January 9: Called to Ministry

January 9: Called to Ministry

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Audio of Scripture reading and sermon only

This is is the first in a 3-part sermon series entitled “Called to Ministry.” By virtue of water baptism, Christians receive a “call” to a ministry which is common to all followers of Jesus. Among the baptized, God calls some to ‘set apart’ ministries, the most common being a call to ordained ministry. The United Methodist Church has two orders of ordination: deacon and elder. Today is ‘Baptism of the Lord Sunday’ on the liturgical calendar, and the theme is the miniostry common to all baptized Christians.

Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

On Friday, we received a call here at the church from the McLaren Hospital ICU. A patient was in the final hours of his life, and his wife wanted a pastor to come in and pray with them. She said they attended a Methodist church but didn’t live here in Port Huron. So, the nurse called us, and I was able to respond to their need.

There’s a term we use these days to describe the kind of support I was able to provide for the two of them. We call it ‘pastoral care.’ And the reason we call it pastoral care is because it’s the kind of care, or support, which we typically associate with clergy. Pastoral care is that given by the pastor, right?

But did you know that the title, ‘pastor,’ reflects the function of a care-giver just as much, if not more, than the vocational title we give to “professional” clergy? While most often ‘pastor’ is a noun—the label we assign to a clergyperson—it’s also a verb. So, in a very real sense, I am a pastor who pastors. To pastor in the sense of fulfilling the verb form of the word—is to provide for the spiritual well-being of a group of people. In the truest sense of the word, anyone can provide pastoral care; any Christian can give the kind of care which offers love and support to those who are in need of a word of hope and love. On Friday, in my vocational role as a pastor, I provided pastoral care to both wife and husband. That care took the form of listening; of offering a brief prayer; of sharing a few words of encouragement to both of them. But mostly it was just being present with them.

Does it require having a Master of Divinity degree to pray with someone and offer words of hope and encouragement? Is being present with someone when they don’t want to be alone something only clergy can do? Of course not! In hospitals and nursing homes around the world, the exact scenario to which I was called on Friday unfolds every moment of every hour of every day, and it’s the nurses who routinely provide that pastoral care. When family or clergy are not present, nurses are often the one’s holding their patient’s hand when they take their final breath.

Friends, the truth is, showing love and compassion to strangers and loved ones alike is in the wheelhouse of every single one of us. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s what every single Christian here is called to do, and all on account of our baptism.

Christian Baptism is multi-layered in terms of its meaning and purpose and what it accomplishes in the life of the believer as well as the larger church. But at its very core, baptism is an initiation, or an induction, into the Body of Christ, the church. At one level, baptism is an individual thing in that it reflects the choice of the individual to declare themselves a follower of Jesus Christ. But the pathway that individual walks in their endeavor to follow Jesus in intended to happen within the context of the Body of Christ. It was in the name of the Father and the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit that you and I were baptized. But it was the Body of Christ, the church, into which we were baptized. Our water baptism forever connected each of us to and aligned us with the church, the body of Christ in the world. And more specifically, it enjoined us to the work of the church, which is, ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ. Simply put, the work Jesus did when he lived in the world is the same work the church is supposed to be doing today. And by virtue of your baptism, this is your call! What Jesus did is what each of us is called to do in this life. Love, serve, pray, teach, walk-besides, heal, encourage, touch, challenge, listen, cry, risk, invite, and yes, even die.

Together, we are, and individually, each of you are, Christ in the world. Here’s how Martin Luther, in his book, The Freedom of a Christian, describes this purpose of ours. He writes, “[A]s our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians. Surely, we are named after Christ…because he dwells in us, that is, because we believe in him and are Christs one to another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us.”

Luther wrote that back in the 1500s. Four-hundred or so years later, C.S. Lewis picked up on this idea of being “Christs to one another” and penned his own thoughts in Mere Christianity. Of the purpose of the church, Lewis boldly states that it “exists for nothing else but to draw [others] into Christ, to make them little Christs. If [we] are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”

He applies the called work of the church—to draw others into Christ—to the individual believer as well. He writes, “We shall love the Father as [Christ] does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us.  He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other [people] the kind of Life He has — by what I call ‘good infection’.  Every Christian is to become a little Christ.  The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” (https://xrysostom.blogspot.com/2007/03/luther-lewis-and-christs.html)

Here’s my point in sharing with you these quotes from Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis. Water baptism enjoins us to the work of Jesus Christ, work we do through the church, the Body of Christ in the world. And the bottom-line work of the church and the individual Christian is to be “little Christs” to every person with whom we come into contact and every situation in which we find ourselves. That is our common call. To be very clear, it’s a call to ministry. What is ministry but serving others. And as followers of Jesus, we serve in Jesus’ name. We serve to the glory and honor of Jesus Christ. We serve, that the light of Christ will be seen by others, and that some of those will be drawn to and come into the light of Christ. This is what God has called every one of us to – by virtue of our baptism.

But lest you come to think that the only thing our baptism accomplishes is that it gives us all a task to work on for the rest of our earthly lives—as gratifying as that accomplishing that task may be—that’s not the only thing it does. Baptism is a reminder of our identity—our true identity, not the identity the world works overtime to thrust upon us. And remembering our true identity doesn’t require any work or task-fulfillment on our part except, maybe, the “work” of deliberately remaining connected to God. Baptism, then, is a reminder of who we are and whose we are.

