Epiphany 1C Sermon (1998)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22;
Is 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17


I remember the evening I got ordained. One of the great moments of my life. It even had a touch of humor to it, as the presiding bishop made a small error. When I arrived early, he was muttering to himself. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was practicing saying the other candidate’s name. I was being ordained with a woman on visa here in this country from Germany, named Barbara Splittgerber. She had finished her studies in the U.S. and was going to take her first call to a Lutheran church in my hometown; so we were being ordained together.

But there was one problem, as far as the bishop was concerned. You see, his simple role was to, at the right moment, lay hands on our heads and to call us by our names in ordaining us. This was normally a simple task, even with Splittgerber and Nuechterlein, since only first and middle names are used. But Barbara also had a long, German-sounding middle name. So there was the bishop muttering her name over and over before the service, to make sure he would get it right.

We came to the right moment with the laying on of hands, and … perfect! “Pour out your Holy Spirit on Barbara Ellelena,” he said. Just right. So he breathed a sigh of relief, and laid his hands on my head: “Pour out your Holy Spirit of John Paul,” he said, “uh…I mean, Paul John.” For a second, my Catholic in-laws thought I was being ordained as the Lutheran pope, or something!

That was the humorous moment. The more serious moment came a few minutes later as I was distributing communion for the first time as an ordained pastor. My mother-in-law-to-be, who had been trained all her life to take Communion only at Catholic churches, and who was making her first visit ever to a Lutheran Communion service, came forward to receive communion from me with tears in her eyes–which immediately made my eyes a bit watery, too. Yes, it was a memorable day of ordination.

So I ask you: Do you remember the time you got ordained? You are, you know, ordained. You are a minister of the gospel. Yes, it happened at you baptism. You became a minister of the gospel on the day of your baptism. Heather Miller a little later today will be made a minister of the gospel at her baptism. Most of us were probably infants when we baptized, so we can’t remember like Heather will be able to, being baptized as a young adult. But that is why we also have confirmation at an age we can remember. It’s a day that the minister lays hands on our heads and speaks the same prayer for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon Heather,” I’ll say in a few minutes, as I lay my hands on her head. “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon Kristin … and David … and Amanda … and Scott … and Justin,” I prayed last Reformation Day, as we laid hands on the heads of our confirmands. Do you remember a special day in your life when a pastor, and perhaps others, laid hands on your head and prayed for the Holy Spirit? This was your ordaining, your setting apart, your empowerment to be in ministry with Christ in the world.

Alas, most of us now associate laying-on-of-hands with ordination. Through the course of time, baptism has lost some of its significance as the making of “priests” in the world and became only a rite of initiation into the church, or even just some magical rite to get into heaven. This has led many to the unfortunate conclusion that pastors, those who are ordained, are the real ministers of the church and the laity are there just to undergird and support the work of the clergy.

This is wrong. Let’s take a quick look at Scripture.

Today’s gospel remembers the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus is baptized, says Luke, a dove descends and there is a voice proclaiming Jesus as the beloved son of God. Right after this event, Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing — a sign that the kingdom of God is breaking out all over. Jesus’ baptism is the day of his “ordination,” the beginning point of his work — his ministry.

But Luke’s gospel, Luke’s story of Jesus, gives us the story of the Holy Spirit working long before this day that Jesus is grown and is beginning his ministry. Just a few weeks ago we read the story of the angel’s annunciation to Mary. Remember what the angel told Mary on that occasion? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35)

The Holy Spirit descended on Mary, first, and on that day, her ministry began. That day was the beginning of her work for God. Her being mother to Jesus would be a ministry ordained by God. That day, Mary became the first in the story of Jesus to hear the call of God and to say yes.

From these stories I draw a few conclusions:

1. Ministry is a gift of God. It is not our idea; it is God’s idea.

2. Ministry is a gift of God through the descent of the Holy Spirit. We are given the Spirit in baptism, not for some sort of personal comfort (though we well may receive comfort from the Holy Spirit), but rather so that we might be empowered to participate fully in the ministry of Christ in the world.

3. Ministry is a gift of God to all the baptized. Have you ever noticed in our bulletins every week? Open your bulletin right now to the listing titled “Staff and Participants in the Worship Service.” Have you ever noticed the first line? “Ministers,” it says, “the People of Emmaus Lutheran Church.” We are very serious about this! All of you are ordained by God to be ministers. Pastors are only here to help you ministers do your ministry, not to do your ministry for you.

I have seen you in ministry. I have seen evidence that you are ordained — gifted with the Holy Spirit for ministry. I have seen you at ministry in the choir room, or a Sunday school room, or the sick room, or the council room. I’ve seen you ministering to the homeless and to the hungry. This week Pastor Mary and I have seen and heard your concern, your prayers, for the Field family, as Julie faces a terrible illness. Many have expressed their desire to help. You want to minister.

So in a way, I said it wrong. The day I got ordained was not that evening back in 1985 when the bishop laid hands on my head and made me a pastor. The night I got ordained as a minister was that Sunday morning all the way back in 1956 when the pastor dipped his hand in the baptismal bowl, poured water on my head, signified that I had been given the Holy Spirit, and made me a minister.

One reason why we are here in church on Sunday is to be fed, to be nourished, for ministry. “Enter to dine. Depart to Serve.” As your pastor, I preach and I teach and in order that you might preach and teach wherever you go in the coming week. I administer the sacraments that you might be the sacramental presence of our Lord wherever you go this week.

So go and be a minister! Let us use the gifts God has given us as a sign of the outbreak of the kingdom of God. Let us go on and be the ministers that God has called us, ordained us, to be. Having dined on God’s word, fed by his promises of life and forgiveness, let us depart to serve. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 10-11, 1998

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