On February 2, 2008, Canon Dr. Linda Nicholls was ordained as suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Toronto. The service took place at the Cathedral Church of St. James, Toronto, and Canon Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan preached the following sermon.
Malachi 3:1–4; Hebrews 2:14–18; Luke 2:22–40
It was a very busy and noisy place, smelling of sweat and blood and burned meat and incense. The courtyard and the interior were filled with groups of people from all over the country bustling about their religious duties, people pushing, people gawking in awe at the beauty of this holy place, people hustling for a good exchange on the Temple coinage. In the midst of the confusion a young family, along with so many others like them, comes to fulfill their religious obligation, tired, no doubt, after their long journey with a 6-week-old baby. It is an ordinary day in the Temple.
But then suddenly two rather ordinary people have a flash of recognition, and the scene freezes and focuses on this particular family. An old man who has immersed himself in the messages of hope from the Scriptures takes the baby from his mother and declares that he sees in him the fulfillment of all that he has ever longed for. An old woman who has lived most of her days praying and fasting there in the Temple tells everyone that this is the One who will make all the difference. Light for the nations, glory for Israel, redemption—they are here in this Child.
What a wonderful feast day on which to ordain a bishop, on which to be ordained a bishop. For Simeon and Anna are icons of what this office is all about. They, like bishops, are faithful practicioners and custodians of the business of religion, but, far more importantly, they are people who proclaim Light to the world and Glory for the people of God.
There are many things that are said about bishops (not all of them exactly complimentary) and many images that we use in liturgy and in job descriptions and in strategic planning documents. Manager, employer, chief pastor, CEO, dispute arbiter, guardian of the faith, fundraiser, overseer, administrator, chief liturgical officer, shepherd, judge, wise and faithful servant. But the first thing that is said about the bishop in this liturgy of ordination is that “a bishop in God’s holy Church is to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel,” or, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in prayer “to spread abroad thy Gospel, the glad tidings of reconciliation with thee.”
That is why the icon of Simeon and Anna is so apt. They identify and proclaim the great good news of Christ’s presence. They see where Christ is in the midst of the busyness of church and world. They recognize that this Child comes to organized religion and transforms it into a community where God lives and breathes, who fills our customs and institutions with the blessing and creativity of the Holy One. They proclaim that the one who comes to us in religious buildings is here for the world, here to bring light and hope and redemption and resurrection.
If the first task of being a bishop—the primary task, the one that shapes all the other tasks—is to proclaim the resurrection and interpret the Gospel, then it would seem that what a bishop needs to be prepared for above all is to look for those places where the living and resurrected Christ is at work, going into situations of despair and making them sources of hope, seeking reconciliation where there are broken relationships, speaking words that lift the eyes of the despondent or the quarrelsome or the anxious to the loving face of Christ alive in their midst.Â It is to seek and point to Christ in every person and every place—in the ordinary places, in the extraordinary ones, in the unexpected ones. It is to equip God’s people to bring Christ into every place they go, to transform a broken society with the healing presence of God’s mercy and love.
This liturgy would seem to indicate that all the many decisions that have to be made—about appointments, buildings, finances, programs—are only to be made in the light of this primary calling. Where is resurrection? Where is Christ’s presence? What will make for joy in the eyes of this Child? Where is the light? Where is the glory?
We are living in very anxious times—just as, I suppose, humans have always lived. Read the lives of great bishops who have made it onto the calendar of saints, and you will find leaders and servants of Christ who lived for the most part in times of turmoil and stress. Basil, Gregory, John Horden, William Laud, Hilary, Francis de Sales, John Chrysostom—and that’s just January. We treasure their memory because they brought the church of their day back to its primary purpose, of being a community that witnesses to what they know of Jesus their Lord and that is able to speak to the world in such a way that the world can catch a glimpse of the face of the Child. Proclaim resurrection, interpret the Gospel: bishops are to speak of what they know of God’s transforming love, put that in words and images that make sense in this place and time, and nurture the church as a community of grace and hope.
“Be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel.” It is wonderful to announce good news, to tell the story of recognizing Christ alive in our midst. Even though the story is old, we know that it is also new every morning. Each day there is something that speaks of God’s active and redeeming love at work in people and situations. But just telling the story by itself is not enough. “What does this mean?” and “what difference does it make for me, for my community, my world?” are the questions that everyone brings to the religious quest. At first the disciples ran and told everyone “we have seen the Lord”—but very shortly after announcing the event they began to probe its meaning and significance. They chose different ways to do that, so that the four Gospels are each woven in a different tapestry—telling the same story, but interpreting it differently. So the bishop is also to interpret the Gospel, woven from their knowledge of God, of Scripture, of the great tradition, of their own experience of Christ in their lives. The Apostles nurtured the new communities that responded to their proclamation, and they guided them by applying the insights of the Gospel to the realities of common life, as we know from the Epistles. So the bishop is also to apply the Gospel, and shape the church by it. The Apostles had visions of the new world that was to be because of Jesus, and they held before a persecuted church the reality of God’s reign. So the bishop is to hold out the vision of the new life that Christ’s resurrection brings to each one, and to all the world.
