Bishop Election Devotional for April 7, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Steven Paulson, Chair of Lutheran Theology (Luther House of Study)
From the very beginning of creation there is only one office of ministry given by God, and only one “proper call” into that office (however various the traditions are for that call). This is how we learn we do not call ourselves, but the churches call us. The office of bishop is indeed a high and powerful calling. In fact, it is the highest of all callings on earth, since its power is that of the keys to preach the two words of God that retain sins or forgive them: “what you bind on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven” (John 20). How great it is that, because of the first Lutherans, the bishops no longer are government officials as well. What a burden was lifted from this already heavy task!
It is also true that churches, including Lutheran ones, have determined by long tradition to distinguish the larger group of preachers/bishops from those whose special concern is good order in the church. What a curse disorder in the churches is! Likewise, what a blessing it is when such bishops see to it that “everything may be done in an orderly fashion in the churches without confusion” (Augsburg Confession XXVIII).
It is because the office of bishop is so powerful that Lutherans especially recall Scripture that others would rather forget. 1 Samuel begins with the anxiety over divine election in the story of Hannah and her bishop Eli. What intelligent person could fail to see the disaster pending with these words: “He had two wives!” (1 Samuel 1:2). It gets worse quickly. Elkanah favored his wife Hannah and gave her extra food in front of his other bride, Penninah. What was he thinking? Had he never heard of good order? Meanwhile, God made his own choices in the opposite direction, closing Hannah’s womb while opening Penninah’s. So the trouble in the family was rife: “Penninah had children, but Hannah had no children” (v.3). You can see why Christ taught later that his Father intended one wife and one husband for marriage. Marriage is to relieve trouble, not cause it.
Hannah was bereft and beside herself for children. Penninah provoked and shamed her for years. Her husband tried to tell Hannah that he should be enough for her. Yet, Hannah persevered, knowing better than her husband what God wanted, and where to go for help. The temple of the Lord was in Shiloh, so the whole family went up to offer sacrifice to God in hopes of gaining his favor. Because of her despair, Hannah stayed and prayed a deep prayer of sorrow and pleaded to God for a children. She even decided that she would give her firstborn son as a sacrifice to the Lord in case he needed another preacher.
Meanwhile, the bishop sat outside the temple door and noticed how fervent Hannah was. He could not hear her prayer, but he saw her lips moving in lament, and not being the brightest bishop, he figured he had another case of a drunken worshipper on his hands. Such behavior could not be tolerated for good order in the church. But when he confronted her, Hannah insisted she was not drunk, just desperate. So, what was the bishop to do? Even if she had made herself a public spectacle, he knew the one thing he was bound to give to a sinner was the gospel, and so he applied it to her: “Go in peace and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17). Shalom!
You see, it is not so hard to be bishop as it first appears when you stick to the calling. Even though Eli thought he had a sinner on his hands, and wondered what would happen to her, his little sermon worked! Hannah instantly had her weight lifted, and her conscience cleared. She went home, knew her husband, and soon had her son Samuel (meaning, I asked the Lord for you—and got you). She then sang the greatest hymn in the Bible (which Mary also used for her own child): “The Lord kills and brings to life…raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…and exalts the power of his Messiah” (1 Samuel 2). We call this the theology of the cross.
In the course of time Hannah took her beloved son Samuel back to the bishop and told him the whole story: “the Lord lent Samuel to me, and I now lend him back to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:28). That means, look how cleverly the Lord works! I needed a son, and the Lord needed another bishop. So it was that even though Eli was a poor excuse for a preacher, and his sons were even worse, still God used the bishop to get this promise made, and that is all Eli ever needed to accomplish. The bishop did one thing right in his life, which was to preach one little gospel sermon to Hannah at the right place and time. God took it from there and the rest, as they say, is history. Once Samuel was of age, Eli and his sons were summarily removed from office–and life–and Samuel became God’s good preacher who would anoint David, and in turn, David’s seed would become the long-awaited Messiah.
So, even today we remember the dramatic events of the sixteenth century Reformation when bishops failed, and the Lutherans had to make their own bishops. But we also remember how God arranges to provide preachers who are taught the work of preaching and the care of the church. We give thanks when we have the blessing of churches without confusion, without schism and without coercion. We give thanks when God provides oversight that arranges churches in orderly fashion so that we are not burdened with traditions and opinions, but are rather given the gospel purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. Continue to give this to us O Lord!
LET US PRAY
Lord, give us the great gift of your preaching office that we might hear the forgiveness of our sins and receive your blessing in this life and the next. Give us the fervent faith of Hannah who went to you in her darkest hour and deepest need, for we have no other God than you. Provide our churches with good order, peace, unity. Most especially, we ask today for another trustworthy and diligent bishop through whom you can bless us all. Amen.
“For all the Faithful Women” – ELW 419
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