Sunday, January 15, 2017

Called to Serve (1/8/17)

Baptism of Christ, mosaic, detail, from Ravenna Baptistery
On Sunday, January 8th, we ordained and installed new Ruling Elders and Deacons. On the same day, we celebrated the baptism of our Lord. It was very appropriate that both events were celebrated in worship, along with the Lord's Supper.
Called to Serve (1/8/17)

          Good morning! What a crazy coincidence we have this morning—in one service of worship, we’re celebrating the baptism of our Lord, the ordination and installation of elders and deacons, and we’re also celebrating the Lord’s Supper. That’s a lot for one Sunday! Maybe we should have looked at the liturgical calendar before packing all of this into one service of worship. Or maybe we should have looked at the Steelers’ schedule first. I mean, the regular season ended last Sunday, but as Steeler fans, we all kind of expect to be watching our team play for a couple more weeks. So, I’ll try to keep my sermon short today; I want to be home by kickoff, too.
          All kidding aside, I’m sooooo glad that we ordained and installed elders and deacons on the same day that we recognize the baptism of our Lord. Baptism is fundamental to our understanding of who we are as Christians. It also reminds us of our collective calling to serve, as we have just ordained and installed these elders and deacons in their service to this congregation.
          The story of Jesus’ baptism raises some interesting questions. Why does Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, need to be baptized? And who could possibly have the authority to baptize the Lord? Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t think he was worthy to perform this baptism. According to the Gospel of Matthew: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”
          John accepts Jesus’ explanation that it is necessary and proper for John to baptize Jesus and performs the baptism. Then the skies open up and Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. The key to understanding why this is necessary can be found in the very last verse: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
          Matthew believed that Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, God’s chosen people. To Matthew, the prophets of the Old Testament all pointed toward Jesus. In verse 17, when God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Matthew is making a direct reference to this morning’s lesson from Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Thus, the heavenly voice, the voice of God declares that Jesus is both the Son of God and the Suffering Servant that is identified in the Book of Isaiah.[1]
This informs our understanding of the sacrament of baptism. According to the Book of Order, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church:
Baptism is the sign and seal of incorporation into Christ. Jesus through his own baptism identified himself with sinners in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus in his own baptism was attested Son by the Father and was anointed with the Holy Spirit to undertake the way of the servant manifested in his sufferings, death, and resurrection. (W-2.3001)
Much of this statement is drawn from this morning’s gospel lesson. There’s a lot going on that statement on baptism. I wanted you to hear all of that at once, and now I’m going to unpack that, one piece at a time.
          First: “Baptism is the sign and seal of incorporation into Christ.” Baptism is the sign, that is, it signifies what Christ has already done for us: He has taken away our sin. It is not the act of baptism that cleanses us from sin, it is through Jesus’ death and the action of the Holy Spirit that our sin is cleansed. The sacrament of baptism marks us for inclusion in God’s covenants, God’s promises to Israel, but the work has already been accomplished by Christ.
          The word incorporation is also very, very important. It means that we are a part of Christ. The word comes from the Latin word, corpus, which means body. If we are incorporated, then we are truly part of the body of Christ. Remember, the term “the body of Christ” is another name for the Church. Baptism means that we are marked as being part of the Church.
          Next: “Jesus through his own baptism identified himself with sinners in order to fulfill all righteousness.” The phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness” is a direct quote from our gospel lesson this morning. It means that Jesus was sent into this world to do God’s will, to enact God’s plan for salvation.[2] To do this, Jesus must walk with and minister to all of humanity.
          The final statement in that section of the Book of Order reads: “Jesus in his own baptism was attested Son by the Father and was anointed with the Holy Spirit to undertake the way of the servant manifested in his sufferings, death, and resurrection.” Baptism is an action for flesh-and-blood people. In saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” God is not only stating that Jesus is the Son of God, but in doing so at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God is also stating that Jesus is fully human. Furthermore, God clearly states that Jesus’ mission is to serve.
          God remains faithful to all of God’s promises to humanity in and through the physical presence of Christ in the world. This is how God lives into a relationship with all of humankind:
The language of “all justice” or “righteousness” expresses actions that are consistent with or faithful to a relationship or commitment. God is just or righteous, for example, when God acts consistently with God’s covenant commitments to deliver the people from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 46:13). To act justly/faithfully/righteously, whether God or humans, is to act in accord with God’s will. Jesus’ baptism, then, signifies his commitment to act faithfully to his God-given commission to manifest God’s saving presence.[3]
In other words, Jesus, in his own baptism, is marked for his service to humanity.
          We must never forget that God’s covenants are not part of a passive relationship. God isn’t the only one who acts. We must remember that we are active partners in this relationship. We see this in the disciples who followed Christ’s call. They “were empowered by the outpouring of the Spirit to undertake a life of service and to be an inclusive worshiping community, sharing life in which love, justice, and mercy abounded (W-2.3001).”
          The service of ordination marks these new elders and deacons as servant-leaders in this congregation. But we don’t ordain them in order that they can serve. Rather, the ordination is a formal recognition of what God has already done and continues to do in and through these individuals. Their ordination reminds us all that these folks are called to serve. That’s a call we all share. We were all baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The human Jesus lived a life of service. We must follow that call, too. God has ordained these elders and deacons to very specific ministries of service. Through their service we are all empowered to be the church, to participate in Christ’s ministry of service to all of humanity. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 160.
[2] Boring, 160.
[3] Warren Carter, “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17,” retrieved from:

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