Bishops must be party to scandal.
They must be willing to give it; and they must be ready to take it.
That was the nub of the sermon preached on Saturday at Jim White’s ordination to the episcopate and his licensing as Assistant Bishop of Auckland.
The deliverer of that admonition was the Rev Dr Marilyn McCord Adams, who’d been Jim’s academic supervisor when he was a master’s student at Yale in 2001 and 2002.
Dr McCord Adams drew her “saving scandal” conclusions from John 13: 1-17 – which gives the account of Jesus washing his disciples' feet on the night before he died.
In those times and in that place, she said, footwashing was strictly for slaves.
By stripping and picking up the wash basin that night, Jesus created a scene.
He not only made himself look bad, he made the disciples look bad, too.
“On the night before he suffered,” said Dr McCord Adams, “Jesus was quite intentional about giving scandal.
“His footwashing faux pas was only a dress rehearsal for the scandal of his impending execution.”
And when Peter objected to the footwashing, said Dr McCord Adams, Jesus rebuked him.
She paraphrased his rebuke this way: “If you are too timid to be party to scandal ,” she said, “Christian discipleship is not for you! ’
She went on: “Jesus Christ is a saving scandal... all Christians, all clergy, not least bishops, must keep open to giving and receiving scandal too.”
Nor is it just a matter of bishops being able to suck in scandal's stink.
It’s knowing that a time may come to give it out.
When the Gospel shakes our foundations (as it did, for example, over the slave trade in England and over racial segregation in the USA) “bishops must stand ready to give scandal,” she said, “to lead the Church into places where polite society and even some conscientious Christians think we have no business going.
“When bishops are too timid to be party to scandal, they become stones of stumbling, obstacles to the reign of God invading every nook and cranny of society and soul.”
The disputes and tensions which must arise when you're engaged in a life of saving scandal, she suggested, are no bad thing.
“Remember how Paul publicly scandalised Peter over eating with the Gentiles?
“God uses our conflicts, brought out in the open, questioned and disputed to bring the whole church closer to the mind of Christ.
“Disagreement is not necessarily dangerous, but a tool of discovery. Conversion is a process. We will all have to be shaken down repeatedly, the church reformed again and again, before Christ becomes manifest in all things.”
For Dr McCord Adams to be in Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday – she’d travelled from the University of North Carolina, where she is now the Research Professor of Philosophy – is testimony to the relationship forged between Jim as student and his former professor.
And throughout Saturday's service you could see evidence of the relationships Bishop Jim has forged as father, priest and academic dean.
There was Jim and Jane’s son Samuel, reading the first lesson (Isaiah 61:1-18) – and there was Sarah Reeves reading the second (2 Timothy 1: 6-14).
Sarah had been a parishioner at All Saints' Ponsonby, during the time Jim was the vicar there from 1993 to 2005.
Sarah’s dad, of course, was Sir Paul Reeves – and when he was the Bishop of Auckland he’d chosen Jim as an ordinand.
Sir Paul had also agreed, before he became too ill to do so, to present Jim at Saturday’s ordination – and Sarah was representing her dad. Sarah’s mum, Lady Beverly Reeves, was also on hand.
Then there was Kris Heale, who read the gospel (John 13: 1-17). Kris is a deacon at St Mark’s Remuera these days, and he’d been a student at St John’s College when Jim was Dean of the College of the Southern Cross.
And at the end of the service, among the throng of wellwishers at the doors of the cathedral, Father Bishoy Mekhaiel stood with some of his flock, patiently waiting to greet the new bishop.
Fr Bishoy is the priest for St Mark’s Coptic Church in Auckland. For years, his largely Egyptian congregation had met at All Saints', Ponsonby – and there they were in the service on Saturday to present Bishop Jim with an engraved silver plaque.
If the eloquence of their tribute and the warmth of the hugs and handshakes given by that long line of wellwishers at the cathedral door is any indication… you might even think that entering a life of giving and taking scandal is not all bad.