The King of Kings and Great High Priest ... an icon from Mount Athos on the wall of my study
Wednesday 21 October 2009, 5 p.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)
Collect and Readings for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I have five or six icons on the wall of my study above my desk. They have been hung in random fashion without any particular order. But they represent different phases and aspects of my ministry.
There is a treasured copy of Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, which was given to me by one of my former lecturers … There the Trinity is prefigured or represented by the angels, with Christ seated at the table, with the Father and the Holy Spirit on each side of him.
There is an icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the institute in Cambridge where I have studied over the last two years … and of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, where I stayed while working on a project on Christian-Muslim dialogue.
And so on.
And then there is an icon from Mount Athos of Christ, the King of Kings and the Great High Priest, who I hope sets my pattern – who should set the pattern for each and every one of us – in our ordained ministry.
In this icon, Christ is wearing the robes, the crown or mitre, and the stole (ὠμοφόριον, omophorion) decorated with crosses of a bishop vested for the Divine Liturgy. Christ, the Great High Priest of his Church on earth, holds an open New Testament in his left hand and his right hand is raised in blessing.
We are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the verses immediately before this evening’s reading: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4: 14-16).
Christ comes into the world as the King of Kings and as the Great High Priest.
But he comes not as the sort of king that we would expect a king to be, nor as a great high priest full of pomp and self-importance.
When you have been ordained as priests for a few years, when you have served your first curacy and come to move to your first or second parish as rector, you will be in danger of slipping into habits that you do not realise have been formed slowly and invisibly.
You will be the centre of attention. Nominators who want to attract you to their parish will tell you how wonderful and how talented you are; people will praise your sermons and how well you perform at Christmas and Easter, at baptisms, weddings and funerals.
You may delight in being at the centre of attention; your photographs will appear in the Church of Ireland Gazette beside bishops and in the local newspaper beside mayors and celebrities. You may be interviewed on television and write books that received critical acclaim.
And all in a very good cause, no doubt.
But once you are on a career path, you will be in danger of forgetting that priesthood is not a professional option, you will be in danger of forgetting the first reasons why you started to explore the idea of ordained ministry.
I hope at least one of you, if not more, will become a bishop in my lifetime … but a bishop who will serve the Church, and not a bishop for the reasons some mothers would like their son or daughter to be a bishop.
There is an apocryphal story in this diocese of a new curate in a parish who was asked by the rector’s wife to go around the table at a pensioners’ coffee morning and make sure that people had their cups topped up.
“But,” he protested, “I’m here to talk to people. I’m not here to wait on tables. What do you think I was ordained for?”
What indeed did he think he was ordained for, if not to wait on tables? The Greek word for deacon (διάκονος) means precisely that: someone who waits on tables, and not the head waiter or master of ceremonies either.
The foundation of all ordained ministry is our diaconate. We are called first and foremost to serve. And when we serve the people, when in obedience we meet them in their suffering, then we can hear their cries and their prayers and truly serve them in the services of the Church and in the Divine Liturgy (see Hebrews 5: 1-10).
It was in humbling himself as a servant that Christ truly became the role model for all deacons, priests and bishops.
Did James and John think opting to follow Jesus, becoming disciples, was a good career move?
Whenever I read this evening’s Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45), I think back to my childhood days. I remember all those preparations for football matches, as we lined up to pick sides. And how we all wanted to be among the first to be picked for a team.
Everyone wanted to be picked first, everyone wanted to line up there beside one of the two captains, no-one wanted to be picked last, even when there were enough places for everyone to get a game.
I can still see them: 9- or 10-year-old boys, jumping up and down on the grass, waving our hands or pointing at our chests, and pleading: “Me, me, please pick me, I’m your friend.”
Me, me, please pick me. And then when we were picked how we wanted the glory. Slow at passing the ball, in case I might not score the goal. Better to lose that ball in a tackle than to pass it to someone else and risk someone else scoring the winning goal.
And that’s who James and John remind me of: wanting to be picked first, wanting to be the first to line up beside the team captain, being glory seekers rather than tram players.
No wonder the other ten were upset when they heard this. But they were upset, not because they wanted to take on the servant model of priesthood and ministry. They were upset not because James and John hadn’t yet grasped the point of it all. They were upset because they might have been counted out, because they might have missed out being on the first team, on the first XI.
And their upset actually turns to anger. Not the sort of candidates you’d like to meet at a selection conference.
And what did James and John want in reality? They wanted that one would sit on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left.
Now, even that might not have been too bad an ambition. The man who stood at the right hand of the Emperor in the Byzantine court was the Emperor’s voice. What he said was the emperor’s word. And so, in the creed, when we declare our belief that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean not that there is some heavenly couch on which all three are seated, comfy and cosy, as if waiting to watch their favourite television sit-com.
When we say that Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we mean that Christ is the Word of God. In some way, I suppose, this is what Andrei Rublev was trying to convey in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, his icon of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament.
In Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the Christ-figure is wearing a simple deacon’s stole, and is seated with the Father and the Holy Spirit to his lifet and to his right
In that icon, the Father and the Spirit are seated to the right and left of the Son. Indeed, in that icon, Christ is wearing not the elaborate high-priestly stole of a bishop, but the simple stole of a deacon at the table.
For James and John to want to be seated at the right and left of Christ in his glory – not when they were sitting down to a snack, or travelling on the bus, or even at the Last Supper, but in his glory (see verse 37) – they were was expressing an ambition to take the place of, to replace God.
But to be like God means to take on Christ’s humility, as we are reminded in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this evening.
We are made in the image and likeness of God, and then God asks us, invites us to return to that image and likeness when Christ comes in our image and likeness – not as a Byzantine emperor or Roman tyrant, but just as one of us.
Are we willing to be like him in our ministry?
Christ asks us that this evening. Are we willing to drink the cup that he drinks, or to be baptised with his baptism (see verses 38 and 40)?
Of course James and John were. See how this hot-headed pair, the sons of Zebedee, went on to serve the community of the baptised and the community that shared in the one bread and the one cup, the community that is the Church, the community that in baptism and in the shared meal is the Body of Christ.
James – not James the Brother of the Lord, whom we remember on Friday next – but James the Great was executed by the sword and became one of the first Christian martyrs (see Acts 12: 1-12).
John too lived a life of service to the Church: he was exiled on Patmos, and although he died in old age in Ephesus, there were numerous attempts to make him a martyr. And, of course, he gave his name to in the Johannine writings in the New Testament.
Martyrdom comes in many forms. In essence the word means witness. But the first step in martyrdom is dying to self, to self-ambition, to self-seeking, to self-serving. Your life must be a life that is testimony to your most cherished beliefs, testimony to Christ himself.
We love our titles in Anglicanism – canon, archdeacon, prebendary, dean – and stand firmly on our dignity, and even on our dignitaries if they get in our way. But you are not entering a career with good prospects. There is nothing wrong with any one of you wanting to be a bishop. There is something wrong if you are here seeing that as a career goal.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45).
And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the Glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the community Eucharist in the institute chapel on Wednesday, 21 October 2009.