Sermon, 3 July 2022, St Thomas the Apostle – the Vicar

Dear Friends,

 

Today is very special. Fr Glen is celebrating the Eucharist for the first time. Glen remains the curate of St Andrew’s Moscow. In a sense he is in exile here at St Mark’s. Until another posting is agreed, an absentee from his normal place of operation, we have the privilege of being his refuge. So dear Glen we rejoice as you stand as one of the newly minted priests of God’s Church. You may now, as a priest absolve us, preside at the Eucharist and bless us.

 

I want to say something about what priests do, on this day when it is particularly in the limelight, I want to say something about the Feast Day we commemorate, and St Thomas. And I want to say something about the Holy Spirit, whose particular graces are implored at a first Mass. As we get to know Glen and his background, his interests and abilities, we recognise how his character and his call are bound together. We realise that priesthood and personality are an amalgam of a particular kind. Just as all people are different, so all priests are different, even if they have a common call and set of tasks. This underlines that we are firmly in the territory of the Incarnation – where words are made flesh. Where call is lived out in the lives of real people.

 

Yesterday three deacons were ordained priest in the Diocese in Europe about 35 in the Diocese of London.

 

Amongst several other weighty questions they were asked:

 

Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?

 

These are solemn words which have ramifications both for Glen as the minister of those sacraments and us as their recipients. What is offered from pulpit and altar, in equal measure, defends against error and for our flourishing. The Bishop says:

 

Priests are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.

 

There are important echoes from a much earlier age, a time of threat and menace, when Jerusalem was on edge of capture. Habbakuk was a sentinel watching out for the fall of his people, standing on the ramparts, aware of the impending catastrophe as the Babylonians were advancing.

 

I WILL stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved

 

So are priests called to watch over the people in the latter times, following the example of the ancient prophets, watching and waiting.

 

The constellation of priestly tasks, watching, stewarding, teaching even admonishing, is to ensure that the people know and are constantly reminded that Christ’s salvation is for ever. The repetition of the words of forgiveness, and the words of institution of the eucharist are so that there can be no forgetting that salvation is achieved, because we need drawing back from the desert not only of temptations but the wilderness of despair, where it is all too easy to linger.

 

The Bishop continues:

 

Priests are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead God’s people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.

 

This calling is rooted in primitive notions of sacrifice, tempered by the words “of praise and thanksgiving.” But sacrifice is at the heart of what is shown forth. Priests stand at the altar, and the symbols of sacrifice in the Temple are re-purposed, because they are so potent, and because, as John tells us, Our Lord’s death took place at the same moment the Paschal sacrifices were being offered. The old is completed by the new. The ancient cultic systems of sin-offering and ritual cleansing are sanctified by a whole new understanding of forgiveness and restitution, which took place once and for all on the Cross.

 

We might ask what: is the significance of St Thomas, in all of this? His encounter with the risen Christ in the upper room, eight days after Easter symbolises something of what priesthood can mean. Jesus had greeted the fearful disciples that first Easter day in the evening, and had gladdened their hearts. He had greeted them with peace not of this world, and had poured out his Holy Spirit. Peace, joy and the promise of forgiveness were Jesus’ gifts with the Holy Spirit that first Easter Day.

 

Eight days later, Thomas is with them. And into the midst comes Jesus himself. The sceptical Thomas is allowed his personal Paschal encounter. Word is made flesh, as the words Thomas has heard from his friends of the real presence of Jesus after his death, becomes real for him, in person. “Reach hither thine hand, thrust it into my side, be not faithless but believing.” Word becomes flesh, just as bread becomes body through a mystical and spiritual transformation of mind over matter. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas sees and believes and conveys in those simple words the crescendo of John’s Gospel. No wonder it seems the Gospel might end there. What else is there to say?

 

The first church historian, Eusebius, tells us Thomas moved East with his words of promise. From eastern Persia it is no distance to India, and from the north via the breezy trade routes along the west coast to the near ends of the earth and the spice lands of Kerala. There has been a Jewish community in Cochin since the first century AD and it would be imaginable that Thomas made it there to preach, and possibly thence to Mylapore near Madras or Chenai, where local custom claims he was martyred in 72 AD.

 

Poor Glen was ordained deacon on 18 July last year, the Feast of another Martyr, Elizabeth of Russia. I joked then that he would not be called to martyrdom. Little did we know that eight months later he would be packing his bags and evacuating from a place he knew all too well, to end up a refugee here for an uncertain period a white martyrdom of its own.

 

Your first mass Glen is not without the connotations of suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom as well.

 

I hope the reality that this is also by tradition an invocatory mass of the Paraclete, allows the red hangings and vestments of martyrdom to be conjoined by the red of the fire of the Holy Spirit.

 

On bended knee we have asked that the Holy Spirit’s uncontainable dynamism may be alive in your ministry for the rest of your life, as it has been at work in you for many years leading up to this point. We pray too for your friends in Moscow and not least Malcolm and Alison Rogers, with whom you shared ministry there and the many friends there or now dispersed. Malcolm continues to keep the flame burning in Moscow under the protection of the embassy. He wrote recently in a letter to The Times, reflecting on diplomatic developments in sanctioning Patriarch Kiril:

 

By imposing sanctions… the UK is playing into the narrative that the conflict in the Ukraine is a defensive fight for the survival of Russia against expansionist western forces that are set on destroying everything that is Russian, including the Orthodox Church.

 

In a note to friends since Malcolm says:

 

Please pray for relations between our churches and that St Andrew’s Moscow can continue to be an open door between Russia and the West, especially in the UK, while many other doors are closing.

 

You and I both feel it is important his words are uttered today, because of the role he has played in mentoring and supporting you.

 

Glen, your priesthood, as we keep St Thomas’s day is marked by all that you are and all that has brought you to this point. Your time in Russia has shaped and left an indelible mark upon you. We hope this priestly chapter in your vocational life job will be a blessing to the wider Church. Words become flesh as you utter Our Lord’s words of promise and salvation.

 

You will take bread and wine and offer them as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. You have known sacrifice in the journey to this point, and it will be received by our loving Father who blesses all that is broken and poured out and who will restore it to us a hundredfold.

 

Blessed art thou, Lord God of all creation, of thy goodness Glen has this bread to offer, may it be for us the bread of life. Amen.

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