Jesus' Farewell PromiseMay 23, 2010, 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
If there are any Reformed Liturgical Theologians among us this morning, let me acknowledge right off the bat that we are doing things a bit differently this morning than John Calvin would have liked. Look at the order of worship. Normally we would ordain and install officers after the sermon, just as we place sacraments after the proclamation of the Word.
You see, in the period leading up to the Reformation there had been a lot of discussion about how and when what is promised in sacraments actually takes place and how much that depended upon the openness of the receiver to such grace, as well as the merit or holiness of the priest or minister. If the presiding minister turned out to be a flagrant sinner, did that invalidate all of the sacramental actions he had engaged in? Further, when and how did the miracle of Christ’s presence in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper take place? Was it simply ex opera operato,1 in the action itself? That response was an attempt to back away from the notion that the sacrament’s efficacy is dependent upon either the attitude of the recipient or the merit or holiness of the officiant. For the one truly presiding over Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is not the minister, but Christ himself. The answer to the question of whether one’s baptism or marriage is invalidated because the one who administered it turned out to be a flagrant sinner, or worse, one who ultimately denied the faith, as many a pastor did during various times of persecution in the early church, is no. Ministers are merely functionaries through whom the Risen Christ works. He is the one who makes the baptism valid, the marriage a holy union, and the one who ensures the integrity of the Supper. In a Christian marriage, the couple marry one another, and Christ presides while the minister officiates. At baptism and the supper, Christ presides; we simply administer or celebrate for Christ.
This, by the way, is why we pastors are served first. I am frequently asked, “Why do you ministers serve yourselves first and then the congregation? That is not good American manners. The gracious host always serves him or herself last.” And that is absolutely correct. But, you see, we pastors are not the host at this table! Christ is! We are Christ’s servants, functionaries through whom Christ is at work to make himself present to you. John Calvin made it very clear: the ministers are to be served first, so that fortified by Christ’s presence, they, in turn, may rightly serve the faithful.
But if Christ is the host, when does that take place? When does what we do here really become Christ acting on our behalf? Is it when we say the words of institution; “This is my body..., this is my blood given for you?” Or is it when we invoke the Spirit over the water, to make Christ present and clothe the baptized in Christ; or over the bread and wine, that they become more than signs of his presence?
Calvin cut through all of this, insisting that what actually consecrates the sacraments is vital and hearty preaching of the Word of God over them.2 It is then that Christ himself, present as the living Word of God, makes baptism and the Supper efficacious in the lives of those receiving them.3 This is why, in a Reformed order of worship, sacraments always follow the reading and preaching of the Word, and never are to come before it. And it is why, normally, ordinations and installations, though not sacraments, take place after the sermon as a response to the Word proclaimed. All of this is our response to Christ present in the reading and proclamation of scripture.
Now, yes, I know; you have been in Presbyterian churches where the baptism of an infant takes place between the confession of sin and the first lesson, in order to whisk the child out of the sanctuary, so that its whimpers or outcries not distract the congregation during the preacher’s sermon. I can think of one very well-known church in North Carolina where this is a weekly practice. The church refuses to baptize more than one child on a Sunday, which means there is a baptism virtually every Sunday. That has led to the rumor that as soon as a couple discovers their pregnancy, they call the church to schedule its baptism and the country club to schedule the reception. I remember when preaching there, watching an elder usher the family, babe and friends into reserved pews, right up front, during the sung response after the assurance of pardon. But I was a bit dismayed to see the same elder usher them out of the sanctuary as soon as the baptism was over. And, not surprisingly, all the family and guests left as well. Calvin would have questioned the validity of those baptisms.
Today we welcome a new member, long ago baptized here–well, not that long ago; sorry Heath, and today making her first public profession of faith. And, as she is welcomed into membership, we are going to baptize her infant daughter. That means we had to move the ordination and installation of officers earlier into the service, between the Epistle lesson, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the Gospel, Jesus’ farewell promise to his followers. But, as I thought more about it, that was perfect. For Romans 8 is a rousing sermon on the source and nature of the Christian life, in and of itself. What better way, I thought, to charge newly ordained officers?
