Ambassadors for Christ

Fr Richard Hoyal’s sermon for the Golden Jubilee of Fr Paul’s priestly Ordination.

‘We are ambassadors of Christ’ 2 Cor 5.20

When the Holy Spirit set about nudging young Mr Spilsbury to think about offering himself for ordination, I suppose his response was ‘Heavens, Lord, are you sure? Do help me to love you. Help me to understand what you are asking – and help me to do it.’

Well, all sorts of things have happened to Fr Paul since he started out on that path of vocation.

Of course, the great debut was that day 50 years ago this month, when, following several charged years of study and preparation, he was finally ordained a priest.

But that was just the beginning, and since then Fr Paul’s ministry has taken him and his family all over the place – to different areas, different communities, different churches (many represented here today, no doubt), amid different situations, different opportunities, different challenges.

Over the years there have been joys and sorrows, of course; many, many blessings; some truly wonderful experiences; some disappointments; a lot of hard work; a lot of keeping going in faith with a good heart (there’s a lot of that in being a priest); and there’s been a good bit of fun. It’s all this that’s being remembered, and offered, and celebrated, as we share today with Fr Paul and his family in this Golden Jubilee thanksgiving.

Some things have happened that Fr Paul originally never expected – the opportunity to marry and have a family, for example (Fr Paul started off as a Franciscan friar). But there have also been unexpected and tricky dilemmas to face because of controversial national church developments. And then there will have been the various challenges that life throws at us from time to time anyway. But Fr Paul has never thrown in the towel. He’s always kept faith, he’s always stuck to his priestly last; and he’s always kept the faith.

Now, he won’t thank me for saying this (but I don’t care!), but Fr Paul has been a model of priestly commitment and faithfulness. He loves the Lord. He says his prayers. He knows his stuff – and a good deal more besides. He’s a wonderfully instructive preacher and teacher of the faith. He’s brilliant at worship. He’s much better at Latin than I am (which I greatly resent). He’s splendidly sociable, full of fun, yet properly serious about serious matters. And of course there’s his passion for all things Dr Who and Harry Potter and the like – it’s all disarmingly endearing.

Over the years, as I said, things have often turned out very differently from what the newly ordained Fr Paul could have expected back in 1965.

Yet running through Fr Paul’s 50 years of priesthood, one thing has remained unshaken and intact. And that is his unshakeable attachment to the great truth expressed in today’s epistle: that through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God has reconciled the world to himself. ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.’ That’s how St Paul puts it, adding, ‘and God has entrusted to us the ministry and message of this reconciliation.’ St Paul explains this by describing himself and his apostolic colleagues as ‘ambassadors of Christ’. ‘We are ambassadors for Christ,’ says St Paul: ‘We’re here to proclaim and to minister God’s reconciliation to sinners. So, in Christ’s name we implore you – for God’s sake, for your own sake! – be reconciled to God!’

All this means that, as an ordained apostolic person, every authorised priest is an ‘ambassador for Christ’. He acts as an official representative of King Jesus. He acts with Christ’s authority just as an ambassador of Her Majesty acts with the Queen’s authority.

And what does this awesome role involve? It’s all about ministering reconciliation – ministering reconciliation through faithful evangelism, through godly example, through loving pastoral care; ministering reconciliation through committed prayerfulness of life; and, not least, in accordance with our Lord’s specific command, through frequent offering of the Holy Mass. That’s what it is to be an ambassador for Christ, and that’s what Fr Paul has been, and very faithfully, for the last fifty years.

This ambassadorial ministry is precisely what we see Our Lord committing to St Peter in today’s gospel: ‘Yes, if you love me,’ says Jesus to Peter, ‘feed my lambs, tend and feed my sheep…’ In other words: Represent me by being a true pastor, a true shepherd; be a good example to the flock. Remember, they are my sheep, my precious flock. Tend them lovingly, and wisely, and prayerfully. Bring them back when they stray – sheep and lambs do stray. And see you provide them with sound spiritual nourishment.

The best spiritual nourishment comes, of course, through doing what we are doing now: celebrating the Mass and sharing the living presence of Jesus with us in Holy Communion. It is perhaps as the priest lovingly leads his people in the celebration of Mass that he’s most clearly seen as an ambassador for Christ, helping us all to share in the life-renewing riches of the Lord’s loving forgiveness.

Fr Paul knows all this better than I do, and he’s known and done it longer than I have. It’s a joy for us that, fifty years on from the first time he approached the altar as a priest, we are with him as he does so today. In fact, it’s more than a joy, Father. It’s a privilege. Thank you for inviting us to share your thanksgiving today for all the Lord’s graciousness to you in your service as a priest-ambassador for Jesus.

We are very conscious, Father, that there is one person very dear to you who isn’t here with us today. Without doubt she would have been the proudest of us all. We share your sadness, but we also share your Christian assurance that those who die in grace go no further from us than God, and that God is very near. And we also share your assurance that the holy mysteries we celebrate at our earthly altars lift us up very near to the saints and angels around God’s throne in heaven, and indeed near to the whole company of the redeemed, not least the loved ones who have gone ahead of us.

So it is, that in vigour and in frailty, amid joys and amid sorrows, in times of comfort and in times of distress, with the living and on behalf of the departed, for the needs of this world and in earnest expectation of the life of the world to come: so it is, that the faithful priest-ambassador leads us – as Fr Paul does, so specially today – leads us to the altar. And there today, with Fr Paul, we both bow down, and look up (we bow down in penitence and awe; we look up in hope and joy) as we humbly join in worship with Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Blessed Michael the Archangel, Blessed John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, St Francis, St Anthony of Padua, and all God’s angels and saints in glory, as with them we take up the glory song of heaven: ‘Holy, holy, holy; Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory; glory be to thee, O Lord, most high.’

Yes, indeed. Glory, not least on this special day, glory to you, O Lord our God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.