Chrism Mass 2018, Worcester Cathedral

  • 1 Samuel 16.1 - 13a
  • 2 Corinthians 3.17 - 4.12
  • Luke 22.24-30

I was talking to a priest in the Diocese the other day who will be retiring before too long. I thanked her for all she had given. She replied that she didn’t think she had done much – she’d only been with her people and loved them, those who go to church and those who don’t. I responded that I thought that was the most important thing she could possibly have done and, really, the only thing that matters.

What is it that makes us think – she is surely not the only one – that being with our people and loving them is inadequate, is not enough?Is it just inchoate guilt that comes with being human in our fallen world, always concentrating our attention on our inadequaciues? Is it the activist reductionist, performance indicator obsessed society of which we are a part? Is it because of the ‘mission shaped’ church that we are continually told that we must be?

Maybe it’s a bit of all of these, and more, but if it’s associated with the mission imperative’, I wish we could get beyond polarising things into ‘missional’ and ‘pastoral’. That’s why I’m giving a copy of Sam Wells’ book Incarnational Mission to all the licensed clergy – it’ll be available in the cloisters afterwards. I hope you’ll lend it to others when you’ve read it! It suggests that being with is the most essential component of mission as well as ministry. I hope it will speak to you as it spoke to me.

In the book Sam develops a reflection first articulated in his brilliant A Nazareth Manifesto on the phrase ‘God with us’ which, in Jesus, is at the centre of our faith. He points out that though there is much writing about ‘God’ and ‘us’ there is very little on what he suggests is the crucial word in that phrase, ’with’. Jesus spent about 9% of his life ministering in Galilee, 1% in Jerusalem at the end of his earthly life and around 90% of just being with people in Nazareth. That word ‘just’ has crept in again even though I don’t believe it belongs there. How could God incarnate ‘just’ do or be anything? Anyway, are those percentages significant? I imagine they are: Jesus surely knew what he was doing. Sam suggests that, if so, they provide a template for Christian mission. If that’s the case, I think it would be quite a relief and a release to those of us called to ministry, ministry which we are told should be mission shaped.

Being with is the business of the persons of the Trinity, being with one another, and enjoying and delighting in one another. Being with is at the heart of the Christian faith, if the word ‘Emmanuel’ is to be taken seriously. ‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’. If ‘with’ is at the heart of God and at the heart of the faith it should surely lie at the lie at the heart of ministry and mission, too.

In this morning’s gospel we heard again Jesus saying to his disciples ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ Has it ever struck you as strange that we tend to ignore the first part of that sentence in our exegesis? We concentrate on the fact that Jesus serves. But he begins by reminding that that he is among them, he is with them.He goes on to say that he is among them as one who serves but we’re rather inclined to see that in activist terms.Being with someone is the necessary precursor to serving them and sometimes that alone is the best way of serving them. Often, the best service we can do for people is simply to be with them.

You don’t have to be in ministry long to have the experience of feeling completely inadequate in the face of some pastoral disaster. I think of being called to hospital following the death of a young woman whose husband was inconsolable. I had no words. All I could do was just sit and hold his hands.There’s that word ‘just’ muscling its way in again.

Much later the husband thanked me profusely for the tremendous help I had been following his bereavement. I found that difficult to hear as I had not yet realised that ‘being with’ is at the heart of all good ministry and the basis for all good mission. In fact, that being with had a missional as well as a pastoral effect. It’s sometimes said that the faith is generally caught and not taught and you have to be with someone if you’re going to catch anything from them. Often that’s all you have to do. Just as there’s no activity necessary to catch a virus from someone, so it is with the faith.

In fact, as Sam Wells points out situations that cannot be fixed constitute the vast majority in life and certainly the most significant moments of our lives: ‘love can’t be achieved; death can’t be fixed, pregnancy and birth aren’t a problem needing a solution’. In ministry we can seldom solve people’s problems. What we can do is be with them. Serving others may well involve practical assistance but it is first and foremost about being with them, giving them attention, loving them.

Jesus tells his disciples that he is among them, among them as one who serves. But that is not the end of the matter. He goes on to tell them that, having stood by him in his trials, his disciples will have conferred on them a kingdom, so that they might eat and drink at his table in his kingdom, and sit on thrones. Their destiny is to be with Jesus and with one another in glory.

That is our destiny, too. It therefore behoves us to become accustomed to being with Jesus now – in prayer – and to being with one another. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, motley crew if ever there was one, that with unveiled faces, they are seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror and are being transformed into the same likeness from one degree of glory unto another.

I suggest that they were being transformed to the extent that they are able to be with God and be with one another. May we be so transformed, this Holy Week and always, and may others perceive the glory of God reflected in us as we seek to be with them.

+John Wigorn: