Preached by Canon Roland Riem, using Acts 23.6-11, at Evensong on Sunday 10th June 2012, the Licensing and Installation of Gregory Clifton-Smith as Close Vicar.
We don’t always have a sermon with an installation, but seeing as Gregory will be working under my wing, along with Canon Jackie, I’d like to offer a brief word of encouragement before the prayers.
A VIP who visited the Cathedral recently said to Jackie, when she was introduced as Pastoral Assistant, “Oh, so you the one who wipes up the mess after everyone else”. Someone had been talking, and it wasn’t me!
I don’t know exactly how you, Gregory, are feeling at this gateway to a new pastoral ministry. Cathedrals are mighty juggernauts and sometimes it is true that people feel as if ours trundles on regardless, without noticing the quiet pain of individuals, or without respecting their often decided opinions – this is Winchester and there are plenty of those. This is the flip-side of the ability of cathedrals to give people space.
The temptation for someone with a pastoral tag is to be the sponge or the sticking plaster, as our VIP wryly observed, which is why it’s good to have the ministry of St Paul as a yardstick before us in the second lesson.
Paul is appealing to the Pharisees and Sadducees in the wider council who were judging him. Now you could read this as a clever attempt to divide the Council, with a subject likely to divide them – the resurrection. You probably would, given the way events are spun today: the biggest economic crisis of a hundred years is reported as if it were a matter of brinkmanship between the individual politicians of rival nations. Who will blink first? the media wonder.
But I urge us not to see it like that. Paul is standing where he has to stand, with the truth as he sees it, the truth of the resurrection of the dead, a truth riven into his heart by his encounter with Jesus Christ risen from the dead. How could he do otherwise?
Whether we’re pastors or not, all Christian ministers must stand for truth. Truth is not something we can bend this way and that, to protect ourselves or to manipulate others, or even use to show them how nice, kind and pastoral we are.
And yet truth is pastoral. If you listen carefully to Paul he says he is on trial for the hope of the resurrection of the dead. Hope is on trail. The resurrection of the dead is not primarily a matter for dissension; it is a matter of hope, a hope to be discovered and lived out, as Paul was doing.
Gregory, you may not yet have heard the Cathedral’s relatively new motto – ‘to discover and live out the beauty of holiness’. It tries to say that the beautiful things of God exit to be found and embodied in human lives.
Paul, even under threat, is doing no less than to hold out the hope that he had discovered, for his persecutors to grasp. That seems Christ-like and truly pastoral, because what makes a pastor is a love, a patience, a hope for people with only a quarter-ear for the gospel – a hope for people who can’t help themselves out of their captivity.
It takes time, resilience and a gospel-heart to help others discover hope. Paul himself was overwhelmed by resurrection hope when in persecutor-mode. He understood the need for it to break into human hearts, to stir and shake up individuals. It’s rarely a smooth and easy process; it comes through rage, tears, longing and the whole gamut of emotion; and perhaps it’s never nearer than in the thickets of grief and despair. Our hope is, indeed, in the resurrection of the dead – the emotionally, spiritually, morally, bodily dead.
So we’re glad to have you, Gregory, with your long experience of being with people outside the Christian fold who are nonetheless seeking hope in the disruption of their plans and in the shadow of suffering. I dare to think it won’t be so different here, in this sometimes consoling, sometimes so lonely a space.
The joy of pastoral ministry, as you know, is that even though the truth of the gospel can’t be bent in any old direction or manipulated to our own ends, it can be born anew in us – if only we listen. We can each discover a word in our own native language, spoken into, and growing within, our longing, listless hearts. Even if circumstances can’t change, we can.
Pastors are called neither to soothe nor cause dissent, but to be midwives of hope.
As Paul says elsewhere: ‘suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’. (Rom 5.3b-5)