here’s the sermon I preached at Fr Chucks Iwuagwu’s first mass.
I’m really very proud of him. Can you tell?
UPDATE – Here is the text.
Now then. Chukwuemeka Christian-Iwuagwu! Do I have your attention?
Did I get that right? Did I get your name right?
No, you see I don’t think I did get it right.
For it is not simply now Chukwuemeka Christian-Iwuagwu – from now on we must learn to think of you differently.
Now, it is Father Chukwuemeka Christian-Iwuagwu. Or perhaps, I guess for those who get tongue-tied, Fr Chucks.
I think that seeing as it is the day on which you are celebrating the Eucharist for the first time, it seems appropriate to address the sermon to you directly. I dare say that everyone else will listen in. If they get anything out of it then that’s all to the good. But Chucks, this one is for you.
Chucks, you are the first curate that I’ve ever had and the first new priest to be ordained from this congregation for about a decade.
Friday was the day on which the church recognised that you are who you are and the person who you are only really makes sense as someone recognised and celebrated as a priest in the Church of God.
Let us think today for a moment or two about what that means.
Chucks, you were ordained on the Feast Day itself but it is important to remember that Epiphany is more than a feast. It is also a season.
We get rather fixated on Epiphany being all about the Magi and their gifts but that has never been the whole story. There are three big Bible events that together are thought to convey the idea of Epiphany to us.
As ever, the Eastern church has much wisdom. They know that Epiphany is not merely about gift-giving. It is about showing forth. The idea of Epiphany is about the showing forth of God’s son Jesus in the world. It is about discovering that God is about, realising that the divine is in your midst and that God is here.
The three big bible stories that we read at this time of year are the arrival of the Magi on the Feast itself, the story of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan which is what we focus on today and the wedding at Cana which we read in a few weeks time.
In each of these, Jesus is revealed.
Chucks, you had an Epiphany ordination.
On every step of your journey, Jesus will be revealed to you and indeed, we may dare to hope, you will reveal Jesus to others.
Someone in our church once wrote about priesthood by suggesting that being a priest is to be a walking icon. Just as the icon of our Lady over there speaks to people not of board and paint and the artist’s skill but of Mary’s own showing forth of the Christ child in her arms, so you will be a walking icon. People will meet God by meeting you. And if they don’t, then don’t worry, over a lifetime you’ll learn what to do in order to make that so.
So, thinking about the three big Epiphany stories…
Jesus was shown forth by the wedding at Cana of Galilee when he turned water into wine. You will show Jesus forth when you marry people and minister amongst them at the times in their lives when they are most vulnerable. Remember that the times when we are most vulnerable are the times when we are most vulnerable to the holy. Be gentle with people. Be kind. And in your kindness they will know God.
Jesus was shown forth at his baptism by the voice from heaven which said, You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Chucks, I have learned to be suspicious of people who think they know what the voice of God is telling them. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because usually it seems that the voice of God is telling them to come and order me about somewhat. However, I’ve learned to be just as suspicious of priests and indeed any Christian who does not listen for the voice of God somehow. It is for you to listen to hunches, interpret dream, find God in painful times, hang onto God’s coat-tails at joyful times and be whirled around in the great dance of faith, hope and love. It is for you as a priest to love people as much as you can even when they appear ungrateful, petulant, grumpy and sad. You even have to love them when they come and tell you that they’ve just heard the voice of God and that God has told them exactly what you need to do next. You get to love them like that because there is no better way of telling people that God loves them even more than you do. And you do because you have already heard the voice of God saying to you, Chucks, you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased. And you do knowing that if God thinks that you are beloved and if God is well pleased with you then there must, if you don’t mind me saying so, be hope for everyone.
And, coming back to those Epiphany moments, Jesus is shown forth in the great feast on which you were ordained by being recognised by these surprising strangers who turned up at Bethlehem with their gold, their frankincense and their myrrh.
Chucks, something occurred to me when we were arranging your ordination. It was that tradition that is shared by so much of the church that the Magi came from all over the place and that very particularly one of them was black. You can see that even in our crib scene. Though there is a danger of stereotype and cliché in this, I think it is worth remembering that you were ordained on a feast day when black and white folk worship Christ together.
And that brings me to the gifts you offer.
The Magi offered Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
You Chucks have your own gifts to offer.
The Magi were known as wise – and you have wisdom a plenty.
The Magi were patient in the journeying. They travelled far in their Godly journey. You are patient and you too have been prepared to travel far.
And, the Magi straddled different cultures coming from the East and worshipping at Bethlehem. You Chucks have something special to offer the world as you rejoice in the gifts that the Nigerian church has shared with you and offer those gifts to the church here. And I rejoice that you have gifts that you have received from the church in this country which you seem to want to share back with the church culture that you come from.
The Anglican Communion is almost at breaking point. Had anyone suggested a few years ago that I would have had a Nigerian curate, I would have laughed. It is a good reminder to expect the unexpected and never try to second guess what God is up to.
Chucks, our elders and betters have brought this Communion to the point of fracture. Perhaps, just perhaps it falls to people like you and I to meet, to work together, to learn from each other, to show forth what we have learned from one another about Jesus Christ and in some way, our minds focussed only and ever on the Christ-child, to put the church back together.
God make it so. And God keep you safe. And God bless you in your ministry.
Chuckwuemeka Christian-Iwagwu – you are God’s beloved child. And in you God is well pleased.