"The way God comforts us is by gently, persistently, tenderly helping us to look at suffering, grief and sorrow in the eye".
Some of you might remember the online Theology 101 course we run here at St Paul’s during the Easter season in which we covered the different ministries in the Church -deacons, priests, bishops- and ended with an overview on the priesthood of all believers.
For a more experiential approach, for each of these talks I interviewed two people. When it came to the ministry of bishops, naturally one of the two interviewees was our own Bishop Michael and I remember the answer he gave to me when I asked him how he had become a bishop. In 1995, the then bishop of London, Richard Chartres, needed to appoint three area bishops. The trickiest of the three was the appointment for Kensington and so Bishop Richard went to see Fr Colclough in his office and said to him: Will do you do that?
“I was gobsmacked – Bishop Michael said to me in that interview- because I didn’t think I would be a bishop. It panicked me quite a lot because I had great respect for bishops. So I prayed about it. The words that came to me were from St John’s Gospel: I am the vine, you are the branches. Remain in me and you will bear fruit. That’s what gave me the confidence to say yes, knowing that if I stayed close to Jesus, indeed in Jesus, then all will be well – and I must say he didn’t let me down”.
I find the Bishop Michael’s attitude here can help us to understand the meaning which Mark’s gospel attaches to the oft-repeated sentence in today’s gospel: “in my name”, “in the name of Christ”.
In our society and legal systems we are familiar with the idea of ‘acting in someone’s name’, that is receiving a delegation from someone that enables us to wield their authority.
In Christianity however things do not work exactly in the same way. Acting in Jesus’ name never is a purely legal notion. People can be legally, or better, canonically, licensed as priests, appointed as bishops - they can perform the duties of their ministry validly, and yet at a deeper level, at a spiritual level, be fruitless, barren, hollow, and ultimately fail and even harm people, whenever they forget that the only thing that really matters in Christian ministry is how real, how heartfelt, how personal, one’s relation to Jesus, and to people, really is.
To understand this point better, let’s be more tangible. Nobody, I think, has explained the heart of Christian ministry better than Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (in a slightly convoluted passage, I must admit):
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1.3f)
As long as we see priestly or episcopal, or any other form or ministry in the church in terms of functions (say mass, appoint people, chair meetings, preach etc…), we can easily bluff our way through – sometimes however paying a heavy price for this pretence. Our churches today mirror secular managerial, bureaucratic, and procedural society so much that they have become too afraid to really care for people, because this inevitably involves taking risks. Sometimes with the tragic outcome of crushing lives, as we have seen in the recent events surrounding the death of fr Alan Griffin, which were exposed to the public thanks to the scathing report by the senior Coroner of North London.
The emotion caused by this event betrayed the extent to which this was not a one-off mistake, but the result of a system that has stopped caring for his own people, a system that has forgotten what the heart of Christian ministry really is, summed up by Paul as “bringing comfort to people”. This is the Father’s greatest and deepest yearning, this God poignantly urges his prophets and ministers to do: Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people! This is what God wants Moses to do in today’s first reading. He says to him: “Carry the people of Israel in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child” (Numbers xxx).
Why should it be so difficult for the church to do precisely that which it was created to do in the first place? Why do we keep losing sight of something so essential to what ‘acting in Jesus’ name’ really means?
The answer is quite simple: the ability to comfort is not something we can magically acquire through being licensed, appointed, ordained, delegated – no amount of managerial skills, safeguarding training, liturgical niceties, oratorial skills, theological literacy will ever make up for our reluctance to focus on what God want us to do: give people his comfort – mind you, not just any human comfort, however invaluable this would already be, in the form of empathy, listening, encouragement and support we can learn to give to each other as human beings.
To really act in Jesus name, ministers should give to people not just any human comfort, but God’s comfort: all those who “labour and are heavy laden” can find rest for their souls only by coming to Jesus and letting him take their yoke upon himself. This is a form of comfort we become able to minister to people only if we ourselves learn it from Jesus “who is gentle and lowly in heart”. (Mt 11:25-30).
This is where personal relation with Jesus makes the whole difference: unless we ourselves have come to Jesus and let him take our yoke upon himself – unless we have exposed ourselves over time to the healing and relief that comes from trusting him, we will never be able to help anyone else to do the same. This is why Paul says that it is because we have let ourselves to be comforted by God that we can comfort others.
So one of the question, I suppose, we should ask ourselves this morning is this: in the unavoidable difficulties, hardships, griefs, and sorrows of our lives, where do we look for comfort? Is it not revealing how this very word, ‘comfort’, has lost its biblical meaning and has become associated with status instead? We yearn to settle in a ‘comfortable’ life, a life where we can somehow numb ourselves to our problems and to the problems of the world by insulating ourselves in well-being, whichever form this might take. Our default strategy for dealing with grief, sorrow and suffering in our lives is denial. This is a parody of comfort. This is not God’s comfort.
The way God comforts us is by gently, persistently, tenderly helping us to look at suffering, grief and sorrow in the eye. Patiently, slowly he helps us to reconcile ourselves with grief and sorrow, converting them from an external weight that threatens to crush us into an internal resource for empathy, love and care for others that only then really makes us like Christ, really enables us to “act in his name”.
If I may, let me repeat to you some more of the things bishop Michael shared with us in the interview I mentioned to you earlier and which you can easily watch again if you like in the blog of our formation program Quest:
"A bishop cares: my primary focus was to be the pastor of the pastors: knowing the priests and the deacons, meeting with them regularly, providing teaching for them, making sure they take their time off - sometimes, thankfully rarely, correct them".
He then talked about his prison ministry at Scrubs. He said to me that he found ministry there very real: prisoners are pretty straightforward and honest. In particular he remembered how, on Christmas day, West Indian chaps would have tears in their eyes – they were missing their families. And he said more than once that even as a bishop he sees himself as a parish priest and for this reason visited parishes as much as he could, to get to know the congregations, talk to people, be close to them.
We thank God with Bishop Michael, his wife Cinthia, and his family for all the comfort he has dispensed in Jesus’ name since he was ordained a deacon 50 years ago and during 25 years of episcopal ministry.
And we should be grateful for the fact that God is so determined to bring his comfort to his people that even when our churches are so inadequate, he freely raises people who, as it happens in today’s first reading, prophesy outside the tent. I find Moses’ answer to those who wanted to stop this from happening incredibly refreshing:
"Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"
Would that all of us experience the comfort of God’s caring love in the difficulties, sorrows and griefs of our lives.
Would that, as a result, all of us were able to become the witness of this comfort to the world, ‘in Jesus’ name’.