Celebrating 43 years in Ministry – Nick Mercer

A sermon preached at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, on the occasion of Paul celebrating 43 years in Ministry, by Nick Mercer (Vicar General for the London College of Bishops).

God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Eccles 3.11)

My task is not to praise Paul (despite the money and the notes you wrote for me) nor to summarise his 43 years of ministry. It is to reflect on Scripture, to reflect on Paul’s life in Christ, and to reflect on our own spiritual journey.

Beyond a certain age, there are not a lot of advantages in getting older I was doing a primary school assembly the other week on Noah and the Ark. A very young boy was keen to ask a question: “were you in the ark sir?” We laughed, I said ‘no’ and he said “then why weren’t you drowned?”

But when you are older you can look back on most of your life. As the preacher, Qoheleth, does in this little book Ecclesiastes, wisdom literature from 300 years before Christ. And you can see the good bits and the bad bits and the times you laughed and the times you cried; and the surprising bits, and the bewildering times… and then the children are gone, and it all begins again!

Paul’s life was not mapped out from his boyhood and as it has so far unfolded, and we hope there are many more years of unfolding, he could never guess what would be around the next corner. As we have heard about different seasons of Paul and Caroline’s lives, we see how Paul as a man of prayer and discernment has read the times and made the most of the opportunities.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes knew that timeliness is one of the clues to living a good life. You have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Whatever skills and insights, abilities and talents you may have, if they don’t coincide with need and opportunity, you are merely the right person in the wrong place: which is usually very frustrating. And many a right opportunity, many a need in a particular moment, passes unredeemed for want of the right person to step up and serve. You need to discern the promptings.

But sometimes the two coincide, and in that place of intersection is the potential for transformation and redemption of life for all, and for those individuals at the point of intersection, it can be a time of great fulfilment. It was Aristotle who said, ‘Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.’ And much of Paul’s life has shown that to be true.

Of course one of the burdens of a vocation to public ministry, or any public office or service, is that you and your family are forever public property. It reminds me of two priests who decide to go to Majorca on holiday. They’re determined to make this a real holiday by not wearing anything that would identify them as priests. So as soon as the plane lands, they buy some outrageous shorts and shirts. The next morning sitting on the beach, enjoying a drink, a gorgeous blond in an imaginative bikini walks by. She smiles at them and says, “Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father.” They were both stunned. How in the world could she have known? The next day they decide to leave off the black Oxfords and black socks (a bit of a give-away) and just wear flip-flops and sunglasses and go to a different bit of the beach. Well after a while, the same gorgeous blonde walks along the beach turning heads as she goes. As she passes she nods and say “Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father.” The priests are amazed “But how do you know we’re priests?” The blonde turns with a puzzled look and says, “Father, it’s me, Sister Monica!”

But Paul’s vocation has been more than just talents and timeliness. As a restless disciple of Christ, he has always been, and still is, looking forwards. He has longed for more and sensed the best is yet to come.

It is a part of the human condition to be absorbed by longings and desires. And as we move from childhood to middle age, we fulfil some of those longings, and realise that others are never going to be achievable. I know for certain now that I shall never be a bishop by 40! But we begin also to realise that behind all our desires and longings, there is a deeper longing; at once both inescapable, and unquenchable. And very hard to define or understand. The preacher in Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “God… has set eternity in their hearts.”

The Apostle Paul – and there are similarities in character between the two Pauls – but the Apostle Paul takes this longing one stage further and describes his own longing to be out of the Body and with the Lord. So he writes to the Philippians: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (1:23). For St Paul this longing for death is not just a way of escaping from the dilemmas of life in this world, it is also a longing for completion, for fulfilment in the Risen Christ, for eternal life, for immortality.

