For those of you who may not be too knowledgeable about the inner workings of the Presbyterian church... we are called Presbyterian because of the way we govern ourselves. The congregation elects Elders (presbyters to use the English form of the Greek word πρεσβύτερος )... the Elders serve on the Session with the Minister of Word and Sacrament (my official title). Every member on the Session has one vote, so although my title and responsibilities differ from the other Elders we lead the church as equals. The Session is responsible for overseeing the business of the church from the finances to the care of members to worship and spiritual growth to mission and living out our faith as a Christian community.
The challenge for some Elders is leading in our Presbyterian context. Elders, at their best, are servant leaders. A desire to control and an ego that insists upon its own way has wreaked havoc on many a Presbyterian Session. Trying to govern by trying to please and satisfy the congregation has also done much harm. The Session is to lead by seeking and discerning the will of God for a particular congregation. This is challenging and serving on a Session can be stressful as you seek to build up the body of Christ. There is no one blueprint to follow.
So... here's yesterday sermon as we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord and I tried to make a connection between Jesus' act of submission and what it means to lead as an elder.
January 12, 2020
On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we hear the story from Matthew’s gospel. John is in the Jordan baptizing the crowds… telling them to “Bear the fruit worthy of repentance.” John is clear… “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you now from Matthew.
READ the scripture.
I am going to focus on just one part of our reading this morning… a part that is unique to Matthew’s telling. As Jesus comes before John to be baptized… John, at first, will not do it. He is unworthy… right? Those are his words. Who is he to baptize Jesus?
Now we might agree with John’s assessment. Who is this wild man in the wilderness? Who is this prophet calling for repentance? By what power… by what authority does he do these things? I think the way we often look at power and authority it wouldn’t be so wrong for Jesus to pull a Napoleon… grabbing the crown and putting it on his own head… reaching into the Jordan and baptizing himself.
But… what’s important is not John’s power and authority… that’s something that we of this world like to worry about… that’s something we give value to… much like the people of John’s day. Worthiness. Is John worthy to do this? That, however, is not the question the story is asking.
What Jesus does right off is to subvert our idea of worthiness. It’s not a question of John’s worthiness… it’s Jesus’ act of submission. That’s the theological focus point. That’s where the truth of this baptism lies… in Jesus’ submission. Or to use the liturgy of the early church that is preserved for us in the letter to the church at Philippi… “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.”
Submission. I don’t think we like that word very much. It goes against all the messaging we receive from so many sources. Submission does not portray strength. To submit is akin to defeat… not a way to fulfill all righteousness. Submission is the goal of power… to have others submit. But what is Christianity without submission?
John comes with his baptism for repentance. Why, then, isn’t John’s baptism enough? Why must there be the one who comes after him… the one who… as the gospel story goes… is powerful by submitting to God’s will… is powerful through his complete obedience to God. Jesus enters into ministry with the people who have come seeking repentance. In the other gospels, there is sometimes no visible difference between Jesus and the others coming to the river. He is just another person coming before John. Imagine yourself in the scene at the Jordan. Sure we would like to imagine that Jesus somehow stands out from the rest of the crowd. Whenever there is a movie made… we always place an aura of otherness around Jesus. He is tall, blue eyed and charismatic. Or at least that’s how he used to be portrayed. Somehow people know to part when he walks… giving a respectful amount of personal space. There is special music that plays that tells us about his holy otherness. He is dressed differently from everyone else there. Right? Something is different about the man.
Erase that idea. Instead, imagine yourself in the scene and not being able to tell which person in the crowd is Jesus. Imagine that this is what Immanuel is all about… that this is what it means that God is with us… among us… one of us. We can’t tell by just looking. What is revealed to us is revealed through obedience… through submission… through truly bearing the fruit of repentance… of turning to God completely.
As much as we try to deny it… the story of the gospel is not about God using special god powers to enact salvation… to destroy sin… to set us free by conquering our enemies. The gospel story is Jesus submitting... taking the role of a servant… encouraging others to follow him by taking up their own cross. The temptations in the wilderness are about using special god powers… defeating the powers of sin with even greater power. The journey to Jerusalem is about turning away from the self and the messages of worthiness… about embracing grace… about acting in love toward our neighbors. As Jesus gets closer to the cross, the scene in the garden of Gethsemane… that is a scene of submission. As he stands before the powers that would judge him through the different trials… that is a scene of submission. As he is nailed to the cross… that is a scene of submission. The last breath is submission. The victory of Easter is not the victory of a greater god power over death… it is the victory that comes through submitting fully to the way of God’s steadfast love. That is the power of resurrection. Resurrection is the great sign of the fulfillment of all righteousness.
By itself, John’s baptism of repentance is no more effective than our practice of New Year’s resolutions. If it were… then there would be no need for someone to follow John’s activity in the Jordan. If it were… then we could all save ourselves through our own efforts. If we had the power to overcome the pervasive of sin in our thoughts… in our actions… in our words… in the desire of our hearts… then we would need nothing more than John’s baptism of repentance. In our Reformed Tradition this is what’s known as the doctrine of total depravity, which simply states that even at our best and most perfect we cannot conquer sin. We must submit ourselves to a Savior God. If it were about our having the power… the means… the ability… the gifts… to dominate and achieve perfection and receive the expected blessings from God through our own works… then we would only need John’s baptism… or other ideas and rituals like it. It means that the old Law… with its guidelines and practices for righteousness… would have been enough. It means the system of animal sacrifices would have been enough. It means whatever is promised through loyalty oaths, or proper belief systems, or the power of whatever else we as human beings might design and create… such promises would be enough.
However, the foundational truth of our faith is Christ is revealed through his submission… through emptying himself… through humbling himself… through becoming obedient even in a river surrounded by others who came seeking to know and to follow God by emptying themselves… humbling themselves… submitting themselves to God’s mercy and forgiveness.
This is the model of leadership that is put before us.
Saints, to be ordained as a leader in Christ’s church is to submit to God’s will. The Session is elected by the congregation… but not charged with doing the will of the congregation. The Session seeks out the will of God for this congregation. To bring in the Book of Order… “Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and guide in its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life.” Lord it over. That is the opposite of submission. And I can tell you… the congregations I have been in that are the weakest are those that have some person or group within it who are lording it over the rest of the congregation. Whether it’s through the power of money… or some willful acts of bullying or whatever the case may be… certain methods and behaviors of leadership that might be employed outside the church to gain control… only work to crush the spirit within when applied to the church. We all have certain roles to play… certain jobs to do… certain tasks to manage or complete… all with the understanding that what we do together is to glorify God… enjoy God… and to build up the body of Christ that is the church. We submit joyfully to such service guided by the principles of the gospel.
As our newly elected elders come forward this morning… I, of course, want them to remember this scene in the Jordan. I want all those who are currently serving to remember this scene. We submit to the service of God. We lead this congregation through prayerful discernment. We are first in line to do. We are last in line to receive. We model through our imperfect discipleship the faith that has been given to us. We try. We make mistakes. We succeed. We ask for forgiveness. We glorify God and hope that we are bearing the fruit worthy of repentance and righteousness. Amen.