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Sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ordination Service on Holy Cross Day

Posted on: September 14, 2002 3:29 PM
Related Categories: ACC, ACC12, Hong Kong, sermon

Saturday 14 September 2002 at 16:00

Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Hong Kong

I am delighted to be here in this wonderful Cathedral with you, Archbishop Peter and so many other delegates of ACC for this Ordination Service. I want to assure Samuel (Tang), Stephen (Hung) and Dorothy (Lau) of our prayers and support at this time.

The image of shepherds and sheep is surely incongruous in Hong Kong. I have no idea as to whether any sheep graze on the hills of the island or if they ever did. Indeed, increasingly, for most of us from urban situations the image in scripture of ministers and priests as shepherds and those we serve as sheep may seem irrelevant and unhelpful. If that is your assumption allow me to disagree and suggest that such a ‘shepherd theology’ is bang up to date for all those ordained to serve Christ in his Church today.

I want to offer those of you being ordained today three very simple points.

The Shepherd is called to serve Christ’s flock.
The Shepherd is called to nourish and defend Christ’s flock.
The Shepherd is called to know where the pastures are to be found.

Called to serve Christ’s flock. A few years ago you sensed in your spirit and heart a longing and a desire to offer yourself for service in this church. The process of selection, training and examination culminates in what we are doing today as you are set apart for ministry in Christ’s Church to serve his people. The Church has discerned in you those special qualities of pastoral care, learning and faith. With confidence today we pray that God’s Spirit will fill your hearts and lives with his grace and love.

And grace and love are two of the most crucial elements in the new ministry that is today conferred on you. Grace – because each day you will only survive if you rely on that grace to fill your life with kindness and his Spirit to strengthen and sustain you. And that will only be effective if the outcome is love – love, to care for Christ’s people and his flock. In a few moments you will be handed a Bible and told: ‘Receive this book as a sign of the authority given you this day to speak God’s word to his people. Build them up in his truth and serve them in his name’. ‘Build them up. Serve them’.

But here we come to a theological conundrum, because who comprises God’s flock? Swiftly we cry out the answer. ‘Of course, it must be those who belong to the Church. Those who are signed up and paid up members of our ‘club’. Believers like us.’ In a way that is right. We do have a special relationship to those baptised in Christ. But I do so hope that you have a wider view of your ministry than that. I hope you might see all people as embraced by God’s love and potentially open to his challenge and grace. Scripture reminds us to draw boundaries as generously as possible and to be as hopeful as the gospel itself in expecting lives to be transformed by the grace of God. So we can see the flock not only as those regular members of the Church, but also the lonely, the drug addicts, that young person who shows no interest in religion, your neighbour in investment banking. You are called to seek and serve all, including the least, the last and the lost. It was one of my predecessors, William Temple, who said famously: ‘The Church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.’

But in order to serve them we must know them and be known by them. You must learn to discern their pains, their aspirations, their hopes and fears; and they must know what you stand for. You may have heard the incident of a woman who approached her local pastor. ‘Pastor, pastor, my husband is very ill’. ‘Don’t say that’, the pastor said. ‘All is well in Jesus’ name … say, he’s under the impression that he’s ill’. Two weeks later the pastor met the woman and enquired after her husband , ‘How is he?’ ‘Oh him?’ the woman replied, ‘He’s under the impression that he’s dead’. In order to serve your people you must, unlike that Pastor, know them well ,take them seriously and share in their suffering.

Called to nourish and defend the flock. For this task of service you have had to apply yourself with vigour and determination to the study of scripture and theology. Perhaps it has been hard to find the time in busy lives. Perhaps you have been tempted to think: ‘What is the point of all this study? Surely, it’s a bit excessive to study history, philosophy, biblical languages and so on when all I shall do is to help in my local church!’

I beg to differ. I hope that the time of learning has been a time of nourishment to you in which your love of our Lord has grown; in which your understanding of the Bible has flowered; in which you have become excited by the wonder of God’s salvation and his gospel. And that is what you are required to communicate to those who will listen to you teach and preach the word of God.

