Ezekiel 1.22–28; Colossians 1.24–29; John 17.1–13
a sermon at the Ordination of Priests in Durham Cathedral, June 26 2010
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N T Wright
Some years ago, Maggie and I were invited to dinner by a very senior person in another university. After the meal I asked if I could see the great man’s study. (I always like visiting other people’s studies.) He took me into a grand room surrounded by bookcases and oak panelling. It was splendid, but it was a bit too formal and neat. Everything was very tidy. I was suspicious. ‘This isn’t.’ I asked, ‘where you actually work, is it?’ He smiled, and led me through a secret door in the panelling. I found myself in a room whose every inch said, This is where the man is truly himself. Books and papers everywhere, covering chairs and desks. An exercise bike. Family photographs and sporting trophies.There was even – I am still jealous of this, several years later – a golf hole in each corner, each with its own particular slant in the floor. There was also a prayer desk. I had a sense that you could write the man’s biography simply by looking hard around the room and reporting what you found.
Reading John’s Gospel is a bit like visiting that house. Many people read the first ten or a dozen chapters, and get a good sense of what’s going on. But then St John invites us further in, into the private quarters of the house as it were, as the public action stops and Jesus spends time talking to his close friends and explaining to them what’s about to happen. These chapters of John’s gospel – 13 to 16 – have been in front of the ordination candidates and myself over the last four days, as we have tried to discern where we fit into the picture. But then, in today’s gospel reading from John 17, we go as it were through the secret door, behind even those intimate discourses, and we find ourselves in the room which says, This is where this man, this Jesus, is truly himself. Spend time in this room and you will be able to find out everything about Jesus that you need to know.
Change the scene just a bit, and we find ourselves in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple has dominated John’s gospel from the moment when, in the Prologue, John declares that ‘the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us; and we beheld his glory’. Jesus is the true Temple, the true Tabernacle, the place where, like Ezekiel, we see a human form at the heart of the revelation of God’s glory. Part of the drama of the whole gospel is the tension between Jesus himself and the physical Temple in Jerusalem: which of them is the place where God’s glory is revealed? So when Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem for the last time, we expect a confrontation. We expect him to go into the Temple once more and do something dramatic. Instead, he takes his disciples to the Upper Room, and there he talks to them and answers their questions. That’s where we’ve been all week: with Jesus, discovering that he is the real Temple, the place where God’s glory is revealed, the place where heaven and earth meet. The glory glimpsed by the prophets has at last returned. In the physical Temple there is one room into which only one person goes: the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest, once a year, makes atonement for the sins of the people. Now, with John 17, we follow Jesus into the equivalent place. This is the Holy of Holies of Holies, through the secret door into the hidden room. Up to now, Jesus has been talking to his friends about the Father. Now, he talks to the Father about his friends. And in this room, the only piece of furniture is the prayer desk.
Jesus is the one and only Priest. If there is any other priesthood, it is found not by addition but by inclusion: not by other people being priests as well, alongside Jesus, but by other people being priests within his priesthood. Jesus is the place of atonement, the place where heaven and earth meet. That is why, straight after this great prayer, he goes out to face the consequence of bringing together the utter holiness of heaven and the utter wickedness of earth, the utter joy of heaven and the utter misery of earth. That is what priesthood is all about: standing at the painful, holy place where the great fracture in creation is healed, the great gulf bridged, where the Word has become flesh and pitched his tent in our midst, revealing God’s glory as the Father’s only Son whose very nature is love.
And that is why, of course, all those who receive him, who believe in his name, are called God’s sons and daughters – not simply those who wear dog collars. All God’s baptized and believing people are priests: a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Every single one of us is called to find our true identity within the identity of Jesus Christ, to learn to pray within his prayer, to learn holiness within his holiness, to discover in private as well as in public what it means to enter the Holy of Holies, where heaven and earth meet. The priesthood of all God’s people is a deeply biblical idea; going all the way back to the book of Exodus.
But in Exodus, too, we find the humbling and glorious truth that God calls some people to be priests to the nation of priests. Some people are given the special calling to be the focal point of the nation’s priestly life; to be the means through which God enables the whole people to become what they are called to be. And this is doubly humbling. It’s humbling for the people, because they have to respect God’s call to a few to be the symbols and enablers of what they are all about. And it’s humbling for the priests, because the way they enable God’s people to be God’s people is through serving them, not lording it over them. That’s how Jesus did it; that’s how we all have to do it. Anything else turns the church into a religious club, organised according to the normal rules of the world around. And that’s why all priestly ministry is rooted, and remains rooted, in the Diaconate. The moment you stop being a servant you cut off the branch on which your priestly ministry is growing. The moment you stop being a footwasher is the moment you stop being a fruitbearer.
And of course before we can inhabit Jesus’ prayer, discovering what it means to be people who pray within that prayer for those in our care, we celebrate with awe and gratitude the fact that first Jesus prays for us. All ministry is a gift of grace, growing from this prayer. Interestingly, Jesus spends far more time declaring before the Father who his friends are than he does praying specific things for them. His friends are those the Father has himself given to him. They are those who know his name, his inner identity and character, because they have seen it in the Son. They are people who have received his words, and who know that Jesus came from God – in other words, they are people who have learned that if you want to know who God is you must look at Jesus, that if you want to love God you must learn to love Jesus. And they are – already, even on the night when they will all run away! – they are the people in whom Jesus is already glorified. That Shekinah-glory, glimpsed in a different form by the prophets, is already present in their midst. St Paul, writing to a tiny new church in western Turkey, declares that Christ is in them as the hope of glory, the advance sign that one day that glory will flood the whole creation.
