THE MINISTRY OF BAPTIZED CHRISTIANS
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. November 2, 2003.
A few weeks ago William Willimon was in town to preach at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul – the Presbyterian Church downtown on Sherbrooke Street. Then on Monday morning he gave a workshop on preaching which I was able to attend. Will is the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and also Professor of the Practice of Ministry at the Divinity School there. I first heard of him about 20 years ago when I read his little book on baptism which is entitled Remember Who You Are. At the end of the Introduction – after he has expressed his thanks to his family, parishioners, students, friends, and secretaries who were helpful when he was writing this book, he says:
Thanks also to the late Reverend Grady Forrester who, on one hot, summer Sunday afternoon in my dim past, took me in his arms, held me over a silver bowl, poured water over my bald head, called me by name, and told me I was a Christian. About thirty summers later, in spite of what I have done and where I have been, that graceful water still fills my shoes, those words still thunder in my brain, and I still answer to that name - and it all came to me as a gift.
Down through the centuries, the church has had many insights and understandings and teachings about baptism; and while some of them may appeal to us more than others, or in particular circumstances, all of these teachings have a time and a place – though we may need to take some of them symbolically rather than literally. But any of them may be meaningful to us at some time.
So let’s think of all these various teachings as being something like a very generous buffet table with everything you can imagine on it. When we go there, we don’t usually stuff ourselves with everything on the table ( – at least I hope we don’t). Rather, we take what we need at the time – maybe even more than we need, and we leave the rest for someone else. At another time, we may take something different.
What I want to take from the buffet table this morning – what I want to stress about baptism – are two “in” words. The first is inclusion, and the second is incorporation. And I will also say a few words about the ministry of baptized Christians.
First, inclusion. Baptism affirms that we are accepted by God, and included among the people of God. The theologian Paul Tillich once said that all we have to do is “simply accept the fact that we are accepted.” Baptism is an affirmation of God’s acceptance of us. That God loves us before we can love in return. That Christ did not die for us when we were ready, but when we needed God’s love.
So then, when we baptize a person – whether they be young or old, we are affirming our faith in what God has done and continues to do. We are claiming God’s promise for the person being baptized, for parents, and indeed for all of us who are gathered here in faith together. In Jesus Christ, God has included us. All of us. Everyone. God’s love is big enough to include all people – and does. This morning we have witnessed to how God has included Camille Senior. And not only her, but you and you and you and you and me – all of us. And not only us, but all people. We are all included in God’s love. So then, let us remember our baptism and be thankful.
So baptism is about inclusion, and it is also about incorporation. It is about how we are incorporated into the body of Christ. If we think about the derivation of the word “incorporate,” we can quickly see the root words “in” and “corpus.” “In the body.” To incorporate is to make something or someone a part of the body.
Sometimes people say that baptism is the door of the church – meaning that it is the way we become part of the church, or incorporated into it. And not only through the imposition of water, but also through the faith of believers. There are some churches which emphasize this by having their font or baptistery right inside the entry door. What a powerful reminder that can be that baptism is the door to the church, and by baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s holy church.
The title of Willimon’s book is Remember Who You Are, and who are we? “Who we are” is that we are the baptized. “Who we are” are people for whom Christ died. “Who we are” are people who strive – all of us imperfectly to be sure – to embody Christ in our daily walk. “Who we are” are the people God loves.
Then, we are called to “remember” who we are, and we should understand that expression in two ways. First is the usual sense that we use the word “remember”: baptism is a time to recall who we are. Regardless of whether we were baptized because of our own faith and by our own choice as a youth or adult, or whether we were baptized by virtue of the faith of our parents who brought us for incorporation into faith and into the church – as Andy and Manon have done this morning, let us remember our baptism and be thankful. Regardless of how it was that we came or were brought – even if we have no recollection of it, let us remember what our baptism means and be thankful to God for the gift of his love.
But there is also another way to use the word “remember” and that is to put a hyphen between the “re” and the “member” so that we re-member who we are. If we think of the “members” of our body, then to “re-member” our baptism is for us to embody it. For it to keep coming alive in us so that it is evident who we are and whose we are – the people of God. To re-member our baptism means for the love of God to be incarnate within us and among us. It means for us to engage in the ministry of Christ – the ministry of love and grace. Since we have experienced God’s grace, we are gracious ourselves. Since we have experienced God’s grace – which we do not deserve and cannot earn, we endeavour to be people of grace – people who in our thoughts and our words and our actions are characterized by that same grace – so that we reach out in love and care.
So then, let us re-member our baptism and be thankful. And re-membering our baptism doesn’t end when we are confirmed, but continues all through our lives.
Or let us think again of re-membering as the members of the church. To re-member our baptism in the fellowship of the church is for us to live out the promises that we made, or that were made in our name. To re-member is for the love of God to be “membered” here – to take shape as part of us, and for that love to be at work in our midst. It is for God’s love and grace and peace – and, yes, God’s justice too – to be evident and manifest among the people of God when we are gathered and when we are scattered. And so, again I say, let us re-member our baptism and be thankful.
And yes, let us remember and re-member who we are and whose we are. Let us not forget, and let us embody the faith that is God’s gift to us – empowering us to be the best people we can be. Living a life of trust in God so that come what may, we know that we are God’s people, gathered together to support and sustain one another, bearing one another’s burdens and binding up one another’s wounds. And then sent out to be God’s people wherever we are – living out our baptism in trust and obedience each day.
Remember your baptism and be thankful, for this is who you are. Amen.