The Roman Catholic Philosopher-priest Fergus Kerr has written a fine book with the intriguing title: Immortal Longings. (SPCK, 1997). It looks at the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch… and others, through Barthian spectacles. You will be glad to know that we don’t have time to discuss it this afternoon. Suffice it to say, that he examines the various ways in which philosophy has struggled with this universal human longing for transcendence – for the ‘there must be more to life than this’…

Even in the good times, when all is well with the world, the moment is often touched by an inner pain and longing. We look at a sleeping child or grandchild or a sleeping lover and know the desire for the moment to last forever, and the pain of knowing our mortality will not allow this. And it produces an un-named longing. As CS Lewis says “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status, always reminds, beckons, awakens desires. Our best havings are wantings.”

In everyday terms, we see it also in the realm of beauty and mystery: art, music and the glories of the natural world. There is an inner longing to comprehend their radiance and glory, which is at times almost painful. And we see it most obviously in the oh-so-rapid passing of the years. We realise we are getting old and that the policemen are looking younger. And although we enjoy much of the composure that age hopefully brings to us, we have immortal longings.

In our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the pure in heart who will see God; those who hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness whose longings will be satisfied. Jesus was always concerned with the direction of the heart, the object of our longings. Do we long for God or for self-satisfaction; or the more trendy god of the self-help books, self-realization? In the words of the psalmist: “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrook, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.” (Ps 42.1)

The Scriptures make clear that everything which stifles immortal longings and turns beauty, mystery, love and sex into objects of their own end, fosters ugliness, bitterness, hatred and violence – and the eclipse of our true selves. This was Freud’s mortido. So Adam and Eve grasp the object of desire, the forbidden fruit, that they might become like gods. Their longing is not for God himself, but to comprehend and so usurp his power. The Apostle Paul describes this human reversal of immortal longings in Romans: “claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God… and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (1.21-25) They follow The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst, 2004) in a curve that turns in on itself. And so they miss the voice of God. Or as Shakespeare puts it in the words of Cleopatra – and Shakespeare struggled with God and the ambiguity of his own longings: “Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have Immortal longings in me.” (Antony & Cleopatra, V/ii/283)

St Paul sees these immortal longings as satisfied partially in this life, but only as we look with hope towards a greater fulfilment in eternity. And he doesn’t see it as coming from perfection in this life. Rather he sees our imperfections as fuelling this longing and leading us to a better life here as well as in the world to come.

It reminds me of the new Vicar who arrives in the village and every evening after Evensong he sits in the local pub and orders two Gin and Tonics. He would drink them both and then order another two. Well after a few weeks of this the barman asks him why he always buys his drinks in pairs. “Well it’s quite simple really” he says, “when my twin brother moved to work in Australia, we decided whenever we were out drinking we would always order two as a reminder of each other.” Well soon he’s an institution in the village and others are buying him rounds, always with ‘two for the Vicar’. After a few months he comes in and orders just the one gin and tonic. The barman fears the worst. “Is everything alright with your brother?” “O yes, it’s just that it’s Lent and I personally have given up alcohol.”

It was John Henry Cardinal Newman who said “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Ch1, Sect 1, Pt 7)’

Paul would be the very last person to claim anything approaching perfection – and Caroline and the children would never let him get away with it – but he does exemplify what we might call ‘the grace of mutability’: the ability to change as a person throughout a long ministry as need and the study of the Scriptures and opportunity dictate. I have valued talking to him over the years about changing ecclesiologies, changing attitudes, and how to remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ, while presenting it afresh to each generation.

How many of us resist change and find ourselves stuck being what we were, clinging to our past? We live life blind to the fact that God calls us to be renewed and transformed daily in an unfolding universe of opportunity; called to respond to our sense of vocation, whatever it is, over and over again… So for Paul it has been a mixture of these ingredients: timeliness, talents, immortal longings and his own imperfections, which have allowed our Lord Jesus continually to change him and use him.

God grant that throughout our years we all may grasp the day and so respond to the eternity which God has set in our hearts, the immortal longings. Amen.

A prayer of Thomas Cranmer who worked through and led so many changes in his own lifetime for the sake of the Gospel: (BCP 4th Sunday after Easter, from Gelasius, first clause modified in 1662 – Civil War):

O almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise, that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.