Sunday 25 June 2017
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13A
Just over a week ago, United Methodists from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska gathered in Portland for an Annual Conference, the Methodist equivalent of a Lutheran Synod Assembly. I always think the highlight of Annual Conference is the commissioning and ordination worship service.
There’s nothing quite like it in the Lutheran tradition. Prospective Lutheran pastors, once they have finished seminary, wait for a call to a congregation or other ministry. If they don’t receive a call, they can’t be ordained. If they do receive a call, then they are usually ordained by a bishop all by themselves.
But for Methodist clergy, it’s a little different. Prospective clergy persons are first reviewed by their home congregations, then by their districts, and then by the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry to determine their fitness for ministry. If they have managed to pass through all those levels of review, once they have finished seminary, they come to Annual Conference. There is one last level of review: the Clergy Session, a meeting of all of the clergy of the conference. If the candidate passes, then they move ahead to be commissioned. Commissioning is kind of like a provisional ordination. The person becomes clergy, at least temporarily. Once they have proved themselves for at least three years in ministry, they go before the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Session again before being ordained elder or deacon in full connection.
So at the beginning of every annual conference, these candidates face the Clergy Session, not knowing for sure if they will pass. But if they do, then a few days later they are commissioned or ordained. All of them are commissioned and ordained at the same worship service. Nearly every United Methodist clergy person is commissioned and ordained in June at a regional gathering of the church, not in a local congregation. This year we commissioned 14 provisional members and ordained 2 elders and 1 deacon in a joint meeting of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Alaska Missionary Conference.
It is always an exciting worship service to be at, with all of the clergy and many of the laity of the conference gathered together to affirm God’s call to ministry. For me, it was especially exciting this year. Alyssa Baker, who has been the pastoral intern at the United Methodist Church in The Dalles this year became Rev. Alyssa Baker as she was commissioned a provisional elder. She will be serving Keizer Clearlake United Methodist starting on July 1. And someone you know, Rev. Jill Plant from Madras, who has preached here and whom I’ve been mentoring for the last three years, was ordained a deacon in full connection. I was honored to be the one to place the stole over her neck.
The task of preaching at the service fell to Rev. Jeremy Smith, Associate Pastor at Portland First, who starting July 1 will be Senior Pastor at Seattle First. Some of you may know him from his popular and influential blog, Hacking Christianity. At one point in the sermon, Jeremy recalled the words of the pastor who had preached at his own commissioning service. He said, “This is not a kind thing we are doing to you.” This is not a kind thing we are doing to you. “He talked about the cost of discipleship and the way that r-e-v in front of your name sticks with you no matter where you are, and that you are afflicted with the awareness of the call of God on your life…. It is not a kind thing, but it is enough for all that is ahead of you.”
It is not a kind thing we are doing to you. Those words came back to me this week as I was preparing for the sermon, as I was reading through the sixth chapter of Romans.
Romans is considered by many to be the Apostle Paul’s masterpiece. Most of Paul’s letters are written to address the particular concerns within particular community of Christians at a particular time. When we read them, we are reading other people’s mail. And sometimes some of the things Paul writes don’t apply well to us in our particular time and place. But Romans is the closest Paul gets to a systematic theology. Paul is writing to a community that is not his own, trying to lay out for them the heart of his theology.
Martin Luther was a particular fan of Romans. You remember his axioms: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia—by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. Sola scriptura means that scripture must be the ultimate ruler by which all doctrines are measured. Sola fide and sola gratia both come from Romans. From Paul in general, but most clearly stated in Romans.
Faith alone is the teaching that justification is received by faith alone, without any need for good works on the part of the believer. Grace alone is the teaching that salvation comes by divine grace only, not as something that is merited or earned by the sinner.
Paul is in the middle of his argument about justification by grace through faith when we pick up with our reading today. And he starts off by quoting an imaginary opponent. Paul had just said, “Where sin increased, grace multiplied even more.” And that’s when Paul’s imaginary opponent chimes in, “What then, should we continue sinning so grace will multiply?” You can tell the question is a bit sarcastic. Paul has been saying that no matter how much sin there is, there is always more of God’s grace. When there is more sin, then there is an even greater increase in grace. And so Paul’s opponent says, Well by that logic, we should all start sinning more. If we sin more, then God will be forced to produce more grace, and more grace is a good thing. If we don’t sin more, then we aren’t giving God the opportunity to offer more grace. That’s ridiculous, Paul says, and he begins the argument we have to deal with today, the argument about death to sin.
Here it goes. Christ Jesus, even though he was without sin, took on our sin. He became like a slave to sin. But then he died. And when he died, the claim that sin had over him ended, like a slave contract. Once he was dead, the slavery was broken. And then, Jesus was raised from the dead, which broke the power of sin and the power of death. Having been raised from the dead, he could never die again. Death didn’t exert any authority over him anymore.
Well, that is all very well and good for Jesus, but what does it have to do with us? Jesus is no longer a slave to sin, but that doesn’t say anything about our condition.
Here’s how Paul explains it. God’s saving power works through baptism. Paul says, when we were baptized, we died along with Christ. Through baptism, we die. That sounds rather strange. After all, we usually associate baptism with birth, not with death. It’s babies that we baptize most of the time, not hospice patients. How can baptism be death?
We have to imagine a full immersion baptism in order to understand the theology. In baptism, a person is plunged under the water. It is as if they died, as if they were drowned. In fact, the oldest surviving Christian baptismal font, from Dura-Europos in Syria, is shaped like a coffin. And as the initiate approaches it, they walk along a fresco of three women approaching Jesus’s tomb. In baptism, the new Christian dies, dies along with Christ, shares in Christ’s death.
That’s part of the reason those words from conference came back to me. This is not a kind thing we do to you. So also, bringing someone to baptism, as if bringing them to die—that does not seem like a very kind thing to do, either.
But it is through that participation in Christ’s death that we die to sin. We were ruled and owned by sin, but by dying with Christ, through baptism, we die to sin. The slave contract is broken. We are freed.
But, Paul says, if we die along with Christ in baptism, we are also brought back to life with Christ. We participate not only in the crucifixion; we participate in the resurrection. As we emerge from the water, we are brought to new life, as if being born again.
And of course that is a wondrously joyful thing. Of course that is reason for exceeding celebration. It is the very heart of our faith. It is the promise of God’s grace.
And at the same time, it is not an entirely kind thing. Ordination marks one out as different, having to live to a different standard. And that distinction was particularly noticeable when most Christians lived in mostly Christian communities. Everyone was baptized, but only some were ordained.
That is not the world we live in now. Most are not baptized. Baptism marks us all out as different, as strange.
And in fact, that brings us much closer to the early church and to the historical understanding of baptism. It is a key feature of both Lutheran and Methodist theology. The priesthood of all believers. The ministry of all Christians. We affirm that every baptized Christian is set apart for service to God. We affirm it in our baptismal vows. In accepting our baptism, we accept the call that God places on our lives. We cannot escape the identity of servant of God.
This is not a kind thing we are doing to you. There is a cost of discipleship. There is a way that name, Christian, sticks with you no matter where you are. There is a way that you are afflicted with the awareness of the call of God on your life. A call that will not let you go. It is not a kind thing, but it is enough for all that is ahead of you.
Through baptism we participate in Christ’s death. Through baptism we are born into Christ’s resurrection. And so, as Paul says, we also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. And that is what carries us through. That is what allows us to walk ahead in faith, to put our beliefs into practice in the world. That is what empowers us to live as we are, as Christians, with all that that means. It may not be a kind thing, but it is enough. It is enough for all that is ahead of us.