Chelmsford Cathedral – 50th anniversary of ordination (1 Sam 7.12; 1 Cor 15.10; John 15.5)
NOT I BUT THE GRACE OF GOD
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
Fifty years ago this weekend I was ordained to the Christian ministry. Unlike Anglican ordinations where a bishop normally ordains a large number of ordinands together in a cathedral, as is the custom in British Baptist churches I was ordained in my sending church in South London. I was the only ordinand. Somewhat unusually I was ordained as a missionary with the charge to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28.19). Indeed, within three days of that service Caroline and I together with our one-year-old son, Jonathan, were on our way to the Congo: we travelled to Antwerp, where we set sail for Matadi, the port of Congo. Now a lifetime later I am, to my amazement, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination.
It’s been quite a ride, those last fifty years. I could never have dreamt where God would take me.
To my surprise my ministry began in Congo, where for two years I served with the BMS, teaching in the medium of French Greek & New Testament in the Protestant Theological Faculty of what became the National University of Zaire. Those two years were packed with adventure – chartering for instance a MAF plane and flying 500 miles to find a hospital, where our second son, Timothy, was born. I am delighted that some of my African friends are here this afternoon.
Then came 13 years as the minister of Altrincham Baptist Church, Cheshire, where the father of Nicholas Henshall, the Dean of the Cathedral, was the Anglican vicar. Who could have imagined that Nicholas and I would have become friends? Probably the years spent in Altrincham were the happiest years of my ministry. There Susannah and Benjamin were born – there the church quadrupled in size with many young people and young couples coming to faith. I am delighted that my friend Nick Mercer is here, for in a previous incarnation he led a 35-strong student mission to Altrincham in 1977.
Then in 1986 I was invited to become Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London. For my Anglican friends I need perhaps to say that Spurgeon was the Victorian ‘prince of preachers’. The college had fallen on hard times and it was my task to reconnect the college with the churches. However, with God’s help the fortunes of the College were restored, the finances returned to the black, and Spurgeon’s became the largest Baptist college in Europe. That was the toughest period of my ministry. I am delighted that Paul Goodliff and Nick Lear are here – for they were two of my students.
Six years later I returned to pastoral ministry and returned to Essex. Yes, I am proud to be an Essex boy – for I was born in Ilford, then part of the county. For 21 years I was minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. The first seven years were lean years, not everybody appreciated the direction I led the church – but the next 14 years were good years, with the church not just growing in numbers but increasingly engaging with the community. I am glad to see so many of my friends from CBC here.
And now we are here – who could have dreamt that Caroline and I would end up in retirement happily settled as members of an Anglican Cathedral? At this point I need to thank Nicholas and his ministry team, indeed everybody here at the Cathedral, for welcoming us and accepting us – and for the mind-boggling kindness in making it possible for me to celebrate my 50th anniversary within the context of Evensong. I say, ‘mind-boggling’ because technically the Church of England does not regard non-episcopal ordination as valid. And yet, theological differences have been put aside – and for that I am grateful.
Well enough of me. When I retired in March 2014, Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, put on a farewell service at which many kind things were said about me. Today’s service, however, is very different in character. Instead of celebrating Paul Beasley-Murray, I want this service to be a celebration of the grace of God – God’s undeserved favour on my life. There are times when I have almost felt guilty – why should God have blessed me in this way?
As I wrote in This is my Story: “As I look back over my life, there is so much for which I am grateful—and for which I thank God:
- I thank God for his amazing love for me seen above all in Jesus. What a difference Jesus makes to living (and, of course, to dying too).
- I thank God for the family in which I grew up, and for the love and security which they gave me.
- I thank God for Caroline and for the family which is now ours, and for the love and support that I have received from them.
- I thank God for the many friends who have enriched our lives, as also for those friends who are still there for us.
- I thank God for the privilege of having been a pastor. It is undoubtedly the most wonderful calling in the world.
- I thank God for so much happiness and fulfilment in ministry; I thank God even for the tough times, because they have brought about a depth and maturity which otherwise I would not have had.
- I thank God for the new freedoms and opportunities of ‘retirement’.
