Sermon for May 13th, 2018
The late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, once gave an address to a number of candidates about to be ordained as priests. In his speech he said that part of our role, as priests, is “to be with God, with the people on our heart.” That, he said, is what they were going to be committing themselves to when they vowed in the service to be “diligent in prayers.” They were promising to be daily with God, with the people on their hearts. I think that is one of the most beautiful and helpful images of what intercessory prayer is all about; it isn’t just mechanically reading down the list of thanksgivings and petitions, telling God stuff he already knows; it is a much deeper act of love. It is intentionally placing oneself in the presence of God and in that moment sharing in the love and concern that he has for his people. Prayer, especially intercessory prayer, praying for others, isn’t an action of the mind as much as it is an action of the heart: holding people in your heart, and then holding your heart up to God.
Archbishop Ramsey was speaking to a group about to enter the priestly life, but so much of what he had to say could have been addressed to any Christian anywhere; prayer isn’t just the domain of the ordained clergy, it is a ministry we are all called too. Here is a little fact that we often forget in the church: there really is only one true priest. There is only one priest in this church, and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest; he is the one who consecrates, blesses, absolves and more than anyone else, he is the one who lives in the presence of God with the people on his heart. Those of us who wander around in fancy vestments: our priesthood is really just a share in his eternal priesthood. We are set aside in a special way to teach, preach and bless, but not for ourselves…for him. We are stand-ins for him.
But it is not just the ordained clergy that are called to share in the priesthood of Christ: all Christians are. All of us here are called on some level to share in the ministry of this man Jesus. That is why when you are baptized in our tradition, one of the promises you make is to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” You too are committed to be people of prayer: to be with God with the people on your heart. And after you are baptized the congregation says: “we receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Share with us in his eternal priesthood. That is what we are all charged to do as Christians in this world: to share in his eternal priesthood. You too are called to be with God with the people on your heart.
Part of that is very easy: to have people on your heart. To love and care for others; to worry about them and to want what is best for them; that, I think, comes naturally with love. If you love someone they are on your heart. Just ask any parent. Just ask any mother. Worrying is a natural by-product of love. What does takes intention and effort though, is taking that worry and that love and holding it up to God. Taking the time to be in the presence of God with the people that are on our hearts, that is where we all start sharing in the priesthood of Christ. And in that act of sharing our hearts with God, we aren’t informing him of things he doesn’t know; of course he knows, what we are doing is sharing in the love that he has for his people and sharing our burdens with the one who truly has the strength to bear them. Because when we sit with God with someone on our heart, we know that they are on his heart too. That is a powerful ministry. That is bringing people to Jesus. Yes, we want to bring people to the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ, but evangelism begins with prayer. It begins with the knowledge that the people that are on your heart, are also on God’s heart. There is more than one way to get people to church you know: if you can’t bring them in your car, you can bring them in your heart. It might seem like a rather small thing, but I have it on good authority that holding God’s people in your heart is one of the most powerful things that any priest: lay or ordained can do. I’ve seen it at work.
Our gospel passage this morning from John’s gospel is what is know by us ordained types as Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer.” It is a private prayer between Jesus and his father that he prayed after his last supper, and right before his crucifixion. There are a lot of times when I think we preachers should just present the gospel and then just get out of the way. This might be one of those times. Maybe, instead of always trying too hard to be clever or smart, we should just let Jesus speak for himself, and I don’t just say that as clergy, I say that as a Christian. It is after all his ministry; it’s his priesthood that we all share in. So if you want to understand this man who is our one, great high priest, and if you want others to understand him, then listen to what is on his heart when he prays. There is no better way to learn how to share in his eternal priesthood, than to learn from the master. So hear his prayer again:
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 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. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
That is what it looks like to be with God with the people on your heart, and that is a ministry, that is a priesthood that we are all called to.