Sermon from the Ordination of Priests at St. Mary's, Goochland

We are today setting aside these four persons for a new ministry of leadership, service, and mission in the Church. Across Christian traditions this work is known as “pastoral” - the term is so common, we can forget it is not really a Church-y word but comes from the language of shepherding. A pastor is literally a shepherd. While through recent decades the idea of being “pastoral” has often been degraded to mean something like interpersonal niceness paid for by the Church, authentic pastoral ministry is leadership, first and foremost. To be a shepherd or pastor, someone has to care for the sheep, but they do so by leadership; the shepherd is not the vet, or the groomer. And Gospel today likens this work to shepherding-pastoring, and also to harvesting, the two basic functions of the ancient Judean farming economy.

However we are also claiming, in singling them out for ministry, to be making Amanda, Daniel, Kristin, and Patrick, not just “pastors” but “priests.” When Bishop Susan asked you of it was your will that be made priests, you responded with great enthusiasm! But be careful what you wish for! The English word “priest” is complicated. It actually derives from the Greek “presbyter,” which simply means an elder, and is used in the NT mainly to refer to community leaders. So in a sense it's quite close to the core meaning of “pastor".

Yet “priest” has a different meaning too, one that translates the functions of the person called aside to communicate with the divine on behalf of the people, to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation, to stand before God and to offer sacrifices. The ancient Israelite priests, Aaron, Eli, Zadok, Zechariah father of John the Baptist, and the rest, were not there either for community leadership or pastoral care; their job was offering sacrifices in the Temple. The qualifications of the successful priest were not a degree in theology, or skills in counseling; rather their training would have focused on  developing such nuanced liturgical skills as the capacity to slit a sheep’s throat efficiently, to light and maintain enormous fires to burn the victims' flesh, and to throw blood accurately against the bases of altars. Imagine recruiting an altar guild? While Levites and others sang Psalms of praise, the ancient Israelites worshipped amid clouds of smoke from the burnt offerings made by the priests, and waited to feast on what was left over.

Disconcerting as these elements of ancient Israelite Church-going may seem - part worship service, part barbecue - this is what priesthood means, even if it also shows why some Christians have balked at the idea of priesthood in the Church. These sacrificial performances were the means by which God and Israel communicated and managed their relationship, including not least managing the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between those estranged, through the most concrete means, of flesh and blood. The great theologian Johnny Cash says it: “flesh and blood need flesh and blood”; thoughts and prayers are not enough, flesh and blood are needed to deal with the challenges of flesh and blood, of sin and struggle and reconciliation.

You may discern a tension here between our seemly Anglican liturgy, and ancient sacrifice and priesthood; you may also wonder about the imagery of the shepherd, the pastor who looks after the flock, and the rather more bloody fate of sheep at the hands of ancient priests. But this tension is recognized in scripture itself, and in a sense is the problem the Gospel solves for us.

In the first reading today, Isaiah reports a vision of a heavenly temple, where there is billowing smoke but only in the form of incense, and where there is singing - the songs of angels - and where there are also apparently priests, who are seraphs; so this is a Temple where there is no slaughter and no victims, because God is immediately present, and does not need to be brought close, or placated. This idea of a Temple without slaughter echoes through scripture; in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is presented in another such vision of a heavenly Temple, but as himself both the Great High Priest and the sacrificial lamb offered once and for all for sins. In both these biblical visions there is still a Temple, but no need for threats to the sheep.

The Church emerges with a set of offerings and signs, and ministerial offices, closely related to the priestly worship of Israel and Judaism and just as concrete, but grounded immediately in the person of Jesus himself, his command and example. In the Gospel today, Jesus sees the people of Israel as sheep in danger, sheep capable of being preyed upon. He is not a shepherd with no skin in the game; he leads us with love, not just as a benevolent autocrat but as one who offered himself as a lamb to the slaughter, who took on himself all the vulnerability of our mortal existence. Our priest is the shepherd, not the slaughterman.

Interestingly though, Jesus' response to human need in that story is not to send the disciples out as shepherds for the sheep, but as laborers for the harvest, gathering sheaves of grain for a great feast. Here he foreshadows the sacrificial meal which the Church now celebrates at his command and in his memory.

Celebrating the meal of the Eucharist, we do offer a sacrifice; it is an offering of praise and thanksgiving, but made concrete as in Israel of old, but with symbols drawn from the harvest rather than the sheepfold. In its very elements, the bloodless offerings of harvested bread and wine which our priests are called to minister to God’s people, our Eucharistic feast that offers us his flesh and blood says in its symbolism that the sheep - the symbolic sheep of God’s people - are safe, welcomed, loved.

Jesus’ priesthood and Jesus’ sacrifice provide us with the access to God we celebrate in the Eucharist. So, you may ask, as did some Protestant reformers, do we need present-day human priests at all? We do, not because Jesus is not our true eternal priest, not because we do not all share in a common priesthood, but for the same reasons we need material signs in the Eucharist, and for the same reason we needed the Word to be made flesh in Jesus Christ. God’s love for us and God’s call to us still comes in flesh and blood, ours and each other’s, and in that of a world in need, not just of thoughts and prayers, but of good news in the most concrete terms. Pray these new priests will bring the good news of Jesus in their very flesh and blood.

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 43; Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 9:35-38