Bishop Martyn’s Ordination of Deacons Sermon 2019
Let me add my welcome to you all this morning for very significant occasion. I’ve spent the last three days with our candidates who are to be ordained deacon and those who were ordained as priests yesterday, and it’s been a huge privilege to journey with them. We have, I think, the largest number of candidates that we’ve had in the Diocese of Leicester for a long time, and it is so good to see so many offering their lives in service to God in this way. And I want to express my thanks to all of you not just for being here today to support them, but for the way many of you have accompanied these ordinands over many years, through all the twists and turns that have led to this moment. Thank you.
Among the many very significant things that we do as bishops, ordaining deacons and priests ranks right up there, alongside of course baptising and confirming people – welcoming them into the family of the church, and encouraging a culture of life-long learning about prayer, study of the Bible, service to others. But there is another less well known, but hugely significant act which I am starting to do more often – something which has grown in significance for me, the longer that I have served in ministry in the church. I think I’ve been surprised at how significant it has become, never really realising its power until recently. I always thought of it as one of those symbolic acts – doing what Jesus’ told us we should do -but I didn’t realise quite how profound the symbol was, nor the depths of meaning attached to it. I’m speaking of the act of washing someone’s feet.
It sounds rather strange, especially when divorced from the context of first century Palestine where it was normal when entering someone’s house to have your feet washed by a servant. It was an act of hospitality and welcome – not unlike receiving a hot towel in a restaurant or on an aeroplane – a form of refreshment after a long journey. But the point of the story that we heard read from John’s gospel, is that it was Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet rather than the servant - the teacher, the person of status, who was used to being given the place of honour – he takes the place of the servant or slave. And he then tells his followers to do likewise.
On Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, I visited one of our small, rural churches. The church has been without a vicar for some time and I wanted to offer some encouragement and support. Their usual Sunday attendance is very small, but on this occasion, people gathered from neighbouring villages and we numbered about 40. I explained that this was going to be a service of foot washing – the expressions on some faces made it clear they were not overly impressed. We had the same Bible reading that we’ve heard today and then I preached about the significance of foot washing. I made it clear that no one was under any obligation, and no one should feel pressurised, but if they wanted it, they could come forward, remove their shoes and socks and I would wash their feet.
The Churchwarden later recounted to me how one lady, a very well-to-do individual who lived in the village, told her afterwards that she had sat through the whole of the first part of the service saying to herself ‘not me – there’s no way I am going to have my feet washed.’ Then she watched as first one, then two, then a small line of people formed at the front of church as I knelt in front them and washed their feet. And then she felt a sudden prompting and she got out of her seat and found herself sat in front me. She later described to the Church warden how she had found it deeply moving, one of the most powerful experiences she had ever had in church. And as a bishop, I too found it a very moving experience.
A few minutes ago, our service began with these words: “In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom. To serve this royal priesthood, God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.”
For all I’ve said so far, I don’t believe these words are meant to be taken over literally – deacons are not meant to spend all their time washing people’s feet – but they are meant to live a life of “visible self-giving” and in so doing, help the whole church to witness to God’s love and work for the coming of his kingdom. Washing feet is symbolic of an attitude of mind, a disposition of the heart, which then shapes all our actions and behaviours. Symbols, according to the sociologist Anthony Cohen, are effective because they are imprecise – we can load them with our own meaning. Washing feet then, carries deeper implications of service, putting others’ needs before our own, pouring ourselves out for the good of others.
I believe the current Pope, Francis, knows this almost better than anyone else today. Recently, he, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury invited the leaders of warring factions in Sudan to meet with him in the Vatican. After discussing the peace process and political situation in Sudan, the Pope then went to each person, knelt on the floor in front of them and bent to kiss their feet. The photos which did the rounds of social media were striking – the leader of the largest church in the world, stooping to kiss the feet of warring factions in a country where thousands have lost their lives in recent years. Such symbolism can’t but effect even the hardest of hearts. What more powerful way could there be of appealing for peace.
So another great privilege of my role is that I get to see so many other striking examples of people living out this attitude of service as I travel around churches, schools and community groups. So I think of Soundcafe which meets next-door in St Martins House – a creative, safe space for people who are vulnerable, socially isolated or have experienced homelessness. The volunteers and the guests serve one another – and I’ve witnessed the way they are changed in the process.
I think of those who spend the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings on the streets of Leicester caring for the partygoers and revellers who are so far gone, they can no longer find their way home. Again, the loving service of these Street Pastors is a shining example of what it means to witness to God’s love – when I went out with them last winter, they were stopped numerous times by people who simply wanted to thank them for their care.
I think of churches and community groups working together to provide Food Banks or debt advice.
I think of volunteers going out from our churches to visit the lonely and isolated in their own homes.
I think of support groups for people caught in addiction.
I think of the thousands of small acts of kindness shown by people everyday to their neighbours, work colleagues and friends. This is diaconal ministry, and those who are ordained as deacons are those who set an example and enable, support and encourage those engaged in this work.
In just a moment, we will hear words which are probably my favourite words in the whole ordination service: “Deacons are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love…They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.
There are many in our world who feel themselves forgotten and overlooked, many who search for meaning and purpose, many who scream inside, longing to be noticed and seen by others. Deacons are to lead the church in reaching out to them, to make the love of God visible to them, knowing that this won’t immediately take away their pain or hurt or loneliness. But it will be the start of a journey – a journey which will transform us even as it transforms others.
So I’ve come to realise that washing people’s feet is a great privilege and a powerful symbol. We do it, not only because Jesus told us to do this particular act, but because it symbolises a life of service, a life of visible self-giving, and in doing it, we make the love of God visible. And when combined with our worship, where we remember Jesus’ own self-giving, even to death on the cross, these practical acts of service take on even deeper significance.
I am so thankful for our 11 deacons being ordained today. I know they are committed to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. And I know they would love you to join with them in that work – both in prayer and in action. What would this world look like, I wonder, if every one of us was committed to washing the feet of others?