Sermon for Third Sunday of Epiphany
Sunday 27 January 2013
Philip Elliott’s First Mass
There I was, sitting in my study, after a hard day’s work during which I had taken a big and difficult funeral, when the phone goes. The unmistakeable tones of the Archdeacon of Sarum, Alan Jeans. After a few pleasantries he cut to the chase, “I wonder if you’d be willing to see a potential curate; his name is Philip Elliott?” Within a few days we’d seen each other, I liked him and thought we could work together, so I invited him to come and join us. And the rest, as they say, is history!
When the date of Philip’s ordination to the priesthood and his first mass had been fixed I gave Philip the choice of whom he would like to preach today. I’m deeply flattered, though somewhat bewildered that he chose me. After all you could have had Bishop Bavin, who was here last Sunday night, or Canon Ed Probert to whom we are deeply grateful for bringing all those lovely matching chasubles from the cathedral in a suitcase larger than I’ve ever seen in my life before. He might have organised a South African priest or bishop (no, probably not Desmond Tutu) or the redoubtable Philip Chesters from the parish of St Matthew’s Westminster with whom Philip did an extended placement before starting theological college. Anyway you’ve not got any of those interesting people, you’ve got me, so make the best of it!
The first thing to say about Philip is that Philip is a miracle. Did you know that this fine, upstanding (slightly portly do we say?!), dark haired (mainly) young man was born at 26 weeks and weighed about a pound and half! Pauline, his mum, told me that when he was born he fitted in the palm of her hand. So the fact that Philip is about the place at all is quite remarkable. But his birth is not the only miraculous thing about Philip. His calling, his vocation is itself a miracle. It is for anyone. It is for us all, for all of us are called by God in one way or another. Philip’s vocation is made up of many components. To begin with there is his ancestry. He has in his family at least two priests, a grandfather and a great uncle. Can we doubt that there is genetic predisposition towards the priesthood in Philip? And yet he is eager to manifest that his vocation is personal, that it’s not a question of him just following in the family tradition. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Philip is so humble about his calling. Philip does not thrust his vocation in your face. He is modest about it. He believes he is called, but in a way which enhances rather than belittles our common calling. Sometimes this has made people wonder about the firmness of his vocation, but I count it a great attribute of a good priest.
Alongside ancestry and humility Philip also manifests a kind of ‘get on with it’ approach to ministry which I really value. Time and time again when I’ve thought, “Uhh, I must ask Philip to do so and so,” he’s already done it or has it on his list. And Philip is a kind caring man. He desires not merely to serve, but to love those whom he is serving. So far, so good. So a lot of elements, a lot of components going to make up the vocation of this new priest. But he, I, any priest, indeed any Christian must surely want to model her or his priesthood on that of our great high priest, Jesus Christ. We do this by looking at the kind of man that he was and seeking to follow in his footsteps. Well in that respect Philip’s got it pretty well right, hasn’t he? After all the gospels are keen to point out that Jesus has got the right ancestry, they certainly show us a man of humility; Jesus is always getting on with it and without doubt he shows us a supreme example of loving service.
But Jesus also had a mission, a vision for his priesthood, and this, Philip, like any priest needs to follow. It just so happens that it is laid out in today’s gospel reading which is sometimes called ‘The Manifesto of the Kingdom’. In his home synagogue in Nazareth Jesus reads the words of Isaiah and then applies them to himself and his ministry. In turn they can be applied to all of us who are engaged in Christ’s ministry today. There are six ingredients. First, the Spirit of God is upon us. We gain strength from God’s Holy Spirit at work within. When Philip was ordained last week at the very moment of the ordination when he was in the middle of the holy huddle of priests the bishop prayed, “send down the Holy Spirit upon your servant Philip for the office and work of a priest in your Church.” It is by the power of that Spirit that Philip undertakes his priestly ministry. It is by the power of the Spirit that we undertake our ministry. But what is that ministry? Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, tells us.
The second thing Jesus quotes is that he is to bring good news to the poor. It is Philip’s task, it all our task to be and to bring good news to the poor. The word ‘poor’ can and should be interpreted in many ways. There are many who are spiritually poor, including those who in the world’s eyes are rich and we have duty to serve them. But Jesus had are deep concern for those who were actually poor and so must we. The next thing that Jesus teaches us is that at the heart of his mission is release to captives.
Again people are held captive by many things. By materialism, by drink and drugs, by anxiety, by obsessions of various kinds. We are called to follow Christ in trying to set them free. Then Jesus tells us he comes to bring sight to the blind. And are there not many forms of blindness? Blindness to love, blindness to beauty, blindness to the things of the spirit. It is our calling to help people to raise their vision from the mundane that they may glimpse the heavenly. Jesus also desires to “let the oppressed go free.” There is great oppression in our world. There is great oppression in the lives of many. Maybe you feel a sense of oppression. Jesus and his body now on earth has the task of freeing people, freeing you, maybe, from that oppression.
Finally Jesus’ manifesto declares that this is “the year of the Lord’s favour.” This, indeed, and every year, the presence of Christ is a manifestation of God’s favour towards us. The fact that Christ came into the world and remains in the world through his Spirit shows us the everlasting, unfaltering love of God.
Philip, it is your duty and your joy to make that love real and alive in your life as a priest. Indeed it is your cheerful obligation to try to make all these elements of Jesus’ great manifesto a reality in the years that lie ahead. Don’t expect it to be easy. It’s a big ask. You’ll have a rough ride at times – especially when you get to be a vicar. Having said all that stuff in Nazareth even Jesus didn’t seem to be able to do any good there. Which is why he said, “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” Maybe that’s why Philip decided to see how he’d do six thousand miles from home. But I am convinced that in the power of the Spirit Philip will undertake his responsibilities effectively and enable the Church to realise its calling to be Christ’s body in the world today.
Third Sunday of Epiphany | Sunday 27 January 2013