Remember this in days to come, you who are to be ordained priest tonight: your primary identity is not that you wear a dog-collar and get called ‘Vicar’ in the street; you are not basically defined by the fact that you have been ordained in this majestic Cathedral; you are not who you are because of your skill or training or experience or wisdom. You are who you are because the Father has given you to the Son, because you have received the words of the Son and know them to be from the Father. You are who you are because you have been caught up by the Spirit in the love shared between the Father and the Son. When I was a Canon in another place, there was a rule for those doing a month in residence, that you should never be more than walking distance away from the church, in case of urgent need. I want to say to you, never let yourself get more than a short walking distance away from conscious awareness that you are who you are because the Father loves the Son and you are enfolded within the Son’s answering love for the Father. Everything else – everything else – flows from that.
Once that is in place, the specific request Jesus makes is very simple. ‘Protect them,’ he prays, ‘and make them one.’ Later in the prayer he prays, ‘sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’. I shall be thinking about that tomorrow morning with the Deacons, though of course it applies radically to you as well. But there, too, he prays again for protection, and for unity. Thank God he does: because you are going to need protection, and because the church and the world needs unity, and both of them must be woven together with holiness and truth. Unity is easy if holiness and truth don’t matter; it becomes hard when they do matter, as the church has discovered again and again. And you are to be people of unity: reconciled reconcilers, you are constantly to seek ways to bring God’s people together. You will be urged and tempted to join particular parties and groupings, and some such may be helpful for focus and support. But you are to be people of unity, people through whom Jesus’ prayer for his people comes true. That will be so symbolically from the moment you are ordained, and indeed one of the purposes of Holy Order is that the church may be united and seen to be so, with you as its visible and tangible signs. Only when we realise this do we realise how important the ongoing ecumenical task is, as well as the struggles for deeper unity within our own family. Work for it; pray for it; remind yourself that Jesus prayed for you to be its embodiment. Don’t settle for the cheap unity where nothing really matters as long as we vaguely get on with one another. Go for the hard one, the high one, the costing-not-less-than-everything one, that unity in holiness and truth for which Jesus prayed.
And therefore he prayed also for protection. Clothe yourself in that protection as you stand at the altar. Wrap yourself up in it when you go into every pastoral interview. See yourself surrounded by it each time you enter the pulpit. Set it as a solid wall around your home and family life. Jesus prayed that the Father would protect us: when the attacks come, as they surely will, that is your solid defence.
And so, as people enfolded in the love of Father and Son, as people in whom God is already glorified, as people who know his name, who are called to unity, who are defended by his protection – as that sort of people, your priestly ministry comes down to this: that you should be people who, yourselves, pray like that for your people. Youmust make Jesus’ name known to them. You must give them his words. You must share your life with them in love. And you must pray and work for their unity and for their protection. You must be, in other words, part of the answer to Jesus’ own prayer. How will God protect his people? How will he continually guard and nourish their unity?Through you. Oh, in a thousand other ways, too; but through you none the less, and centrally.
This, then, is what it means to be enfolded within the work and the glory of Jesus Christ himself. We are all called to that; I have naturally focussed today on these our brothers and sisters, but they merely bring into sharp focus, as symbols and enablers, what is true of all of us. Jesus is glorified, and reveals the Father’s glory, as he brings us into the Holy of Holies and we discover again and again who he really is. Jesus is glorified, and reveals the Father’s glory, as he calls us all to share his prayer for protection and unity, for holiness and truth. Bishop Mark will ask the whole congregation in a moment whether you will pray for these new priests, and you will say, loud and clear, ‘We will’; and please don’t forget to do just that, tonight, tomorrow morning, throughout this week, throughout the days that lie ahead. Pray for them when you know they’re preparing a sermon. Pray for them as they come in to stand at the altar and bring into focus one more time, for our healing and nourishment, the unique dying and rising of Jesus himself. Pray for them as they minister to the sick and bereaved, the poor and lonely, the depressed and the dying. Pray for them in their own family and personal life. If it’s true that we get the politicians we deserve, it’s probably also true that we get the priests we pray for.
All this is spoken, says Jesus, ‘so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.’ There is no joy like that of ministering in the name of Jesus Christ – just as there is no sorrow like that of ministering in the name of Jesus Christ. The two go together, as joy and sorrow do in real life; but part of the point of priesthood is to bring into sharp, clear relief the fact that the real God has entered our real life in Jesus Christ and has made it his own, taking the deepest sorrow upon himself and sharing the deepest joy with his people. My friends, make this prayer your own in the days to come, so that if anyone wants to know who you really are, they should find the room with the prayer desk and realise they’ve tumbled upon the secret.
And, of course, part of the good news of Jesus is that with him the Temple has been turned inside out. The inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies – the place where Christ is in you as the hope of glory, the place where heaven and earth meet in sacrificial love and glorious new creation – is now out on the street, in Spennymoor and Shildon, inCockfield and Greenside, in Durham and Blaydon, in Middleton St George, in Horden and Darlington and Norton. And you are the bearers of that costly love, that joyful glory.