The Yoke of Priesthood

Sermon preached at St James the Great, Colwall, Sunday 9 July 2017

Zechariah 9.9-12; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-end

To listen to the sermon recording as you read:

Take my yoke upon you... For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

2017 is a good year to feel proud of being a Christian, for you are part of the Church, that little-understood organization with branches everywhere. It has its scandals, of course: terrible stories (many of them true) about sexual abuse; stories (many – perhaps most – of them untrue) about prurient interest in other people’s sexuality and about lots of condemnation and disapproval. And there are silly urban and rural myths about the Church being fabulously wealthy and yet endlessly interested in jumble sales. But in 2017, above all other accounts in the mass media, are the stories of churches opening their doors day and night to give shelter and aid to traumatized people and rescue workers after terrorist attacks and a disastrous fire in a tower block. Altars and pews are stacked high with food, clothing, toiletries and sanitary supplies while church members of all ages organize themselves into teams delivering essential services.

I’m not claiming, of course, that Christians do this on their own. Muslims and Sikhs also rally round immediately and all collaborate in the tasks demanded for the common good. But I still say that, if you took all the Christians out of these crisis responses, they would limp badly. And I will say more: although Christians are not alone – for there are people of goodwill of all faiths and none – it is hard to imagine how many of our charitable community services would be able to function, or would even have been started, without the Church. Think of Relate, of voluntary counselling services for all ages, of mother and toddler groups, of play schools, of uniformed children’s organisations, of foodbanks, of local groups who will take you to your hospital appointment, of groups who help ex-prisoners’ re-enter society. Few of them are specifically Christian nowadays, but look back in their history, look at the people who volunteer and you’ll find Christians – except they don’t bang on about their faith. And none of this takes account of the simple neighbourly business of looking out for an isolated or disabled person in the next street, of fetching their shopping and lingering for a cup of tea while putting the goods away. Only when there’s a crisis does the Christian Church as an organization show up as such.

Why do we do these things? That’s quite hard to answer because it seems like second nature – first nature, even. Of course, we expect to serve our communities and each other: it’s what you do without thinking twice. If you push your average church member to ask why she gives time and energy in these ways, whether she is an overbusy young mother or a retired woman in her 80s, or whether he’s an older man whose retirement is sometimes busier than his paid working life was, or a young man newly exploring Christianity – most would be hard put to explain except to say that it’s to do with loving your neighbour.

It is, of course, to do with loving our neighbours, and it is more than that. For we Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” That’s not me saying it, but the first of the letters attributed to St Peter in the New Testament. And it’s not original to him, either, because he was quoting the Hebrew Bible, Exodus, chapter 19 verse 6. Because you have been baptized into the Church of God, you are part of God’s chosen race, God’s royal priesthood: you are one of a nation of priests. The author of to-day’s gospel reading – we call him Matthew – was very familiar with this text. Perhaps he had it in mind in this passage where Jesus says:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

God calls the priestly people to service. A yoke is a symbol of heavy work, whether it’s the wooden device once used – typically by women in this country – to enable people to balance two suspended buckets of water, or milk, or whether it’s the even more heavy duty wooden device to link two bullocks for draught work – pulling a cart or a plough. But Jesus tells us that his yoke is not heavy. Come to me all who carry heavy burdens and I’ll relieve you of them: my yoke is easy and my burden light. Christian service – as in the TV series Broken, may appear crippling and sometimes is, but it’s meant to be light work because we are not meant to carry things on our own. We have each other and we have the power of God to shoulder our burdens. Our priestly work is to be God’s eyes and ears, God’s arms and legs, God’s heart for other people – but it is God who works through us. Our priestly work is meant to be a light burden because we are God’s priestly people.

From earliest times, the priestly people has identified its own support team in the form of commissioned or ordained priests. Here is part of the introduction to the service for the Ordination of Priests:

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God's people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel ….. they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ…

It is no accident that, since at least the fourth century of the Christian era, the symbol of a priest in this nation of priests is the yoke. I’m not suggesting a large and probably heavy wooden device. Religious practice is all about using symbols, so the yoke of priesthood which our priests wear is the symbolic yoke that Melanie is wearing today. It’s quite like this one that I’m wearing, but I’m fulfilling today my role as a deacon, so I follow the ancient tradition of wearing it on my left shoulder like a sash. The symbolic yoke is what the ancient Gallic Church of the 6th century called a stole: a priest wears the stole around the neck and then either draped directly downwards or else crossed on the breast before being tied into a woven girdle. Melanie, on the 20th anniversary of being made a priest, wears the symbol of her commission to serve God’s priestly people through the Church’s ministry of word and sacrament. She is here to sustain this priestly community of the faithful, to help us grow into the fulness of Christ, that we may be God’s priestly agents in our work and in our communities to the glory of God.