Last Sunday, like many churches around the world, we kept at St John’s the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s actually on the 15th August, but it’s customary to keep it on the nearest Sunday. Here’s what I said.
Given the increasing shortage of priests you’d think that the Church of England would be falling over itself to welcome anyone who was foolhardy enough to offer themselves for training for the priestly ministry.
But I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that that is not the case. I’ve known quite a few people over the years who have expressed interest. Some got put off by the pay and conditions of service. Some realized that it just wasn’t for them. Others made it as far as the selection process. Only a handful were actually chosen to go and train to be priests.
The problem is it’s not easy knowing whether someone is called to be a priest in the Church. For the Church is not like other careers. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are or how able you might be – the Church has to decide whether God actually wants you to be a priest regardless of what your other qualifications might be. So to help it the Church has produced a 24-page document entitled Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England. I have a copy here.
And the introduction to the guide covers such aspects of the selection procedures as:
- The vocation criterion
- Gathering evidence
- Assessing potential and risk
- Developmental and non-developmental issues
Rivetting reading. And the guide goes on to cover various aspects of a person’s makeup: spirituality, relationships, personality and character, leadership and collaboration, faith and so on – and I particularly like this one – quality of mind.
All important stuff, of course. I wonder whether God’s ever read it?
Because start looking at the kind of people that God chose in the Bible, for example, and you soon realize that God doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to choosing the people that he wants for a particular purpose. Or at least, he doesn’t play by the Church of England’s rules.
What was it about Mary that led God to choose her to be the mother of his Son?
When you look back at the people that God has called for some special purpose, and particularly those he has called to be his prophets, priests and kings and so on, you realise that he often calls some very dubious or unsuitable people – at least in our terms.
We have to assume, of course, that God knows what he is doing. Because if he followed the processes that we have in place for selection for ministry most of his candidates would be turned down! Our procedures are important – don’t imagine I’m saying they’re not. But it’s a salutary lesson to realize that God so often sees the potential in people that we would reject out of hand.
These days, of course, everyone has to have a check through what is now called The Disclosure and Barring Service – what used to be called the Criminal Records Bureau. Very important it is too and we should always take the process seriously.
And yet … well, that check would exclude some key people from the Bible that God chose.
Moses wouldn’t have led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised land. There was the problem of him having murdered an Egyptian and got away with it!
And even if Moses had been of previous good character, he was 80 years old when God called to him from the burning bush and told him he had a new job – that of leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. That would have been ten years beyond the Church of England’s retirement date!
What about David, who came to be seen as Israel’s greatest king. The man who wanted someone else’s wife so badly that he had her husband conveniently disposed of. A murderer and an adulterer!
Then there’s Paul. Who, when he was still known as Saul stood by and abetted in the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
See what I mean? Three of the biggest names in the Bible – and all murderers or complicit in murder. So much for passing their DBS checks.
And what about their qualifications for the jobs in question? A common practice in non-conformist churches is for potential ministers to be invited to ‘preach with a view’, after which the deacons or elders will make a final decision. It’s a good job that didn’t happen to Moses. Moses was so shy that God had to appoint his brother Aaron to speak up for him. I don’t think that would go down well: “I really want to be your minister – but I never preach, I always get someone else to do it for me!”
And as for the modern obsession with looks – you have to look the part, after all – well, what about Paul. The New Testament implies that his personal appearance wasn’t particularly impressive – in fact, an early document (Acts of Paul and Thecla) describes him as “a man of little stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked.” If God were as image conscious as so many are today then Paul’s looks would have ruled him out!
It’s a good job that God knows what he is doing. If God were only to call those whom people thought were acceptable such people as Moses, David, Paul, would never have been chosen – obviously completely unsuitable from a human point of view.
Mary is a case in point. Why choose Mary in the first place? Why complicate things by choosing an unmarried young teenage girl to be the mother of Jesus? We don’t know exactly how old she was, but certainly no more than 13 or 14. If God were to ask us today about the kind of person who should be the earthly mother of his Son we’d never suggest a poor unmarried teenage girl engaged to someone that we think, although the Bible doesn’t tell us, was according to tradition substantially older. Today we’d say she was far too young to be a mother and in any case her relationship with Joseph, a much older man, was surely quite inappropriate! Surely it would have been far less complicated for Jesus to be born into a well-off, stable family, where he could have a good up-bringing, the best education, and no-one would ask questions about the dubious nature of his birth?
But God chooses unlikely people! This is the person that God chose to bear his son! And today we honour this remarkable young Jewish girl who bore Jesus into the world, who stood by the cross and watched him die, who was in the upper room with the other disciples when the Spirit came, and who – as we remember especially today – was after her death taken into heaven and crowned as queen, as our first reading reminded us. A young teenage girl whom since the earliest days Christians have honoured as not just the mother of Jesus but as the spiritual mother of all the faithful.
And yet, we still struggle with the reality of the kind of people God calls.
How many statues of Our Lady do you see that show her as she really was in life – a teenage girl from Palestine – much more acceptable, of course, to portray her as a respectable middle-aged blond Anglo-Saxon. But God didn’t choose a respectable middle-aged blond Anglo-Saxon – he chose a poor, young teenage girl from Palestine, a girl that he knew was the right person to be the mother of our Saviour.
The issue we need to grapple with is surely this. When we look at a person and are tempted to think “Surely God can’t be calling this person?” or “They can’t be the kind of person God could possibly want?” the two questions we need to ask are “Has God called this person?” and “Does this person show that God has called them by pointing people to Jesus?”
As far as the first question is concerned there is no doubt that God called Mary. And as for the second, it is clear that she received God’s call because Mary always points people to Jesus, to our Saviour. This, surely, is – after her complete acceptance of the calling that God gave her to bear his Son, “let it be to me as you have said” – the greatest lesson that she has to teach us. That like her, we must always point people towards Jesus. At the wedding of Cana she said to the servants as she says to us “Do whatever he tells you”. And she says that to us today. Do whatever he tells you.
As we honour Mary – the unmarried teenage girl that God chose to be the mother of the world’s redeemer, let us commit ourselves to follow her example, and to take to heart her words “do whatever he tells you.” For ultimately we are all called by God, but many choose not to heed the call. Let us not be among them, but let us “do whatever he tells us”.
 Acts of Paul and Thecla