Sermon at Evensong in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh
Tuesday 22nd February 2005
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave the following sermon at a service of Choral Evensong in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, to mark the visit of the primates of the Anglican Communion.
In the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
From our first reading this evening, ‘you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’. These words spoken to the people of Israel in the wilderness are spoken again to the church in the New Testament. And spoken to us today. But what is it to be called to be a kingdom of priests? In the understanding of those who wrote our Old Testament lesson, the priest was the focus of everything that God’s people gave to God. The priest on behalf of the people gave thanks; made sacrifices; made atonement; made peace between God and the world. And so for Israel to be called to be a priestly people in the midst of the nations of the world is for Israel to be called to give to God on behalf of the world. To give thanks, to make peace. God’s people are there so that there may be peace between Earth and Heaven. And yet as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us so forcefully in the New Testament, human beings alone cannot make lasting peace between Earth and Heaven. The sacrifices are offered year after year and yet sin, warfare, spirit and body returns again and again. Those repeated offerings cannot make the fundamental change that is required. And so it is that the calling of God’s priestly people narrows down to the one who is our great high priest, Jesus Christ, priest forever after the Order of Melchizedek as the Letter to the Hebrews has it.
And it is that calling, Christ’s calling to be the one and only true peacemaker that we read about in our New Testament lesson. ‘He is our peace who has made us both one, making peace that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the Cross’. The calling of all God’s people rests on the shoulders of the one man, the one who alone can make a lasting peace; who alone can give true and adequate thanks to God for the whole world; who alone can offer the sacrifice that restores relationship between God and the world. And it is this one great high priest who then calls us afresh to be instruments of his peace; to be a priestly people, because we know that peace has been made. And we put our lives in his hands; we let him use us, we let him build us into a place where he can be: a sanctuary, a temple for his glory. And we can do this, we can put ourselves into his hands because we know that it is not for us to make peace, but for us to inhabit the peace that he has made and to draw the world into it.
So we who are called to be instruments of Christ’s peace, we who are called to be the kingdom of priests in his name and power, we like the Old Testament priests, in the words of the prayer book, make prayers and supplications and give thanks for all. The Church is above all a place where prayer and supplication and thanksgiving happen. If the Church fails to be such a place, it is no real Church. But the worship that is offered in the Church, the prayer and praise and thanksgiving, is not simply what we do. It is what Christ does. The Church is a place where the peacemaking worship of Christ is real. A pillar of fire in our midst between Earth and Heaven. That is what the Church is for. The one sacrifice of Christ that sustains all our prayers, that permeates all our praise and thanksgiving; the one worth offering, the one true act of worship – that is the life of the Church.
So what is required of us who are called into this fellowship? We are required first of all to know that is Christ who has made peace. In other words, we are not to be anxious. A doomed peace of advice it may be for any Church, not least for the Anglican Communion at the moment, and yet that is what Christ says to us. He has made peace and our life rests on what he has done and on nothing else. So our own efforts at peacemaking and witnessing to peace in world and Church alike must not be characterised by anxious striving, by desperate activism, by the passion to get it all sorted and all right, now. He has made peace by the blood of his Cross, and we live in the fullness of what he has done and we warm ourselves at the pillar of fire that is set, up in our midst, between Earth and Heaven by his prayer and sacrifice.
And secondly, we are called to find that peace in the shared offering of thanks. To find peace in our worship together. The writer to the Hebrews tells us not to be slow in coming together to worship, or reluctant as some are. Because it is as we pray together that we find the peace that Christ has made. And again and again in the midst of our tensions, our struggles and uncertainties, it matters more than we can readily say that we should let ourselves be drawn together by that pillar of fire, to make prayers and supplications and give thanks in the power of the Christ who is among us. So that, third, we are called upon to become, as the New Testament lesson suggests, a place where God is to be found. That is what the Church exists for and I say it once again, a place where the reality of Christ is alive in our midst, a place where God is to be found. A sanctuary. But remember the two meanings of the word sanctuary in common use. A sanctuary, yes; a temple for God; but a sanctuary – a place of refuge, a place of asylum, to use a very current word. A place where those who need a home and have none may find it. So that to be built by God into a sanctuary, a living temple, is not to be built into some closed holy space. It is to be built into a temple whose doors are open, where God is to be found and God’s peace makes a difference. In all these respects, what deep conversion is required of us? How readily we turn to anxious striving, as if Christ had not died and been raised. How awkwardly we sit with one another to pray together and worship together. How easy it is for us to close our doors. But, we are called to be a kingdom of priests, and to be built as a holy temple so that the world may be invited, may see, may be transfigured.
There are many definitions of what it is to be a priest, but one that has struck me with great force recently is this: a priest is someone who in his or her friendship reveals to me the face of God. Someone who in his or her friendship reveals to me the face of God. To be a kingdom of priests then, is to be a people through whose friendship God can be seen. Are we friends to God’s world? We shall be so if we learn to be friends of Jesus Christ and friends with one another. But it may then be that we are able to be true priests in sharing that face to the world, which is not ours and never will be the face of the one who has called us, and loved us, and pledged himself to us, and lives and works and prays in our midst, Jesus Christ. That is the calling of a priestly people; the kingdom of priests, the holy nation, the calling given to God’s people from the beginning, the calling brought to its consummation in Jesus Christ, the calling through Christ renewed to each one of us and every Christian community of which we are a part. The call to our Anglican Communion to be a kingdom of priests, a priestly people. Those among whom the prayer of Christ may be seen and heard. The peace that Christ has won may be tangible. And to be a friendly home for a world of homeless people lost in unhappiness, in error, and sin. What greater calling can there be? May Christ then be visible among us. May that pillar of fire be seen as we meet together to worship. With whatever doubts and tensions and uncertainties as we meet, he is there, as he has promised. May Christ be seen and Christ’s peace be heard. May we all of us, as believers, be those who in their friendship show the face of God to the world. And may the spirit of the Christ we praise among us help us through the difficult conversion and the daily discipleship that alone will make that real and credible. Amen.