Lent 3 - priestly living

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson on 23 March 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have never let the
Samaritan woman, of today’s gospel story, be reduced to
the biblical text and locked up, as a nameless woman, in her
own city. Early post-biblical texts highlight this woman’s
preeminence as an evangelist. They point out how she did
not just bring one or two disciples to Jesus, like Andrew and
Philip, but a whole city. And that she did this through the
cleverness and conviction of her own personal story. So, in
keeping with this witness, the Orthodox churches give her:

• the name, Photini “enlightened one;”
• a feast day - February 26;
• the title of ‘Evangelist and Apostle;’
• and a fuller, and more colourful story.

Photini is said to have been there at Pentecost, along with
her five sisters and two sons, when the Holy Spirit was
poured out on the disciples. Like the apostles, she is
depicted as an evangelist travelling all over the
Mediterranean basin. Eventually she travels to Rome, is
subsequently arrested and tortured by Nero. Nero, in order
to tempt her away from following Jesus, places her in a
room full of gold. He also sent his daughter Domnina to
persuade her. But, instead, they became friends, Nero’s
daughter was baptised, and Domnina then distributed the
room full of gold to the poor. Nero, was inevitably furious,
further incarceration and torture followed. Eventually she
was beheaded, but only after having to witness the
execution of her son, sisters and her friends.

Photini’s story is a powerful story of acceptance, inclusion,
love, mission, sacrifice and martyrdom. Her biblical
encounter with Jesus is so overwhelmingly transforming:
John 4:39 “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him
because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I
have ever done.”” The post biblical writings are a testament
to how Photini developed and matured into a strong-willed,
Spirit-filled, energetic, courageous and sacrificial sign of the
gospel of the fullness of the Reign of God.

I think in Photini we see not only the marks of ‘the first
evangelist,’ but also the marks of an early ‘priest.’ These
marks are there in:

• the self-sacrificial nature of the pursuit of her calling;
• in her concern for the poor and the vulnerable;
• and in her eventual giving up of her own life in martyrdom.

All this is ‘priestly,’ since it is a reflection of Christ, the ‘Great
Hight Priest,' the one who gives of his own life in the entirety
of his ministry. A ministry which proclaimed, in word and in
action, the inclusive, transforming and healing nature of
God’s reign. A ministry which culminated in his own death
on the cross, the sacrificial cost of his adherence to that

I have been reflecting, this past week, on the self-sacrificial
‘priestly’ nature of the stories of the life of St Photini because
of two very different reasons:

• The first is that I am acting as an Adviser on a Bishop’s
Advisory Panel (BAP) for ordained ministry this coming
• The second is that this sermon also marks the final week
of a series of three that are meant to form part of our
parishes stewardship campaign.

Let me fill out the first of these reasons:

As a BAP adviser I take part in the process of discerning if a
person may have an informed and realistic vocation to
ordained ministry in the Church of England. I have been
reading the accompanying papers of the eight candidates
whom I will be interviewing this week. As I have been finding
out about St Photini, I have also been finding out about
them. One candidate’s story in particular, has for me,
chimed with hers. I will call this candidate ‘John,’ though that
is not his real name.

John, who is only 21, is, at least on paper, an exceptionally
unusual and gifted candidate. He comes from a very rundown
and deprived area of social housing in one of our
larger cities. His mother left home before he went to primary
school. His father was an alcoholic. His older sister was the
family’s main carer, until she too left home. John was a
regular user and abuser of alcohol and drugs before he
even started secondary education. At the age of 12,
however, he felt the call of God to go to the local church. He
took along with him his father and brother too. Like Photini,
John encountered a Jesus in that local church who both
loved him, in spite of the shortcomings of his own story, and
who gradually has transformed his life, and given him, like
her, a special gift of evangelism.

John went on to study GCSEs and A Levels. Although his
grades are not the greatest, given the area from which he
comes these are an achievement none the less. After
leaving school he felt firmly that God was calling him to
ordained ministry, and so he has, for the last 3 years,
focussed on his response to that sense of calling. As part of
this he has been working in a voluntary capacity in a local
parish. He has been scraping money together, from
supportive friends and family, to make ends meet, whilst not
claiming any state benefits, and living with his mother.
It is this extraordinary, disciplined and mature commitment
to ministry, and the discernment of his vocation, at such an
early age, and at much personal cost that I find deeply
impressive. It’s a cost which resonates with that part of
Photini’s story in which she, and her comrades, are not
tempted by the room full of gold, and in which Nero’s
daughter then redistributes the wealth to the poor. Like
Photini, who gives of herself, and Domnina who gives from
her own resources, so John gives, from what little he has
been given, to others in his own church and local
community, at real self-sacrificial cost in terms of talent,
energy, time and not least money.

We have a number of things to learn in our parishes from
both St Photini and the 21 year old John as we contemplate
and respond to our present stewardship campaign.

