‘Vulnerability is part of Christian Ministry’ – Bishop Paul Colton at Annual Diocesan Chrism Eucharist

Sermon preached by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton

at the Diocesan Chrism Eucharist

In the Cathedral Church of St Fachtna, Rosscarbery, Co Cork

On Maundy Thursday, 13th April, 2017

At the annual Diocesan Chrism Eucharist in the Cathedral Church of St Fachtna, Rosscarbery, County Cork were (l-r) Canon Trevor Lester, The Very Reverend Nigel Dunne (Dean of Cork), Canon Eithne Lynch, the Very Reverend Christopher Peters (Dean of Ross), the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Venerable Adrian Wilkinson (Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross), and, Canon Paul Willoughby (Diocesan Representative Canon at the National Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Patrick, Dublin)

In this month’s issue of the Diocesan Magazine there is a warm tribute to our former Bishop, Samuel Poyntz, by Wilfred Baker,  our former Diocesan Secretary, including many amusing asides.  I never hear our first reading today without thinking of another such funny incident.  Bishop Sam was spotted on holiday at a beach on our coast – one of those beaches at the bottom of high sand dunes and small sandy cliffs.  Those who spotted him were some mischievous clergy, and as the Bishop and Mrs Poyntz, set out their picnic, deck chairs, rug and windbreaker, the naughty clergy crawled forward on their bellies in the sand dunes above and, unseen, one of them called out ‘ Samuel, Samuel!’    The Bishop sat up in his alert and typically purposeful way to look around but, saw nothing.  Once more they called, ‘Samuel, Samuel’.  The story does not tell what happened next!  

The account of the call of Samuel reminds us at this point in a demanding week in the midst of our ministry, and throughout our ministry, that ours, whatever ministry we exercise, is a call from God. It is a call which we heard and continue to hear, and to which we have responded; and because we are human, our response may be energetic and purposeful, imaginative thoughtful and creative, or, at times, wearing, reluctant and resentful.  But response it is!

Bishop Poyntz preached in St Nicholas’ Carrickfergus at the invitation of Bishop Billy McCappin at my ordination to the priesthood. These days I only remember a few of his words; that’s a good track record for any sermon.  Remembering a few words of a sermon all these years is good. I can still, in my mind see and hear Bishop Poyntz confidently proclaiming them: ‘In the days and years ahead you are never alone – you are never alone – God is with you.’

God calls us.  God sustains us.  Not only is God with us, God gives us each other in the Church, and in ministry.  That is why, as we sang in today’s psalm ‘it is good to dwell together in unity.’  We are not called to a ministry in isolation, apart from one another.  We are called to work together.   In lay ministry we share our ministry with all the baptised, in partnership with our clergy and bishop.  

These days, ordination services begin with these words of St Paul to the Romans:  ‘Just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions, so we who are united with Christ, though many, form one body, and belong to one another as its limbs and organs.  We have gifts allotted to each of us by God’s grace.’ (Romans 12: 5, 6)   Deacons are told that they assist the priest and bishop. Those ordained priest are told that they ‘…are called to work with the bishop and with other priests as servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent.’   At their ordination, Bishops are told that they  ‘…  are called to lead in serving and caring for the people of God and to work with them in the oversight of the Church.

God calls us.  God is with us.  We are in this together, with all the variety of our frail humanity and vulnerability, to work together.  For what and to what end? Well, our second reading sets out the purpose of it all as well as anywhere else: ‘To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.’  (Revelation 1.5b-6)

The woman, in the Gospel, who anointed Jesus’ feet,  whose tears poured down on his feet and which she dried with her hair, brings a practical note to all this.  

As so often happens in the Gospels, this is a significant moment, and it happens, not unusually, at a mealtime or party.

The woman comes in as an outsider – she is an obvious sinner – she interrupts the scene, as one commentator puts it ‘like an alien, communicable disease; given the Pharisaical views of holiness ..’  Sion had invited Jesus but had glaringly neglected the deeply ingrained laws of hospitality.

The woman arrives and her behaviour is outrageous.  She is an intruder, a gatecrasher, and it is obvious that she is a sinner in the city, I quote one commentary ‘a whore by social status, contagious in her impurity, and probably one who fraternises with Gentiles for economic purposes.  What is she doing in this house?’

Her actions are accentuated by St Luke, and are almost portrayed as erotic.  “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.’ (Luke 7.38)

And that starts a row. A row at a supper party is always awkward.  By the end Jesus restores her to the community: ‘your faith has made you whole/saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7.50)

We could spend many hours reflecting on this incident and the words exchanged in the row which the woman’s actions caused.  But we don’t have hours;  our minds are perhaps rushing ahead already to what we have to do tonight.  And maybe we too will wash feet following, not her example, but our Lord’s own example.  

Does her action prefigure what Jesus will do tonight – modelling the service we are to offer to each other?

As I reflect on the ritual washing we may reenact tonight, I am conscious that it is a ritual; we wash already washed, maybe even talcum-powdered, feet.  Ritual foot-washing, powerfully symbolic as it may be, is easy.  I think of the many people in our society whose service and work actually brings them into real contact with the dirtiest of feet – figurative feet twisted and gnarled by life with ingrown toenails, sweat, dirt and infection between the toes.  Such as those who risk their own safety to fly into the darkness hundreds of miles over the ocean to rescue a fisherman.  Those who fly out in support and who do not come home.  Those who develop skills and pool their efforts to dive to the seabed to try to find them.  Those who support them and who sit with those who wait at home, including clergy and those who have the special gift of human compassion.  Those who brew tea and make sandwiches.   Such people are legion in our society; care-assistants, counsellors, nursing and medical staff, rescue and security services and those doing their work faithfully, often voluntarily.

I think of those whose work calls them into calamitous and dangerous situations.  Images from recent weeks fly through my mind.  A young Swedish police officer wearing a gas mask marshalling a disorientated crowd; chaos on a St Petersburg underground; a police constable who died standing his ground on duty at Westminster; adults hosing down babies after a chemical attack; a team bus damaged by an explosion and bewildered fans at an ordinary football game; the neighbours who came to us in our family last Friday when we found a relative dead at home; the vulnerability of gay people in Chechnya calling out for our solidarity; but most of all, this week has been dominated for me by the images of our Coptic brothers and sisters bombed at their Palm Sunday commemorations – a world away from our peaceful, suburban and idyllic rural processions here with our branches.  Susan and I led a group of young people on a work party to the Church in Egypt in 1985.  We met many Coptic Christians and visited their holy places.   

The world cries out for the love of God, and for our ministry of service; faced with all this it can be overwhelming.  We cannot all do everything; we cannot do nothing either.

Even ministry in the Church, seldom as physically extreme as any of those places I have mentioned, has its demands, and today gives me the opportunity, as your bishop, to thank you, and to express my admiration and love for you.

Ministry makes us vulnerable – when Jesus knelt to wash feet – he was not only showing humility, he was making himself vulnerable – vulnerable to misunderstanding, to misrepresentation, to rejection, to misinterpretation, to questioning.  That vulnerability is part of our self-offering in response to his call to us as well.  Vulnerability is part of Christian ministry.  And so we pray that as Jesus said to that unnamed woman, he will say to us too; ‘…your faith has made you whole/saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7.50)

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