Bishop Martyn’s sermon at the 2019 Petertide Ordination Service at Leicester Cathedral
Let me add my welcome to you all this afternoon for very significant occasion. I’ve spent the last three days with our candidates who are to be ordained priest and those who are to be ordained deacon tomorrow, and it’s been a huge privilege to journey with them. And I want to express my thanks to all of you not just for being here today to support them, but for the way many of you have accompanied these ordinands over many years, through all the ups and downs that have led to this moment. None of us makes this journey alone, and this is rightly a moment to be shared with family, friends, colleagues and church communities. Thank you.
So Lucy and Anton are still in, and Tom and Arabella are out. This leaves Danny single and new girl Maura wondering how she will fit in.
By now, I’m guessing that I have lost 99% of you here. These are not the names of ordinands. But it might just be that 1% of you know here today what I am talking about – it is of course ‘Love Island’ – the hit TV series, watched by millions of 20 somethings. A new season started at the beginning of June and it is now in full swing with people being voted off in each episode, speculation about who will couple with who, and renewed controversy over whether it is all fixed.
You might be surprised to hear me start my sermon with a reference to ‘Love Island’ – not the sort of viewing you might expect for a bishop – and I won’t lie, I don’t watch every episode. But as an avid observer of culture, it is something I follow. Like it or loathe it, it is the world many young adults today inhabit.
And why is it so popular? Well for some no doubt, it’s the beautifully toned and carefully manicured bodies on display. For others it’s the sex. For some it’s the eavesdropping on very personal conversations or for some the chance to cast a vote for something that actually matters to them, and feels like it makes a difference. But I dare to suggest that underlying all of that is something much deeper. And I’m not referring here to the ‘love’ of the title – from what I’ve seen, very few of the participants find real love. But they are noticed – for a brief moment they are seen by the world, they have the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol talked about, and so for a moment they feel significant.
In our brief moments of deep honesty, we have to admit that we too long to be noticed, to be seen by others, to be known, and yes, to feel that we matter. We may not apply to be on programs like ‘Love Island’ – 99% of us have far too many flabby bits to ever be allowed near such a perfect world – and we may not crave fame itself, but that doesn’t mean we’re not driven by the same need and desire to be noticed and to feel like we matter.
Our reading today speaks of light – the true light that enlightens everyone, which was coming into the world, and it speaks of one man who witnessed to that light. The phrase “enlightens everyone” is interesting. Literally it means “the light that makes everyone known.” So it carries the sense of a spotlight being shone on each and every one of us, such that, not just our bodies, but our inner-being is known by someone – our thoughts, our motives, our desires, our deepest longings.
Now that can be both incredibly scary and strangely reassuring. As one writer has put it: “To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be loved and not known is comforting but superficial. To be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretence, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
A few moments ago, our service began with these words “In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.” It’s another way of saying that the purpose of the church is to witness to the light that was coming into the world, the true light that enlightens everyone, the light that reveals our innermost being to God our creator. And the amazing truth is that the brightness of this light is combined with the warmth of our Creator’s love. God wants all parts of God’s creation to understand that we are known by God and loved by God, and this knowledge and love fulfils our deepest needs and desires.
The church then exists to be a place where we are known, where we are seen and noticed and loved, wrinkles and all. We don’t find this easy – some churches struggle with the whole idea of community, allowing people to enter and leave with nothing more than a brief hello. Others go too far the other way, being over personal and intrusive – but at their best, our churches are genuine communities where people are known, loved, served and celebrated.
One of things that I find interesting about ‘Love Island, is that however beautifully toned and manicured the bodies, the insecurities are just as great as for anyone else. The boy likes the girl, but he’s not very good at expressing it, so she takes offence and assumes he’s not really interested. Before you know it their having a blazing row and both casting envious eyes at other boys and girls. We live in a world, do we not, where so many of us struggle with insecurities, and despite our longing for community, we find ourselves running away from it. And so many young people in particular struggle with self-confidence and with mental health problems. We find it hard to believe that we are worth anything, that we matter to others. We obsess over other people’s views of us, especially our appearance, we worry about how many ‘likes’ we will get for every social media post, and how many followers we have – a world in summary, where so many are crying out to be noticed, to be known and to be loved.
So we, as the church desperately need to recover our confidence in the good news that the true light has come into the world – his name is Jesus Christ – and he came that we might know that, as one ancient Russian saint put it, “when we are all alone, when our spirit is dejected and we are wearied and oppressed by our loneliness, God the Holy Trinity looks on us with eyes brighter than the sun.” We are known and we are loved, we just don’t see it.
So how is the whole church to witness to this light and love? Well, our Bible reading points us to John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus and witnessed to him, always deflecting attention away from himself and pointing towards Jesus. As another writer has put it: “if the church does not look, sound and feel like the Jesus of the gospels, then we are fraud and a lie.” This is the ultimate test, are we pointing to Jesus the true light who enlightens everyone?
But secondly, this ordination service also gives a clue as to how the whole church can witness to this light and love. Earlier, we heard a description of the life and work of a priest or presybter as they are sometimes called. We were told that “they share with the Bishop in the oversight of the church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its wellbeing… With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.”
I put it to you that “sustaining the community of the faithful” means ensuring that each person who walks through the door of our churches, as well as those who join one of the many Christian communities which now meet in schools, in pubs, in homes and in the outdoors – each person should come to understand that they are known by God in their inner-being and they are loved by God, with all their wrinkles. Yes, they should experience the light of Christ shining on them, seeing them, piercing their heart – showing up their darkness and their shadows, all the things they would rather are kept hidden but have to come to light if they are to be transformed. And they should experience the warmth of Christ’s love, embracing them and inviting them to discover a new way of being.
This is the work of a priest, sustaining the community of the faithful by teaching from God’s word, the Bible – the light to guide our path , and by gathering people around the baptismal font where our guilt and shame are washed away, and gathering people around the holy table where we experience the depths of Jesus’ love for us – that he should give even his own life that we might share his risen life.
I’m so grateful for these five people being ordained priests today. They have heard God calling to them and they have responded. This may well sound strange to anyone who has not yet experienced the light of Christ shining on them. This light that enlightens all people is shining here today, even in the middle of this service. I hope you will experience it for yourself, knowing that God sees you, God knows your deepest longings and God loves you. And maybe even, you may hear God calling you to follow in the footsteps of these five and be those who point others to the light.