A common dictionary definition of the verb “to interpret” is “to explain the meaning of” or “to construe the significance of” something. It is the task of the church in every generation to interpret the Gospel in ways that are faithful—at one with the Apostles—and that are also construing its significance for this people, this time, this situation, this culture. As you all well know, the business of discerning whether interpretation is indeed faithful is one of the most vexed questions of our particular time. As cultures bump up against each other, collide, or merge some people may be able to see faithfulness in a particular tapestry while others may be confused or disturbed or alienated. The same words will inspire some and offend others.
It is a dangerous and charged business, interpreting the Gospel. But it is also a critical and creative task. I think that the key phrase here is “to be one with the Apostles.” What were they seeking to accomplish when they interpreted the Gospel? It was to bring the significance of the story home—for individuals, for the fledgling Christian communities, for, they dreamed, the whole world. What does it mean that Christ is alive, that the power and mercy and transforming love of Jesus continues to live with us and in us, that the Christ child abides with us forever, and there is light for the world and glory for the people of God? What does that mean for us here, now? How should we live together? How does this Gospel apply to our life as a community here, now?
The community that bishops serve is itself an interpreting community. The church is always at work discerning God’s presence and purpose, sorting through what is merely of our passing time and what is of significance from the perspective of God’s will for the world. It is filled with many people of prayer and wisdom, and the bishop never acts alone but seeks to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church through the many voices of the faithful and the insights they bring from the many places where they work and live.
Linda, your title at Church House was “coordinator for dialogue” and I hope that you will continue to fill that role in your new ministry as well—fostering holy conversation about what matters to people and what makes for healing and growth in their lives, their communities and our society. I hope that you will foster conversation and collaboration with people from communities outside of church as well—that your experience with ethicists and health care and biotechnology and partners from other churches and faiths will contribute to conversation and common action at that critical place where church meets the broader human enterprise. In the great Anglican tradition, you are a leader for all, not just for churchgoers, and part of your role is to listen and to be alert to those unexpected people, like Simeon and Anna, who can see what is really going on.
There are so many wonderful ironies about this feast day. The one who is worshipped in the Temple comes to that Temple in a way that most of the worshippers don’t understand at all. Most people who were in that crowded place that day would not have had a clue about what was really going on. The Lord whose train filled the Temple in Isaiah’s vision, adored by the cherubim, is carried into that Temple in his mother’s arms, and only two people recognize him. Later this Child will come here to learn and to teach, and then to turn his anger on those who make a travesty of this holy place by their greed. Later, the Child will lay down his life for them and for us, and raise his body up as the new Temple, making all holy places secondary to his own real presence. Only Anna and Simeon, and Mary his mother, had an inkling of what was to be. So many have the experience and miss the meaning, or don’t even have the experience. But that is the role of the teacher of the faith—to help people see what is really going on, where the holy One is to be found in the midst of all the busyness of church and life.
What is the good news, anyway? Is it that our churches are filling up, that our disputes about how to interpret and apply the Gospel are all resolved, that we are making a difference in secular society? All of these would be splendid to see. But the good news is that even if none of these things come to be, Christ is here with us, is alive and alive forever. Nothing can separate us from this Child who has come among us. Whenever we mess up, as individuals or as community, or are overcome by our limitations and fears, the good news is that Christ is still here with us, to turn us from despair to energized life, to bring us to our senses and see that our real trust can only ever be in him.
While a bishop is necessarily going to be concerned with statistics and the health of communities, the first concern needs always to be not “are there enough people?” but “are the people faithful?” Our health as Christians is in the end measured only by the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ—people who are not cranky and grumpy and quarelling, but alive with the glory of God.
Mercifully, Linda, you don’t have to do this work all by yourself. Your ministry is among, with, and for all the people of this diocese, especially in your own area. You will be sustained by them, by their regular prayer for you, by all the ideas and plans and concerns that they will share with you and with each other, by the energy that will be generated when you work together for the well-being and mission of the church. I know that you will be sustained by your own life in prayer, for you are already rooted in it. My personal hope for you is that you will be able to maintain that simplicity of heart that belongs to those who know how to bring their complexities to the place of stillness.
In the crowded building, a sudden surprise of recognition. In the arms of an old man, a child who will make all the difference. In the words of an old woman, a proclamation of hope. Linda, be open to being surprised by all the places and people who will show you the Christ child, and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to lift him up in all that you do, this light to the nations and glory for the people of God.
A news story and photos of the ordination service can be found on the Diocese of Toronto’s website.
Read more about how Bishop Nicholls prepared for her new position here.
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