12, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey, and speaks about the seed which must be planted in the ground if it is to bear much fruit. And already the reader is ready to move swiftly ahead through the Last Supper to the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion. The gospel has gathered pace, like the walkers out in the hills; now it’s time for the astonishing view of the Son of God dying for the sins of the world. But then, quite suddenly, John slows the tempo down, and gives us four chapters we had not anticipated, which we wouldn’t have missed if they hadn’t been there: the Farewell Discourses of chapters 13 to 16, full of strange and solemn, yet deeply joyful, teaching about the Spirit, about prayer, about the way in which Jesus’ friends and followers are to carry on his work, including facing the hatred of the world as he had done, after he’s gone. And then, just when we have got used to this, John does it again. The other evangelists tell us from time to time that Jesus was a man of prayer; John shows us, in a chapter which is again totally unexpected, which we wouldn’t have missed if it hadn’t been there, but which, when we stand back and see the gospel whole, we recognise as the hidden gem worthy to stand alongside, and indeed give deeper focus and meaning to, the signs and the glory of the Word made flesh. And it is this chapter, John 17, the so-called High Priestly prayer, that Jon has chosen as today’s gospel reading.
What I’ve just said about John’s gospel is a parable for the way a bishop’s household ought to work. The bishop is consecrated and enthroned; he dives headlong into the work of the kingdom, with a public ministry involving all kinds of events, pastoral conversations, ordaining and commissioning new ministers, engaging in controversy in church and public life, spending and being spent as an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd. That’s what the world sees. But the pattern of John’s gospel reminds us that at the secret heart of episcopal ministry the tempo must be slowed down, must bring the bishop and his household back to the still centre of contemplation, of invoking the Spirit, of learning the ways and the power of prayer. And above all the bishop and his household need, in the pattern of their lives, what John 17 provides within the framework of the gospel: the moment when time stands still, or rather when you go into a different type of time. In prayer, of whatever sort, past and future come together in a new configuration and you get in tune with the will of God and discover that you can adore, you can worship, you can ask for things, in particular you can ask for God’s glory and love to flood the lives of those for whom you are responsible. And it is in prayer, even though the world outside and the church outside doesn’t normally see it going on, that there grows the small but all-important plant which gives focus and meaning to the larger view of the bishop’s ministry. And the first and most important reason why a Bishop has a Chaplain is to support and facilitate the Bishop in being a man of prayer, a John 17 sort of person.
This view hardly justifies delusions of grandeur, whether for the Bishop or the Chaplain. It is a matter of sheer grace that the Good Shepherd shares his pastoral ministry with his followers after they’d all let him down. ‘Feed my sheep’, says the risen Jesus to Peter, and through him to all those of us who, despite our own failures and disloyalties, are still called to pastoral ministry. And it is because of that that we find ourselves, tremblingly, not only the beneficiaries of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer but also as men and women called to pray it in and with Jesus, called to share the prayer of the Son of God. And it is out of that prayer that all other ministries flow, not least the multiple tasks allotted to a Bishop’s Chaplain in our busy and confusing world and church.
Look at what Jesus prays for. He prays first that the Father will protect his followers. Up to now he’s done this himself, keeping them safe from the world of darkness that is so eager to quench the disturbing light of God’s good news. Now, with his imminent departure to the Father, he prays that the Father himself will continue that work of protection. We, with our mission-shaped hats on, might be surprised that this is the first main petition Jesus offers for his followers. We might have thought he’d begin by praying that they would be fruitful in his kingdom. Well, that’s important too, and he’s spoken about it at length before, not least in chapter 15, where he sees them as the branches of the vine, called to bear lasting fruit. But there’s no point in the vine trying to bear fruit if there are rats and weasels gnawing at its root, or rival gardeners ready to dig it up and plant very different shrubs instead. And as all of you know if you’ve ever attempted to do anything for God’s kingdom, let alone if you’ve taken that crazy plunge and said ‘I will’ and turned your collar round, there are plenty of rats and weasels, plenty of rival gardeners – and some of them come in the form of voices within your own heart and soul, telling you it’s a waste of time, what’s the point, the world doesn’t care, why not go and do something else; or, worse, suggesting that you let your self-control slip here and there where (so you suppose) it won’t matter so much. Primary among the Bishop’s tasks, therefore, and hence among those in which the Chaplain is to support him, is to pray that God’s people may be protected; and Bishop and Chaplain must and will pray that for one another, too. And that is the way, as he says, to the joy which springs up when, with the rats and the weasels at bay, the vine can bear the fruit it’s meant to. And this means that a major part of the Bishop’s work, and hence a major part of the Chaplain’s work in supporting and enabling him, is to act to bring about that for which they pray: that the diocese, not least the clergy, may be protected from all that would distract them, all that would stop them bearing fruit. That means, yes, filling in forms, organising meetings, issuing and sometimes revoking licenses, and so on. The protection of God’s people is central and vital to the work which follows from this prayer. (That, by the way, is precisely what Isaiah is speaking of in our Old Testament reading, though there isn’t time to explore that further just now.)
Because, second, God’s people need to be made holy, sanctified, set apart. ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’ This is deeply counter-cultural in our world, and indeed in today’s church, certainly the Church of England. One of the dangers about being an established church is that we easily slip into the error of imagining that our task is simply to find out what’s going on in the world and to bless and encourage it. We hate being confrontational, and I suspect some of us are even a little uncomfortable at the words of Jesus himself at this point: ‘The world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to this world.’ Isn’t that way too dualist for the world-embracing vision which we tell one another we must hold today?
