The Revd Brutus Green
Within the first months of beginning my life as a priest at St John’s, five years ago, I had two experiences that capture the contrary life of the ordained. In the first, on a sunny day, I was pulled off the street over towards Bayswater by a desperate man who told me that he was about to kill himself and launched into a moving story about the death of his mother. I was utterly unprepared for such a conversation but talked to him for some time, told him to drop by at St John’s, and tried to give him some reassurance. He didn’t ask me for money, and I’ve never seen him again.
In the second I was walking through Soho when a middle aged woman sitting outside with a glass of wine stood up, leering at me, and shouted “you’re not a real priest” before sitting back down and laughing with her friends. Again, in my first few weeks wearing a collar, I was unprepared so I just smiled sweetly and walked on. Given that it was Soho perhaps I should have replied “you’re not a real woman”, but I’m always a little bit concerned with behaving in a manner unbecoming of a man of the cloth…
From the deadly serious to the ridiculous the life of a priest can quickly rotate; between singing three little ducks, taking a funeral and attempting to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to restore an ancient dilapidated squeeze box. What in training prepares you for that?
When Austin Farrer said of priests that they are ‘walking sacraments’, he was writing in a different era - but it still applies with all its reassurance and challenge. Like other uniforms people see first the role and not the person.
I can’t tell you how many St John’s people I’ve walked past out of collar and they haven’t recognised me at all; A fact for which sometimes I’m rather grateful; although I suppose it’s also possible that sometimes they’re just pretending not to recognise me.
When people see a priest though, it can mean many different things. If you’ve seen the recent film Calvary you’ll know the main character is told he is going to be murdered just because he’s a priest, and a good priest; more normally, people see someone who will listen, someone who might give you absolution or say a prayer; or else someone slightly ridiculous, a soft touch maybe, or a relic of a bygone era.
But every time, as a priest, you meet someone and the ‘what do you do’ question arises it’s like I’m hitting a wall of prejudice; it almost needs a qualifier - “I’m a priest, but not a judgemental, priggish sexist homophobe”, which I sometimes say. Still I can only imagine what it’s like to be a politician or, heaven forbid, a banker. Fortunately, priests don’t have a monopoly on bad stereotypes.
In terms of the priesthood we talk about vocation; but similarly people of many professions feel that they have a vocation - that what they do is an important part of who they are. Vocation in this sense is literally a ‘calling’. Calling is something to which you are summoned but also a calling is something that you are called. In this sense who we are is in some way determined by what people call us, how they understand us. In this way calling is something that is negotiated. I can be a priest but not that sort of priest. You might be a banker, but not that sort of banker. Misrecognition can also be an important part of who we are.
We can see this in the Gospels throughout as the disciples who have recognised Jesus as the Messiah continually misrecognise what a messiah is and what Jesus has actually come to do. But this becomes the basis on which Jesus is able to re-educate them as to what it means to be a disciple, what the nature of love is and who God has revealed himself to be.
This comes across in today’s Gospel, and we also see how Simon Peter is coming to understand who he is. It is crucial to see this passage in direct relation to the one that precedes it in which Simon correctly recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and is given the name Peter - from petros meaning rock. He is told here that he is the rock on which the church is to be built and against which the powers of death shall not prevail - the words inscribed around the dome of St Peter’s in Rome.
Today’s passage immediately follows this with Peter rebuked: “Get behind me, Satan!” for again getting it wrong. He is sure that Jesus has not been called to lay down his life for love of God’s people - but this is precisely how Jesus understands his Messiahship. This is the sort of oscillation that the church goes through - recognising and misrecognising Jesus and God’s will in the world. The temptation for the disciple and the church to take the easier path, to set its mind on earthly things not heavenly things, is here written into its foundations, in the character of Peter.
The Reformation we might remember began as a protest from Martin Luther at the building of St Peter’s in Rome on the profits of the sale of indulgences, of promises of forgiveness, as the church set its mind on earthly things. You may sometimes feel the same when paying to enter cathedrals…
So vocations, including being a Christian, give us identity which we negotiate - in which we’re recognised and misrecognised. But they should call us to places where we’re uncomfortable. Life is short. One day you’re twenty six and ten years later you’re still telling people you’re twenty six but you’re really not. If nothing has changed in your life in the last ten years you have to ask yourself - is this still what I’m called to? And at some point you’ve got to know when it’s time to move on and let an old associate vicar move in to the vicarage. But, actually - seriously, as we’re about to begin the new school year, perhaps we should try and remember the enthusiasm we had as we were about start reception, or secondary school, or university. The desire to improve ourselves, to grow, to learn; these do not need to leave us as we grow older.
What was going on at the beginning of Christianity is a revolution. If you look back at the epistle it is inspirational, speaking to a community living in adversity. When life gets difficult, when it gets dangerous, every instinct goes on the defensive. The exhortation here though is demanding: ‘outdo one another in showing honour’ - ‘rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’ this is a people who are confidently living their beliefs in adversity. These are people whose minds are set on heavenly things.
We are encouraging our children today to begin their studies in this spirit. To go out with confidence but ready to be changed - to become the men and women they are called to be. This will involve difficulty and challenge - everyone remembers how challenging a first day at school can be - for parents and for children. It will involve failure - like Peter getting it totally wrong - but this is the process by which we become the people we are meant to be - by which we discover our vocations in God. It involves recognition as we hear the vocation to which we’re called, the PCC role we never thought we’d do, the career that has somehow come to define our life’s work, the relationships that matter; but also it involves misrecognition as we understand what we are trying to change and that which we are not. And then it involves the things we are not yet - all the undreamt of possibilities that we are yet to become whether we are eight or eighty.
So next time you are pulled off the street or hollered to from a bar in Soho think about it. How are you becoming the person God has called you to be? Have you set your mind on earthly or heavenly things? Are you recognising the person God is calling you to be? Might you have misrecognised it? But this is not something to worry over. God’s call simply asks you to remain open to the amazing possibilities that life and you yourself have within you and to continually rediscover what is possible. A new term begins, a new horizon opens. Where is the promise in your life this new year? What are the heavenly things that you are setting your mind on?