Acts 3:1-10; Galatians 1:11-20; John 21:15-19
The first priest ordained in this cathedral was Martin Mulhall in 1877, though there had been three earlier ordinations in the old cathedral. Since then many hundreds more priests and deacons have been ordained here; and those who gather in St Stephen’s this morning represent them all. Much has changed since 1877, not least in the ordained ministry. But we come together in this sesquicentenary year to name and celebrate what does not change in the ordained ministry or in the life of a cathedral which has itself seen great change through the years.
To name what hasn’t changed we turn to the Acts of the Apostles where we meet the crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. He begs from Peter and John, and Peter tells him very directly, “I have neither silver nor gold, but I will give you what I have”. As it turns out, what he has is the power to heal in the name of Jesus Christ – not silver and gold that would leave the man crippled forever, but a power which changes his life and sets him free.
So the question is, What do you have, all you who have been ordained in this cathedral? What was the gift you received when hands were laid upon you here? It was not what St Paul calls some “human message” passed on by human beings. There were many human messages through the years of your formation, but what ordination conferred came through what Paul calls “a revelation of Jesus Christ”. The extraordinary passage from Galatians we have heard goes to the heart not only of Paul’s apostolic mission but to the heart of the ordained ministry and the gift we received in ordination, not just for ourselves but for the Church and even the world.
Paul tells of his career as a persecutor of the Church but then recounts the moment we call his conversion. He looks back to Jeremiah to understand his own calling. Paul sees himself, like Jeremiah, specially chosen from his mother’s womb. His calling has deep roots and has been long in the planning of God. The fact that Paul looks back to Jeremiah to interpret his own Damascus Road experience suggests that he understood that moment not as a conversion so much as the prophetic commissioning of an unlikely candidate. He had done nothing to deserve the call: on the contrary. That’s why he says God “called me through his grace”: it was sheer gift.
Then come the key words: God “chose to reveal his Son to me”, as the translation we have heard has it. In fact, the Greek reads that God “chose to reveal his Son in me”; and surely that’s what Paul dictated. The Apostle says that he didn’t just receive a revelation of Jesus: he actually became the revelation of Jesus. In Catholic terms, this is a quasi-sacramental understanding of what the call of God does to us. The Good News came to Paul as it comes to us by a revelation of Jesus; and we who receive the gift then become the revelation. In that sense, Paul didn’t just pass on the Good News; it didn’t just pass through him, as a human message might. He became the Good News.
The power of the Risen Christ inhabits Paul and then passes through him, just as it did Peter and John. The same is true of our ordination. The gift we received was the power of the Risen Christ which inhabited us. That is part of what it means to speak of a sacramental priesthood. The power of the Risen Christ inhabited us; he was revealed in us. And his power has not ceased to flow through us from that day till this, despite our many faults and failings, all our wounds and weaknesses. Paul had to deal with that, which is why, having heard the Lord say, “My power is at its best in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9), he declares unforgettably, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
In his novel, “The Power and the Glory”, Graham Greene tells the story of the whisky priest, in many ways a hopelessly failed figure caught up in the maelstrom of the Mexican persecution of the Church. He appears as a powerless and inglorious figure; yet Greene tells his story to show how the power and glory of God shine through even a figure like this, perhaps even especially through a figure like this. We may not be whisky priests and the maelstrom we face is different, but through us too has shone the extraordinary gift of grace given to us in ordination.
We have met many different kinds of cripples through the years, some looking to us to give them what we haven’t got. At times perhaps we’ve tried to give them what we haven’t got. That’s when the ordained ministry becomes a real burden and finally unmanageable. But more often we have given them what we ourselves have been given in ordination. We have allowed the love of Christ in all its liberating power to flow through us, just as it flowed through Peter and John and Paul. That power, flowing through us, hasn’t left people in their paralysis, begging by the Beautiful Gate; it’s set them free to live a new life where they can begin to walk the path home to Paradise, even at times “jumping and praising God”.
All of this is the work of love, and without that the ordained ministry becomes not just meaningless but demonic. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times to match Peter’s threefold denial when fear had left no room for love. In asking, Do you love me?, Jesus is asking Peter whether he is now able to live beyond fear. The same question is put to us today by the same Lord, “Do you love me?”. Since love can come from God alone, the Lord’s question means, Have you allowed my love so to inhabit your life that it can flow through you not only back to me but to all the crippled beggars of the world who hold out their hand for my love?
The Lord also says to Peter, “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go”. Through the years since ordination, we have been taken to places we didn’t expect; at times we have been taken where we would rather not go. There have been many surprises and a few shocks, many twists and turns. Martin Mulhall went from Brisbane to Rockhampton to Melbourne and eventually to America where he died in 1908: may he rest in peace.
Looking back to ordination, it’s as if we then signed a blank cheque, though we didn’t know it was blank at the time. This has left us at times feeling ourselves like cripples, stretching out our hands as beggars. We have had to grow, slowly and painfully, into the role of wounded healer. There has been a kind of death in this. As the Gospel says, “In these words [Jesus] indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God”. There has been a dying through the years, but through the dying the love has come to birth; and that love, in us and through us, has given glory to the God from whom it comes.
At the end of his words to Peter by the lake, Jesus speaks again the words he first spoke to Peter by the lake years before: “Follow me”, he says. He speaks the same words to us in this moment of fresh commissioning: “Follow me”, he says as he did at ordination. And we have learnt enough of his faithful love through the years that we say today as we did at ordination, “Yes, Lord, we will follow wherever you lead, even home to Paradise where all the cripples of the world will dance with you in the perichoresis that never ends”. Amen.