Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

January 10, 1999

Matthew 3:13-17; I Corinthians 1:26-31

Every fall when I organize the Inquirers Class for recently new and prospective members and anyone else who wishes to attend, I devote one evening to teaching about the worship life of this church. Worship is perhaps the single most important thing that we do. And the way in which we do it is not simply a matter of habit or custom, but a reflection of important features and structures of our life and world. We worship according to a calendar of weeks and months and years. We note special days and seasons of the year, and on some of these we celebrate the Lord's Supper together. We usually worship here, in this special space called sanctuary, defined by chancel and narthex and pulpit, furnished not only with pews for a congregation but with a Bible, a baptismal font, a communion table, and appointed with stained glass windows and other distinctive features of our faith. We also hold special ceremonies here, forms of worship with meanings that relate to major events and transitions in our lives.

Among those special events of life are the birth of a child, to which corresponds our service of infant baptism; the coming of age, for which we have commissioning or confirmation, and sometimes the baptism of believers; marriage, for which we have the wedding ceremony; work or vocation, to which ordination relates in significant ways; and death, on which occasion we hold a funeral or memorial service of worship. The whole life cycle, and its most important milestones, are all encompassed in the worship practices of the church.

This morning we will engage in two of these special worship practices, the baptism of a child and the ordination and installation of new elders to serve on session. Reflect with me for a few minutes on why we do these things.

First of all, why do we baptize an infant child? The child has no idea what is going on! At an earlier point in the history of the Church, one reason that would have been given for this practice was, "to save the child's soul." That was back when the Church believed that the actual ritual of baptism was required for salvation. That was back when it was believed, quite literally, that the Church held the keys to the kingdom. In that time it was believed that the Church, by its action, had the power to alter the status of the child in the eyes of God. The Church possessed control of the means of saving grace.

Why might we no longer believe these things? One reason might be that we no longer regard the Church as infallible, in either its teaching or its practice. If the Church is not infallible, then how can its judgments or its acts of grace be counted upon? If the Church is not infallible, then how can it possess the power to determine our ultimate destiny? But there is another, more basic, reason why we might no longer believe these things. We might not want to put ourselves in the place of God. We might not want to be the final arbiters of any human destiny. We might not want to suggest that we have the unconditional power to grant, or to deny, to anyone God's saving grace.

To put this matter another way, no parent of any child--whether baptized or not--need worry whether that child is loved by God. No parent of any child need be concerned whether that child is accepted by God. No parent of any child need wonder if God's grace is extended to that child. God's love and acceptance and grace do not await our baptism. Every child is a child of God.

What we do in baptism is not to make grace happen, but to bear witness that it already has happened. We bear witness to our faith that God is already present in every human life. Baptism does not alter the status of the child before God. Then why baptize? Because, in so doing, we open ourselves more fully to this grace. We commit ourselves to become the vessels of this grace. It can make a difference to the child whether or not we understand ourselves to be stewards of God's love, instruments of God's care, mediators of God's grace. It can make a difference to the child whether or not we ourselves are open and receptive to God's presence in our lives. The Church has a very important role to play in the nurture of the child, and baptism is one way in which we symbolize and affirm and accept this role. In doing so, we celebrate and give thanks for the new life that has been given, and we commit ourselves to love and care for this precious human being. But we make no assertion that this child is any more important or any more special than any other. We make no claim that by our action we have provided the child with an elevated status in the eyes of God.

A similar statement needs to be made about the ordaining of elders. Why do we do this? Does it make these people special--that is, more special than they already are? Does it alter their status before God? The ordination of ministers and elders is, undeniably, a way of setting people apart. When I was ordained as a minister I knew that I would henceforth be entitled to assume certain roles and engage in certain actions that other people could not. I realized that people who knew me to be a minister would probably regard me in some ways different from however they might otherwise regard me. But I did not feel then, nor do I feel now, that being ordained made me a special person in the sight of God. I was already a special person in the sight of God. And so is everyone else. [And so when people want to know what to call me, I tell them "Byron"--which is my name and, as names go, is special enough. And if they persist by wanting to know what title to use, I tell them, "Call me mister, call me friend, but please don't call me Reverend."]

My point is that the elders we are going to ordain and install here this morning are very special people, but they are no more special than any of the rest of you! They are special, as you and I are special, because they are God's children. They are not special because they have been elected to be elders. However, because we have elected them as elders, we have decided that for the next year or two or three--however long they remain on session--we are going to treat them as special. We are going to give them certain rights and powers that other members of this congregation do not possess. We are going to give them a certain status--some would say a higher status, but some might not--in the life of this congregation. The status we are going to give them, however, does not alter their ultimate status in the eyes of God. It does not bring them any closer, or place them any farther away, from the font of grace.

So why ordain them at all? Because we are setting them apart to perform a special work. We are calling upon them to fulfill a special responsibility. And our action in ordination is a bearing witness to our faith that they have been called by God to act for us in a special way. Our action in ordination is a bearing witness to our conviction that the grace of God is present in their lives in ways that can be of particular service to this congregation. We do not say that they have more of this grace than others, only that what they have is sufficient. And that they have been willing, when called upon, to render this particular service to us. We ordain them because we see this as an important and effective way of acknowledging their response, and ours, to the call of God.

In our text this morning from I Corinthians, Paul is at pains to instruct the Christians in Corinth that they are not to think of themselves as particularly wise and discerning or deserving of their pedigree as Christians who have been sanctified by Christ. He writes, "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth." The argument Paul is making is a very theological one, but one of his main points is that being a Christian is not a status occupation. In the first place, it is all God's doing and therefore not a matter of human accomplishment. It is a manifestation of the power of God, that same power that was revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the second place, it is a manifestation of grace. The fact and continuation of the Christian community are testament and demonstration of what God in Christ has done for us in spite of human weakness and folly.

Our text from the Gospel of Matthew also touches upon this question of status, though in a different way. When Jesus presents himself to John to be baptized, John protests that it is he, John, who should be baptized by Jesus. One may hear echoes in this passage of a debate in the early Church over why Jesus would submit to John's baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The primary tension in the story, however, concerns the relative status of Jesus and John. John, seeing himself of inferior status, thinks that he should be the one to submit to the baptism of Jesus. But Jesus insists that it is fitting and right for John to baptize him. The baptism does not determine Jesus' status before God. It bears witness to Jesus' acceptance of God's call. And it becomes a means by which God bears witness to Jesus as God's beloved Son.

We ordinarily tend to think of both baptism and ordination as having to do with status. The baptized infant becomes a child of God, the ordained minister or elder becomes a called servant of the Church, the believer who gets baptized gets saved. The truth, I believe, is rather different. Baptism and ordination are important rituals by which we acknowledge, accept, and make ourselves available to the presence and power of God's grace already there, already at work, already doing God's thing. They are forms of bearing witness. They are means by which we acknowledge our response to the call of God, expressions of our willingness for God's gracious purposes to be accomplished in our lives. Grace may be mediated through such actions as these. Indeed we believe that grace is regularly mediated in baptism and that the gift of the Spirit comes with the laying on of hands. But who can deny that God's grace and God's Spirit are already at hand? We are already somebodies special. God has already called us to lives of grace and service. Our part is to log in, to respond, to answer that call. AMEN.