You are no longer in debt to sin–no longer captive to its power. The Revised English Bible puts it this way: “It follows, my friends, that our old nature has no claim on us; we are not obliged to live in that way. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.”4 “The wages of sin is death.” There is no way around that. Paul has said that just two chapters earlier in this letter.5 But, he quickly adds, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”6 Eternal life comes from living in Christ and out of the Spirit that God sends to us to keep us in union with Christ. Eternal life, you see, is more than life after death. It is the quality of life that emerges in this life as you and I live in Christ. And so, Paul begins this 8th chapter of Romans by assuring us that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For the Spirit who links us to Christ in faith and who keeps us joined to Christ in life has set us free from the power of sin and death so that we can live our lives out of God’s Spirit.7
Jesus has kept his farewell promise. He has asked the Father to send the Spirit, to join us eternally to himself, and to empower us to live as members of God’s new creation. The stain and power of sin that has tainted all of life, since Eden and Adam and Eve’s faithless mistake, no longer has its absolute control over us. We have been given God’s Spirit to enable us to live otherwise. God’s Spirit has the power to kill sin, to devour it in her holy fire. Do we still sin? You bet we do; each and every one of us every day. We live in a world that is not yet redeemed. We live in a world where Evil and its work–sin–is not only present, but powerful. And again and again, we forget our second birth; we forget the gift and power of the Spirit at hand within us to overcome sin. When that happens, we cave in again. That is why we begin this service with a confession of sin. That is why our daily prayers should always include words similar to “forgive me those moments of this day when I have lived other than as your beloved child and forgotten the power of your Spirit within me.” “Forgive us our sins,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us.”8
Elders and Deacons, you have been called, ordained and installed into two of the three ministries of the church. If John Calvin were here, he would remind you that your respective offices are no less important and in no way inferior to the third office of the church, the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.9 The function is different, that is all; the content of our three ministries is all the same–Christ himself. Deacons, as you visit the sick and the shut in, you are bearing Christ himself and his ministry in that place. Elders, as you lead, as you deliberate, as you govern in this place, you not only serve Christ, you become an extension of him. As we ministers of Word and Sacrament faithfully preach, teach and celebrate the sacraments, Christ is present, speaking, instructing, correcting, claiming, feeding and nurturing all of us in our Spirit-filled lives. We pastors gather in the Phillips Lounge just before worship. After getting straight who is doing what, when and where in the service, I offer this prayer, “Give us, O Lord, the gift of your Spirit to take what we have prepared, and speak, first to us, and then through us to your people.” Our ministries are different; their source is the same–Jesus Christ. They are possible because of Jesus’ farewell promise: He has asked the Father to give us another advocate–the Holy Spirit. The Father answered Jesus’ request on that first Pentecost, and continues to do so to all who come to him seeking power in Christ for new life.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!
- The formal phrase in Latin is ex opere operato; literally, “from the work done.”
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. II, Ford Lewis Battles, Trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book 4, Chapter 17, Section 39, p. 1416.
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 14, Section 17, p. 1293.
- Revised English Bible, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 140, N.T.
- Romans 6:23a
- Romans 6:23b, New American Standard translation.
- Romans 8:1-2
- Luke 14:11 is the better translation of the Lord’s Prayer. The contemporary setting of the prayer has more correctly used Luke’s “sins,” rather than Matthew’s “debts.”
- Calvin, of course, would not have included “and Sacrament,” for his understanding was more theologically sound. Ministers of the Word are not functionaries who simply preach and oversee sacraments. They are serving Christ and instruments of Christ. As they faithfully preach, Christ speaks in and through them, by the power of the Holy Spirit. As they faithfully celebrate the sacraments (Calvin would say “administer” the sacraments), Christ is present in them by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
- Remember that Ascension Promise? - May 19, 2013
- The Unifying Spirit - May 19, 2013
- Jesus' Farewell Promise - May 23, 2010
- The Blessing of Babel - May 30, 2004
- The Present Tense of God - May 30, 2004
- The Gifts and Call of God - June 3, 2001
- The Present Tense of God - May 31, 1998
- Cutting Through the Babble of Things - June 4, 1995
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