The first of these for me centres on the motif of priestly self
sacrifice. Although our present running of this church
community at a deficit has been the starting point of our
campaign, this does not provide us with a sufficiently rich or
deep theological vision of the stewardship of time, talents
and resources to which we are called. Stewardship is not a
matter of plugging the holes in our budget. Rather
stewardship constitutes a fundamental part of our calling to
share in the priestly nature of the Church, which is the
earthly, although imperfect, body of Christ. The Church as a
whole, and we as individual members of it, are continually
called to the fullness of this self-sacrificial priestly identity
which is found in the life, ministry, teaching, death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are joined to
Jesus’ story of priestly self-sacrifice as we are made
members of the priesthood of the whole people of God. As
such we are anointed with the Holy Sprit and commissioned
to ‘Shine as (a) light(s) in the world to the glory of God (the
Father).’ In the sacrament of the Eucharist we remember,
make present among us, participate in and share in that
priestly self-sacrificial ministry of Jesus: ‘This is my body
given for you.’ ‘This is my blood poured out for you, and for
many,’ we recall, before we are sent out into the world ‘to
live and work to God’s praise and glory.’

The second reflection that Photini and John’s stories prompt
in me about stewardship is that it’s primary theological
location is in the church’s fullest mission, and should be
seen as an expression and agent of the values of Jesus’
own vision of the kingdom. That is to say, stewardship is
not about us or our church, nor even about the big Church
out there, but it is about our calling as Christians to have a
special concern for those on the margins of our own society,
for the sick, the outcasts, the vulnerable the poor, whether
they are Christians are not. In the story of St Photini,
narrated in the gospel text, we see that Jesus gives to her
even though she is of a different sex, religion and nationality.
In the post biblical stories we hear of the redistribution of the
room of gold to the general poor of Rome. These remind us
that what we as a local parish pay as ‘Common Fund’
contribution to the diocese is a way in which the resources
of the Church can be redistributed from affluent parishes like
our own to poorer ones, in order to provide ministry in
places that would not be able to afford it themselves. Or to
focus it sharply: to allow there to be priests in parishes like
the one in which John lived, and churches like the one into
which he stumbled and helped change his life. But further
these stories are a reminder that in the UK as a whole it is
our nation’s taxation system, which finances the provision of
universal health care through the NHS and offers benefits
for those of us unable to work. Our attitude to our own tax
management, as well as our charitable going, then, is also a
fundamental component of our own stewardship.

The third reflection that I am led to on Christian stewardship
is that it is not about percentages or numbers. Often we
think that we are being biblical if we ‘tithe’ our money, that is
give 10% to the church. It’s a figure that comes from the
Hebrew scriptures. Our own Church of England suggests
that since as Christians our stewardship also calls us to give
to causes beyond the church, that a figure of 5% may be
appropriate. But these figures mask the more radical and
demanding expectations of the weight of the biblical
literature. In the Hebrew scriptures the tithe was only part of
a whole attitude to money that every 7 years cancelled
everyone's debts and every 50 years enacted a
comprehensive redistribution of wealth from the richest to
the poorest in society. In the Gospels and the Epistles the
teaching of Jesus and the example of the early church is
even more extreme. Jesus is clear that his followers must
not have even two coats, for one is enough, and the
early church held all material wealth in common. We, when
we calculate our Christian stewardship, start from a
mentality of scarcity and risk. We give only after we have
shored up the kind of lifestyles that we desire to lead. But
the Biblical literature’s attitude to stewardship finds its
location rather in abundance and blessing. We see it clearly
in today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the children
of Israel calculate the risk of their arduous journey from
slavery in Egypt and decide that the price of freedom is to
much. The desert is a place of scarcity and risk. But they
fail to see that they already have all that they need for life.
For in God’s economy, and in God’s desert geography, there
are always already hidden springs of living water that can be
brought forth from the barren earth. The desert is a place
of blessing and abundance.

This Lent then as we contemplate our response to our
stewardship campaign we are reminded that our Lenten
repentance is not just about the individual, personal
churchy, disciplines of fasting, study and prayer. Rather
Lent calls us to the continual education of insatiable
appetites our selfish desires towards others too. It calls us
beyond ourselves to concern for the welfare of our families.
Beyond our families to concern for the welfare of our local
church and local communities. Beyond our local situation to
concern for the national and global issues of economic
injustice, poverty and deprivation. Beyond even this to
concern for the whole of God’s creation and care of all that
has in creation already been given to us as gift. It is such an
education of our desire beyond the selfish, beyond sectarian
borders, that is truly priestly, truly sacrificial, truly costly. It is
marked by the sign of Christ’s own cross, but it will be
returned to us in resurrection. In Christ we know love as the
water of life, which gives and gives, marks us with the cross,
wounds us and yet transforms us, fills us up with the Spirit
and makes us whole.

May we, through Christ, with Photini and the 21 year old
John, the wounds that make us truly whole

Love, Like Water ~ Julia Copus

Love, like water
tumbling from some far-flung cloud
into your bathroom alone, to sleeve
a toe, five toes, a metatarsal arch,
it does its best to feign indifference
to the body, but will go on creeping
up to the neck till its reading the skin
like Braille, though you’re certain it sees
under the surface of things and knows
the routes your nerves take as they branch
from the mind, which lately has been curling
in on itself like the spine of a dog
as it circles a patch of ground to sleep.
Now through the dappled window,
propped open slightly for the heat,
a light rain is composing
the lake it falls into, the way a lover’s hand
composes the body it touches - Love,
like water! How it gives and gives,
wearing the deepest of grooves in our sides
and filling them up again, ever so gently
wounding us, making us whole. )
Holland Park Benefice