No. When Jesus in John’s gospel says ‘the world’, he doesn’t mean ‘the world of creation’. John’s gospel is all about God’s love for the world, and its climax is in the new creation of resurrection, the redemption of the created order. No: when he says ‘the world’, rather like St Paul with the word ‘flesh’, he means ‘the world as it organises itself against God’. ‘The world’ is what is out there when people try to run their lives as though God didn’t exist; which is why there is solid and settled hatred – the word is hardly too strong! – for genuine Christianity and those who, however inadequately, attempt to stand for it. We are living in the middle of a major cultural turning-point, and the cold winds of the world’s hatred are blowing more sharply against those who speak for God, who live for God, whose lives show, by their holiness, that they belong to God and not to the world that (as in Luther’s definition of sin) turn inward upon themselves. We need to learn, always a hard lesson for Anglicans, that being loyal to Jesus will mean saying ‘no’ to a great deal that the world counts as normal and natural, whether it’s the lottery or casual adultery or fiddling your taxes or telling white lies. The church is sent out like Good King Wenceslas’s page on a bitter snowy day, into the world that hates what we are trying to do and seeks to squelch it at every turn. And as Jesus prays for his followers, so the Bishop and his Chaplain must pray for the church: sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’ This is not escapist piety; it is realistic missionary strategy.
That sets the context for the next aspect of the Chaplain’s work: because, as Jon and I have sorted out questions of priorities, we have seen that I shall need plenty of help in working out where best to engage with the wider world, whether in the House of Lords with all the major issues there – and if you think there aren’t some cold anti-Christian winds blowing in our society, look at the bills before the House right now! – or in our local community, where we face tough battles with some education authorities, with questions of social justice in our cities and our deep countryside, where we attempt to get together with all those of goodwill, of every church and indeed every faith, so that we can stand together. It is up to the Chaplain to help keep the Bishop focussed on these major tasks and to make and take the opportunities to work on them, and not be distracted by the thousand small and often irrelevant things that flood in day by day. This is part at least of what I mean by calling Jon my ‘Executive Officer’: he is to work at making things happen, at setting things up, at acting on my behalf in the larger strategic issues as well as the small details. And, not least, as my personal Press Officer he is to develop that sharp sense of the world’s cunning in luring bishops to say the wrong thing, to head me off from that and to help me grasp the opportunities to say the right thing at the right time.
But the third thing for which Jesus prays is for the unity and mission of the church, and this is the heart of it all. If God’s people are protected from evil, and sanctified in the truth which is God’s word – and if the Bishop and Chaplain are themselves protected and sanctified – then the main task must be to hold together God’s people as one, in prayer and hard work, and to do it in such a way that the world may know that Jesus is indeed God’s son and that through him God’s love, rich, generous and overflowing, is poured out into the world. Glory and love, glory and love, these are the main themes of John and of this prayer. Jesus prays for us, and we must pray for one another and for those in our care, that the glory which God gave to Jesus may be given to us, that we may share in the inner life of the triune God himself. There are many mysteries to be explored there, but as in John’s gospel – which in a few verses from here will have Jesus plunged into the rough-and-tumble of the soldiers and the swords and the night trials and the flogging – so here what this means in practice is that, flowing directly from the prayer for unity, there is all kinds of hard work to be done to take God’s people forwards as a single body, living before the world in such a way as to reveal God’s love and glory to the world.
And it is under this heading that we are to see the entire work that we think of as administration: the Synod, nationally and locally; the Bishop’s Council and the DBF and all their adherent Boards, Councils, Committees, Task Forces and other bodies, in each of which the Bishop’s Executive Officer must enable the Bishop, whether present or not, to be the prayerful leader of a church which is determined to hold together as it follows Jesus before the watching world. All the correspondence, all the diary management, all the pastoral emergencies, parish appointments, deanery visits, whatever it may be – all of it takes place, and must take place, as the outflow of the Bishop’s prayer, which is itself part of the prayer of Jesus on the night he was betrayed, that we may all be one, so that the world may believe. Unity and mission, glory and love. And it is at this point that our Epistle comes in: the one body and one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. That is our aim, and that is the real agenda underneath the administration and co-ordination of the diocese, not to mention our multiple links with other dioceses and provinces within the Anglican church and our exciting ecumenical relations, in all of which, again, the Chaplain must be involved at the Bishop’s right hand.
As St John himself might have put it, there are many other things that a Chaplain must do, and if they were all written down the world itself would not be able to contain the books that would be written . . . He must be guide, philosopher and friend to the Bishop, his family and his staff; must know when to take decisions by himself and when to refer them back; must so to learn the Bishop’s mind that he can judge his likely reaction to new questions and problems. And, perhaps hardest of all for someone who has been a Team Rector and an Area Dean, he must learn how to exercise appropriate leadership within the diocese while not being himself the figurehead. It is a hard thing that I have asked of Jon; I know it, and he knows it, and it’s a measure of his stature that he’s said ‘Yes’ to it. And it’s a measure of your respect and love for him and Janet that you have come here this evening to support them, to pray with them, and to assure them by your presence today of your prayers tomorrow as well. My brothers and sisters, I am deeply grateful to you all, but especially today to Jon, and I covet your continuing prayers for him and for me, as together we stand under, and learn to share, that prayer of Jesus: ‘I am praying for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’