- I thank God for the many undeserved blessings of life, such as health and strength, opportunities to travel and see so much of the world, and the resources to enjoy so many of the good things of life. In the words of the Psalmist “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps 16:6) [Hence the choice of Psalm 16 this afternoon]. God has been good in the way in which he has ‘marked out’ the parameters of my life.”
This afternoon I want to adopt an Anglican practice – and instead of expounding one scripture passage in depth, I want to dip into three Scripture passages.
Firstly, 1 Sam 7.12 where the prophet Samuel celebrates a famous victory over the Philistines, by setting up a stone. We read: “He named it Ebenezer’ (i.e. Stone of Help), for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’”. John Goldingay in his commentary on this passage noted that ‘helping’ can have a variety of connotations. It can be used of giving a person a ‘helping hand’ – that simply makes life a little easier. However, at the battle of Mizpah the help God gave made all the difference. Without him the Israelites would have been defeated. Today, on this special anniversary of my ordination I wanted to mark the occasion by saying that God has not just given me a helping hand – he has made all the difference over these past fifty years. In the words of Robert Robinson’s great hymn, ‘Come Thou Fount of every blessing’, I too wanted to say: “Here I raise my Ebenezer/Hither by they help I’ve come”. And with Robinson I wanted to declare: “O to grace how great a debtor/Daily I’m constrained to be”
Covid-19 did its best to thwart me.
- The after-service party was kicked into touch
- A host of friends had to be disinvited
- BUT Evensong has remained and I am able to ‘raise my Ebenezer’ and declare, “Thus far the Lord has helped me”
Secondly, 1 Cor 15.10 where the Apostle Paul reflecting on his ministry wrote: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them (viz. the 12 apostles to whom the risen Lord had appeared) – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”. Here Paul celebrates the grace of God. Indeed, he celebrates the grace of God in triplicate.
Three times in one verse he speaks of the grace of God: “
- He begins: by the grace of God I am what I am”;
- He goes on: “his grace towards me has not been in vain”;
- He ends by attributing his achievements to “the grace of God that is with me”.
What I find significant is the contrast Paul makes between God’s grace and his own sense of identity, his own ego. Yes, in the original Greek ego is the word. “Not I” (literally ‘not ego’) BUT the grace of God”.
My PhD supervisor was F.F. Bruce, then the John Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester. In his commentary on1 Corinthians he wrote:
“Paul had good reason to boast…. Latecomer as he was to the apostolate, he strove to make up for lost time and the sum-total of his achievements thus far surpassed the record of those who had been called to the apostolate earlier. The extent of these achievements is impressive enough, even if we go no farther back than the six or seven years immediately preceding the writing of this letter: he had evangelized the provinces of Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia, and was now actively engaged in evangelizing proconsular Asia…. Yet all the credit is ascribed to ‘the grace of God’ which called him…. and made him what he was.”
For Paul, all the hard work which lay behind his achievements was not the result of a personal need to compensate God for his grace but were a reflection of God’s grace at work in his life. All was of grace. Paul did not describe his hard work as co-operating with God’s grace, but rather entirely an effect of God’s grace.
And what was true of Paul has been true of me. But some might say, “Paul are you not being a little simplistic in attributing everything to the grace of God?”
- What about your strength of character? That’s from God!
- What about your gifts and talents? They too are from God!
- What about the friends who stood by you and the people who loved you? They too are from God!
As I said in my blog this week, “Ultimately everything we achieve in ministry is attributable to the grace of God “.
This leads me to Jesus and to John 15.5. There John records that Jesus on the night before he died, said to his disciples in the Upper Room: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This means, said William Temple, “All fruit that I ever bear or can bear comes wholly from his life within me. No particle of it is mine as distinct from his. There is, no doubt, some part of his whole purpose that He would accomplish through me; that is my work, my fruit, in the sense that I, and not another, am the channel of his life for this end; but in no other sense. Whatever has its ultimate origin in myself is sin.”.
Yes, from start to finish ministry is rooted in the grace of God. However gifted and skilled ministers may be, however hard-working and committed they may be, ultimately we are dependent upon the grace of God at work in our lives. To God – and to God alone – be the glory!