It wasn’t included in today’s reading of Jesus’ baptism, but do you recall what happened following his baptism? Most immediately, he was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit for a period of testing of his spiritual resolve and preparedness for what came next. And what came next was…his ministry! Luke 4:13-14 says, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.” And it’s in one of those synagogues one Sabbath that he reveals his identity by informing them that he himself was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah. He claimed to be the anointed one of God.

So, where did that understanding of himself come from? It came as an affirmation of his identity at his own baptism. Luke says that while John the Baptist was praying, “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven which said, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love. In you I find happiness” (Luke 3:21-22). No doubt, Jesus had spent 30 years gaining an understanding of his unique relationship with the God he and his people worshiped. Over time, he must have realized who he in fact was, but at his baptism God the Father verified what he must have come to know about himself, that he was God’s Son. You are my Son, whom I dearly love. Knowing and believing that particular truth, that he was who we’ve come to know and believe is the 2nd Person of the Trinity—the Son—knowing and believing this about himself was paramount if he was going to successfully fulfill his own call, which included 1) equipping a handful of people to take on the impossible task of heading up the church which would go world-wide; and 2) taking upon himself the sins of entire world and fulfilling in his own body the penalty for sin. If he was going to do all that, he needed to know for sure who he was.

In order for us to fulfill our task of being “little Christs” in our own “little worlds,” it’s absolutely necessary that we know who we are, too. And it’s our baptism which provides for us that important sense of identity. In The United Methodist Church, the baptism service begins with a brief introduction which states what baptism accomplishes in the life of the person being baptized. One of those statements is affirms that the baptized person is “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.” I could probably spend a sermon or two unpacking that one statement alone. So, suffice it to say that it basically means that when I’m submitted to the waters of holy baptism, whether on account of my parents’ decision or my own decision, I’m wholly integrated into and become an active participant in the unfolding activity of God bringing all creation to its ultimate destiny of redemption. When death and decay entered our world through the rebellion of our Original Parents, God set in motion a plan to save creation. Water baptism ushers a person into that glorious plan. And a vital part of that plan was sending God Son into our world to make atonement for our sins so that we can be reconciled to God and live in right relationship with him. Though baptism doesn’t wash away my sins—because only the blood of Jesus accomplishes that—it does wash away the guilt of the Original Sin with which we’re all born. Only after being freed of the guilt of that specific condition is one then in a place to be able to receive fully the gift of God’s saving grace. Water baptism puts a person in that place, and spiritually prepares them to be able to fully receive all that God desires to pour into them. And what God desires to pour into them is his Son, Jesus. Baptism is the first installment of God’s saving grace which is fully realized in a person when they say Yes to Jesus. And when they say Yes to Jesus, they become full participants in God’s plan of salvation.

In this way, baptism is a reminder that we belong to God. Our identity is wrapped up in Jesus Christ. Just as the Father affirmed to Jesus that he was the Son (capital S) of God at his baptism, so at our baptism we’re reminded that we, too, are sons and daughters of God. Baptism is a reminder that we are children of God. That’s who we are. My identity and your identity is not connected to anything in this world—both the good stuff and the bad stuff of this world. Our identity is not connected to our vocation, our jobs, our social standing, our wealth, our worldly influence, or even our families. Our identity is not connected to our sinful behaviors nor our holy and benevolent actions. Baptism reminds us that our identity is wholly connected to Jesus Christ and his saving work on the cross. And this wonderful, life-affirming identity is, in the words of the introduction to our United Methodist baptismal service, “God gift, offered to us without price.”

Friends, through baptism we are called. First, we’re called into a relationship with our Creator who loves us and made a way for us to be his beloved children. And we’re called to fulfill our own part of the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation by finding our own way of bearing witness to the ways God has changed our lives so that others might respond and do the same.

In a few moments, you who have been baptized, regardless of the age you were baptized or whether or not you can adequately speak to the theological significances of your baptism, if you’ve been baptized, in a short while you’ll have an opportunity to reaffirm your faith, the faith that was declared at your baptism. (Again, if those of you at home haven’t already taken the opportunity to place a bowl of water nearby, now would be a good time to do that). As a reminder to all of us, the effectiveness of baptism isn’t dependent upon the age we’re baptized or whether or not we cognitively understand the meaning of baptism or why we’re being baptized. Some Christian faith traditions emphasize the responsive act of baptism, that it’s the outward demonstration of one’s newly-professed faith in Jesus Christ. That’s an appropriate reason for being baptized as a youth or adult. But United Methodist’s have come to believe that there’s an aspect of baptism which is all God’s doing and none of ours. God can accomplish what he does in the life of the newly-baptized whether they’re 1 week old, 1 month one, 1 year old, or 100 years old. Of course, baptized infants and children will eventually have to lay claim to their own faith, at which time they might go through confirmation class and confirm for themselves the profession of faith that was made on their behalf at their own baptism. Or, if older, simply stand before a congregation and reaffirm their faith and baptismal vows. Let’s pray.

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