What are priests for?

by Fr. Blake

The following sermon was preached on September 5, 2014, at Church of the Messiah in Glens Falls, NY, at the institution of the Rev’d Karl Griswold-Kuhn as rector of that parish.  It was the hottest day of the year, and the church felt like an oven — but everyone kept their cool, and celebrated the occasion with grace, enthusiasm, and clear affection.  It was an honor to be invited to preach.

Collect: Everliving God, strengthen and sustain Karl, that with patience and understanding he may love and care for your people; and grant that together they may follow Jesus Christ, offering to you their gifts and talents; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joshua 1:7-9, Psalm 43, Romans 12:1-8, John 15:9-16

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen:

Good evening, everyone.  It’s very good to be back in the Diocese of Albany, and to see so many familiar faces.

On these sorts of occasions I think it’s important for a preacher to take stock of what it is we are all doing.  Tonight, first and foremost, we are here — from Glens Falls, Albany, and beyond — to welcome Karl into his new ministry here at Church of the Messiah, and formally to enroll him as rector.  We pray for God’s grace on his life and work.  We are also here to celebrate a new stage in the life of this parish community, and to pray for a renewed outpouring of the holy spirit on its prayer and mission.  In these moments tonight we are reminded of the great beauty and value of the ministries which our Lord ordained, and we are led into a deeper reflection on what they mean for the church and for the world.

There are a lot of things which priests do, a lot of things which rectors are here for: from being the go-to person to say grace at meals, to working with budgets, to being the person who knows what to do when someone is dying, to being the face of the Church’s mission in the city.  These are all important and necessary.  But if you boil it all down, the ministry consists essentially in two things: sacrifice, and forgiveness.

We heard a lot about sacrifice in the Gospel reading tonight, chiefly as it is connected to love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus says this to his disciples the night before he himself goes to the cross.  Jesus lays down his life for his friends: gives up his body to be broken, sheds his blood, all for the sake of the ones he loves.  Namely, his disciples; but also you and me.

Priests exist always to be near this sacrifice.  They imitate it with their lives, giving up the best of themselves: their time, their minds, their loved ones, so that those in their care might come to know Jesus, whose sacrifice of his life is for the salvation of their souls.  But even more than imitating Jesus’ sacrifice, priests are nearest to that sacrifice when they preside at the altar.  There, with the whole congregation, they make Jesus’ sacrifice present now in the elements of bread and wine.  “This is my body, which is broken for thee . . . This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  “Whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  At this altar, Fr. Karl will preside for you at the Eucharistic sacrifice.  And Jesus’ promise is that grace will abound in this, just as it abounds on the Cross.  The grace of this sacrifice binds together all the people of God.  In baptism it makes them members of Christ’s own body; mystical members of that body which was crucified for all our sakes.

So that’s the first thing priestly ministry boils down to, sacrifice.  The second is the forgiveness of sins.  Before you start thinking of confessional booths and penance, let me first say, that a priest’s ministry in the forgiveness of sins is rooted first of all in the knowledge that he himself is a sinner, who has been forgiven; who is being forgiven; who finally will be forgiven.  Don’t assume that your new rector is somehow above the fray of human temptation and failing.  (He’s not – we went to seminary together, I can tell you some stories!)  But he does know that the One who sacrificed himself on the cross for you and me sacrificed himself for him too.

We are all common recipients of forgiveness.  But forgiveness is also a priest’s special task.  In the first moments of his resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples his own authority to forgive sins.  The ministry of forgiveness is part and parcel to the great commission, at the heart of the church’s mission in the world.  But what is forgiveness, really?  There’s a dangerous school of thought out there that makes forgiveness just another tool of pop psychology.  But it’s not there to make you feel better (even though very often it does).  Primarily, Christian forgiveness is there to restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, in the context of the mystical body of our crucified Lord.

When Fr. Karl pronounces forgiveness either publicly in church or privately in the context of confession, he is speaking with the authority of the risen Christ, making whole what was broken, restoring what had fallen into disrepair.  It is a comfort, no doubt.  But it is also a solemn charge: for you to live according to the commandment of our crucified and risen Lord, that you love one another as he has loved you.

Sacrifice and forgiveness.  These are the two great pillars of priestly ministry.  They lead into the whole complex world of human life.  If forgiveness is a solemn charge to live according to the commandment to love, and if the commandment to love is rooted in total sacrifice for one another as Jesus gave himself for us, then every single part of our lives — whether we are ordained or not — suddenly becomes priestly.  This is the “priesthood of all believers:” to live every moment of every day in anticipation of the kingdom of God, in anticipation of that moment when the work now begun shall finally be fulfilled, and we will be incorporated with all the blessed from every age in the eternal vision of God.

For Christians, we live every moment of every day anticipating that end.  The way we treat our families, our friends, colleagues, strangers; all our ethical decisions, all our mission, all our evangelism; even vestry meetings! — nothing is exempt from this requirement.  As author Robin Ward put it, we must order our entire lives according to this “anticipation of beatitude.”  No doubt this will drive us continually to seek forgiveness for the ways we fall, and be re-incorporated into the fellowship of the church from which our sins sever us.  No doubt this will drive us continually back to the communion rail, back to the saving death of Christ which makes us one body in God.

And so we return to worship.  You will invite Fr. Karl and Jen into your homes and into your lives.  He will be with you at sick beds, in new jobs, in loss, at the marriage of your children and loved ones, in foreclosures, and in retirement.  You will work with him, serve on committees with him, have fun with him, learn from him, be frustrated with him.  But on no other occasion is he more your priest than when he stands at the altar and leads you in the celebration of Holy Communion.

At the altar everything comes together: it is the chief ecclesiastical symbol of the saving death of Christ.  It is the place and source of absolution for sins.  It is also the throne of the Passover lamb of God, from which he reigns in heaven, and prays continually for us to the Father.  In the Celebration of Holy Communion, your new rector will lead you in worship, joining our Lord in offering himself to the Father, joining all the saints and angels in praising him.  In short, heaven will come to earth, earth will be lifted to heaven, and you will taste the beatitude towards which we strive our whole lives long.

Tonight you have a new rector.  In a few moments we will mark this formally with the exchange of symbolic tokens and with prayers.  In the days and years to come you will be led more and more deeply into the Christian mysteries of sacrifice and forgiveness by (and with!) Fr. Karl Griswold-Kuhn.  But for now we celebrate.  Thanks be to God for Karl and Jen.  Thanks be to God for the Church of the Messiah.  Thanks be to God for Bp. Love and the witness of the Church in this Diocese.  And thanks be to God for the gift of his Son, whose sacrifice of himself is the salvation of our souls, whose resurrection procures the forgiveness of our sins, and whose continuous grace carries us ever onward into his marvelous light.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.