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A Sermon for the Ordination of a Bishop

On the Occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Jason Zinko as Bishop
Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

John 13:2-17 

 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It is a delight that the MNO synod has elected you and called you Jason, as our next Bishop.

I remember the first time I met Jason back in seminary. It was a gathering of students during the seminary’s open house. We were at the home of one of our classmates and here was some guy from Winnipeg cracking jokes from the lazy boy in the corner of the living room.

And trust me, “Now here is someone who is Bishop material” was not a thought that crossed my mind. But not for the reasons you might think. Firstly, no one thinks that when meeting seminary students. But as I got to know you, Jason, I remember your struggle with the call to ministry. Not with the fact that you clearly had gifts and abilities for ministry, but particularly how following the call to Word and Sacrament ministry might set you above in some way. That idea seemed to contradict your nature. And the Jason of those days is pretty much the same as today: approachable, thoughtful and down to earth. And also not super formal. 

Which is funny because here we are at your ordination as a Bishop… So, would you have gone through with it all back then if you knew you would be here today? Never the less, here you and we are. 

And I am honoured that you have asked me to preach on this day of your ordination to the office of Bishop. However, what do I know about being a bishop?

So I looked to Martin Luther for some insight. And you know what? Luther has a lot to say about Bishops… None of what he says is good. Mostly stuff about how Bishops just want to be lazy princes and lords and don’t do their jobs… 

Yet, like a lot of church folks and rostered ministers, I DO have lots of opinions about bishops and thus Luther for good company. Maybe that’s all that is needed for this occasion. //

This story from the Gospel John, despite being a recommended ordination reading, is a bit odd, ins’t it? It is odd because of “when” it brings us to in the story. Maundy Thursday, a day on which we would never schedule an ordination!

Regardless, it is this surprising and unexpected thing that Jesus does that seems relevant. He gets up from the supper table to wash the disciples feet. Normally, a task reserved for the house slave, Jesus reverses the order of things and takes the posture of a servant. 

Finally, after washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus exhorts his friends and followers to do what he has done for them, wash one another’s feet.

Here is a metaphor about the life of faith, or the experience of ministry. That our callings are not to higher and higher things, but to service and getting down into the dirty, muddy, not so nice places.  

And surely, as we gather to celebrate an ordination of a Bishop today, we celebrate that God has called you Jason, to this office of ministry in our synod. We also celebrate that this call is a renewal of our call to the work of the Kingdom and the ministry of the Gospel.

This exhortation by Jesus to the disciples gives roots to our celebration today by reminding us that the call to the office of Bishop is not a bigger and fuller call than that of the call to Word and Sacrament or Word and Service ministry. 
And those two callings are not bigger and fuller calls than our first calling. 
And that is the calling we all share, the calling given in baptism. 

Baptism is the calling that most fully expresses God’s call to us to serve one another in the kingdom… it is certainly no coincidence that washing feet looks more like baptism than laying on of hands. And the call to these particular set-apart-ministries within the church, to be Deacons, Pastors and Bishops are all about narrowing and confining —  restricting even — the call of the baptized to a particular and limited set of responsibilities within the body.

And as such, a synod only needs one Bishop, and congregation or ministry only needs one or a few rostered ministers, but there is always need of and room for more of the baptized in our midst. 

Now… having said all of this… and how lovely an image foot washing is… I am not really sure that it is the main point of this story.

While there is something to Jesus’ exhortation to service, it is the interaction between Peter and Jesus that is really interesting and that really has something to say about us and about the church and the world. 

As Jesus kneels down to wash feet in this Maundy Thursday moment the disciples are probably confused, but Peter is the one to say it out loud.

In a moment between the high of Palm Sunday and the crushing low of Good Friday, Jesus and Peter begin arguing over a bucket of water between them. 

“You will never wash my feet” Peter protests. 

He must know that something is about to happen, something big. And he wants to go back. Back to the last 3 years of following Jesus around the country side with crowds in tow. Back to the simpler, easier times, when ministry was straightforward and the results were obvious. 

Peter longs for the past. He understands the past, he can see how good he had it then (even as he was often speaking first, thinking second). He doesn’t want whatever big thing is coming, whatever change is on the way. 

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” Jesus says.
“Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.”

When Jesus won’t back down, Peter moves from avoiding what scares him to changing it. He tries to get Jesus to wash him as a religious leader would wash someone for ritual purity, not as a servant would wash dinner guests. If Peter cannot put his head in the sand and pretend that the scary things around him aren’t happening, he will recreate the past. He will re-make Jesus back into the Rabbi and teacher that Peter is comfortable with. Peter is going to hold on to the way things were at just about any cost. 

