We’ve become an extremely mobile community. Job changes and transfers happen all the time and not just within the same region or country.
Last year 40,000 New Zealanders chose to make Australia their home. Bank managers, teachers, sport professionals take location changes as a necessary part of growing their careers. But there’s something altogether unique about the transfer of a parish priest.
Because a priest’s life is intimately connected with the lives of his people, his transfer to another parish can feel like a cruel dismembering process. You refer to him as ‘our priest’. It’s the same for the priest. I said when I arrived here that you were to be the most important people in my life—and that is what you have become.
Other professionals touch aspects of your personal and private affairs—such as your finances, your health, your property, your education, but you bring the priest into the most sacred part of your existence: the part that weaves the very story of your life, from birth to death. You invest that story with him and through the faith you share meaning emerges to bring richness and direction and peace to your life.
Again, it’s the same for the priest. You give my life meaning. Every baptism, every marriage and every funeral and all the things that happen in between create a closeness between priest and people that is a marvellous privilege.
There have been private and public moments when our lives have merged. I have shared your joyful times, your heartaches, your doubts, your gladness. We have wept and laughed as one; rejoiced and debated, felt disappointment and made new plans—together. Our connectedness is not simply a business arrangement but a true bond, so that parting—and there always has to be a time to part—becomes a breaking. And it hurts to break.
You have written over the last few weeks, thanking me for these years. It’s been humbling to read of your appreciation—but also greatly affirming. You point to my emphasis on community, so I know you have caught the vision I have tried to impart; you tell me that my preaching has both encouraged and challenged you, so I know my efforts have been worthwhile; and you thank me for trusting you and letting you make decisions, so I know that you are ready to be leaders and therefore it’s okay for me to leave.
St Paul in today’s second reading has something to say to us. Eager to prevent rivalry and rifts in the community, he points out that it is Christ we serve and Christ we follow, regardless who might preach or lead. He doesn’t want to hear people saying, ‘I prefer Apollos, I prefer Paul, I prefer Peter!’ Neither would he want to hear us say ‘I prefer James, I prefer Bruce!’
Rather we should be grateful that Christ is among us and rejoice that Christ remains even while his ministers move from place to place.
Today’s gospel reading names Peter, Andrew, James and John as among the first to hear the call of Jesus, Follow me! They walked away from the life they’d known and into a future that held nothing but a person, the person of Jesus.
Gradually they discovered that he was all they needed. They became one in him. As they listened and watched, as they drew ever closer to him, the followers of Jesus began to change. His words fed them, his qualities clothed them. They became his body. His Spirit entered them. They lived his way, the way of love ministering to one another, a communion of saints.
We are that body, the body of Christ Jesus. Empowered by his Spirit we are his presence in our world today. Distance might separate us, even the distance that death imposes, but nothing can separate us from the love of God, It is a love that brought us into being, united us in faith, and keeps us together—wherever we may be. The body of Christ embraces the whole world.
My prayer is one of gratefulness, for your love and your care and, as St Paul writes, that we might remain united in the same mind and the same purpose, growing ever stronger and more confident in service, in praise, and in thanksgiving.
When people whose lives are rooted in faith find their individual life journey moves them apart, the separation is not a shattering, splintering, disastrous break.
Faith allows parting to become an expansion, a stretching out, with the increased space filling up with even more love which, in the end and through the mystery of God’s presence in our lives, makes for a closeness that no physical contact could ever hope to match.
Thank God we are people of faith!