You will be required humbly and faithfully to pass to new generations the tradition which we have received as Anglican Christians. But we must so understand the tradition we have received to be in a position to discern when it may have reached the end of its journey. I love the splendid definition of the difference between tradition and traditionalism: ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’. Traditionalism is when we refuse to move a flowerpot because my great Grandmother placed the church flowers in that very place and pot 70 years ago. Tradition is when we keep godly customs alive because they are as real today as they were 70 years ago. And that is why I have been so delighted to have spent so much of my life in the study of theology.

You are to nourish them with the gospel and defend that gospel in their midst. Sometimes it may mean asking uncomfortable questions of those whose decisions and policies affect adversely the lives of God’s people in this place. In doing this, do not flag in zeal. Hold fast to what is good.

A similar challenge arises in our wider society. We live at a time where competing ideologies offer instant gratification to us all. Here in Hong Kong, as in all advanced societies materialism offers a million and one different choices for the betterment of life. And there are many religious options on offer and so many pseudo-religious claims that may confuse any of us. Does Christ offer a better way? As Christian people we must respect all those who offer a different salvation to that offered in Christ and with the greatest of tenderness and love we can only say with the Psalmist: ‘Taste and see how good the Lord is!’. And as you point others to him you will be offering the best defence of all, because the greatest proof of the truth of the Christian way is the difference it makes to our lives.

Called to know where the pastures are to be found. You know, I have often wondered about the theme in the early part of the Bible that Israel is a land flowing with ‘milk and honey’! In reality, of course, it is not like that at all. It is one of the stoniest places on earth. Sheep have a tough time finding places to graze. The skill of the shepherd in the time of Jesus was that he knew where the best places were to be found. ‘The Lord is my shepherd. he makes me lie down in green pastures’. But this could only be possible because the shepherd had been there time and time again. He knew the way, he knew the best paths and he knew the obstacles and dangers on the way. And that is why your preparation has been thorough and why we want to say to you: keep learning. Make prayer and study your daily delight and your urgent routine.

I like the story of a man who turned up at the Casualty Dept of a hospital and asked to see the ‘eye and ear’ consultant. The Sister on duty said: ‘I am sorry we do not have such a specialist. We have an ‘ear and throat’ specialist but not ‘ear and eye’. What is your problem?’ He replied: ‘Well, you see, it is like this – I can’t see what I hear’.

Seeing and hearing may not go together in medical consultancy but they certainly go together as far as the spiritual life is concerned. If you must lead, then people must see in you what they hear from you. If you must ‘talk the talk’, then they will expect you to ‘walk the walk’. Not only will people – and rightly in my view – expect your deeds to match your words, but you must live amongst them and be a full part of their community. You see, people rarely follow leaders they cannot see. So, if you must lead – and you will – then with confidence lead from the front.

As you grow in the study of God’s word so you will become a person who can lead others to the living water. In so doing, it is not so much that you gradually become perfect; or that you acquire the right answers to all the questions that others will throw at you. No. It is not even so much that you will become better at making good decisions, but that you will become better and better at discerning what really matters in reaching whatever decisions you eventually make. Pray for courage. Pray for zeal. Pray for such an abiding love of God’s people that you constantly find yourself acting and speaking on their behalf – so that they too can taste and see that the Lord is good.

From my experience I can tell you that the task is never easy, you will sometimes be misunderstood, often lonely and frequently criticised. But the joys of service outnumber the difficulties. And it is service which binds the leader and the led together. Should the leader ever forget that he is first and foremost someone who is always a servant of others and always one on the way as a disciple, he is in danger of confusing leadership with lordship.

In the words of Max Warren, the great Missionary Statesman of the last century: ‘leadership involves discerning what is right, laying a course, and embarking upon the endless business of persuading the rank and file of its rightness … Here is the fearful burden of responsibility … however much one may have colleagues for 99% of the way, there will remain the last 1% when one is ahead and alone.’ That’s true. But I can also say with confidence that you will not be alone, because the Spirit of the Lord will be with you to bear you up as on eagles’ wings. The task to which you are called is a tremendous privilege as well as an awesome responsibility. Go forth in the power of God’s Spirit.