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Like Peter we too are very uncomfortable with Jesus taking this position, being in this posture. Like Peter we are very uncomfortable with the Body of Christ looking like it is down on the bottom, and we would much rather the Body of Christ of those glory days when the crowds just came, and the miracles were easy and the teachings enthralled the masses. 

Like Peter we would rather that the Body of Christ never have to wash feet. If only Sunday Schools and Youth groups were full again, if only people came back to do the work we are tired of doing. If only there was no Sunday shopping or hockey practices or dance lessons. If only our pews were full and offering plates fuller… there wouldn’t be need of foot washing.

Like Peter, we would rather change what the Body of Christ is doing so it looks and feels better. If only we tried the next program or bible study or trendy church growth tactic. If only we put up some screens and updated the music, if only we invested in some professional church organists and choir directors. If only we preached more biblically and worked more for justice, if only we changed the right part of ourselves, we could go back to the way things were… and the Body of Christ wouldn’t be kneeling before the world.

Peter on Maundy Thursday shows us who we really are. //

Here we are as the church as embodied in this gathering to celebrate the ordination of a new bishop, as the MNO Synod and ecumenical partners, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Big change is upon us, much of what we once knew is already no longer the same, the glory days are behind us… and what is coming… it’s scary. 

But let’s make no mistake, Jason isn’t our new saviour. 
Jason isn’t Jesus. 
Jesus is Jesus. 

Instead, along with Jason, we are standing before Jesus, before the Body of Christ brought low, in this posture that makes us uncomfortable. And we too have a sense that this is not the way things should be.

And Jesus’ response to Peter in the moment?

“This is happening. I am going to wash your feet and just your feet, you don’t get to be in control”

Because it isn’t just about foot washing is it?

Because this moment is the grand reversal of the incarnation, of God coming down to our level, in human flesh, in order to show us love. This is the creator kneeling before creation in order to say, “I love you.” 

This is creation betraying God because we will not open our eyes to what is happening. This is the best that humanity has to offer, religious and political leaders, rejecting the divine, and putting God on a cross because we will not accept what is about to happen. 

Because this moment is nothing less than cross and empty tomb. God taking and holding creation in God’s hands — 

dirty, muddy, tired, sore, sinful, suffering, creation — 
and God washing away a little dirt here, 
scrubbing out the soreness there, 
bringing life and wholeness in a way that we never thought possible and in a way that we firmly tried to prevent. 

So, no pressure Jason, and no pressure to the rest of you. 

But this is our foot washing moment. 

Jesus is telling you Jason, Jesus is telling all of us… 

“This is happening. I am going to wash your feet and just your feet, you don’t get to be in control.”

Because Jason, when you make those vows to the office of Bishop, and we make promises in return, and when that cope is placed on your shoulders and that staff is placed in your hand… it won’t be because this ministry is something that you get to form and shape into your vision, or something that we get to shape and form into ours. 

Rather, it is going to be Jesus taking hold of your feet in order to show you how much God loves you. 

And then Jesus will do nothing less than bring God’s Word of Life into the world through your ministry, 
and God will wash, feed and nourish the people entrusted to you through your ministry, 
and the Spirit with breathe new directions and visions and dreams for us into your leadership. 

Because this moment is nothing less than the spirit of God breathing new life into the church. Nothing less than God declaring that in this Body of Christ, 
this segment of the Church brought low and kneeling on the ground, 
that this is precisely where Jesus is about to transform us and all of creation. 
That cross and empty tomb are being lived out right in our midst. 
And Jesus is making us alive while moving us into the future, no matter how much we yearn for the past.

And as God takes hold of us, of this Body of faith brought low and dying… 
God is washing away a little fear and trepidation here, 
scrubbing out a little resistance to change there, 
and breathing new life into us…. 
new life in the ministry of a new bishop 
and in the renewed ministry of this synod and its members.//

So while Luther didn’t say much positive about bishops, he did point us to the heart of this ministry. He says:

“We will now return to the Gospel, 
which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; 
for God is superabundantly rich [and liberal] in grace [and goodness]. 
First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world; 
which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. 
Secondly, through Baptism. 
Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar…”

So with Luther’s reminder of the centrality of the gospel, and Christ’s words to Peter, we are reminded again that our call to the ministry of the gospel does not lift us higher or push us lower and is not even OUR call. 

The call is God’s, 
the Call is Christ’s, 
and it comes from a servant brought low, 
washing and raising us to New Life. 

Amen. 

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