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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Ordained (Acts 13:1-12)


Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Selucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. But the magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen – the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for awhile, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focus is on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. Each week, we’re focusing on a different chapter of his life, learning about this man for whom this church was named, and finding out what his life means to us today. We have talked about St. Paul as persecutor of the church, St. Paul converted on the road to Damascus, and next week, we’ll talk about St. Paul the evangelist. But today, we’re talking about St. Paul the ordained.

Let’s recap where we’ve been. Two weeks ago, Paul, who was also known as Saul, was persecuting the followers of Jesus. He was a Pharisee – a Jew’s Jew, and he thought the followers of Jesus were committing the greatest heresy possible. Last week, he was on his way to arrest Christians in the city of Damascus, when he had a blinding encounter with God on the road, and his life was changed. So Saul, the greatest enemy of the church, became one of its most influential leaders. So it was that Saul was transformed from a man of violence into a missionary for God. May we pray.

Saul is now settled in with the believers in Antioch. The church there seems to have been blessed with leadership – the text names five men who were prophets and teachers. A true prophet of God is one who can speak God’s truth in such a way as to convict God’s people and lead them to change; a true prophet leads people to follow God more faithfully. Teachers are those with the gifts to patiently nurture people in the ways of God. Would that every church were so blessed with such leadership!

They were together in worship. It was in humbling themselves together before God's presence, and seeking His will together. They became one when they were in worship. It is the same for us as well.

Worship is central to who we are and what we do. But, what is worship? Quite simply, it is ascribing worth to something or someone. So when we worship God, we are saying that God has worth. With all the other things we could be doing with our time and our resources, we are saying that God gets the priority. We praise God. We speak, we sing, we share about how good God is, about how God is worthy, about how God and God alone deserves our praise.

But the Bible speaks of worship in other terms as well. In both Greek and Hebrew, two kinds of words are used for worship. The first kind of word means to bow down, to kneel, to put one’s face to the ground as a sign of submission and respect. Our body language says, “I will do whatever you want me to do, Lord. I am ready to obey, and I am listening.”

Yet, how many Christians come into worship with their own agendas. Indeed, in many services of so-called Christian worship, it’s about everything else but God. It’s about personal tastes and preferences – “I don’t like this kind of music or that kind of music” or “I don’t like what the preacher is wearing,” or “I don’t like what’s in the sanctuary or not in the sanctuary,” or “I don’t like it when this happens in worship or when that doesn’t happen in worship.” In too many places, worship has become more about people’s personal preferences than about bowing low in submission to the will of God.

Over the door of every Christian church in the world should be these words: “IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.” God is the center of the universe – not us – and our lives reach their fullest potential when we honor and submit to God. Our churches reach their fullest potential when we do the same thing. Have you noticed the difference when the church becomes what it was meant to be and exists as a Spirit-driven, God-focused, Christ-shaped body of believers? How energizing and life-giving that is, the way it gives shape and purpose and meaning to everything we do? How much it matters when God is at the center?

But, have you noticed what happens when God is not at the center of a church’s life? When God is not at the center, a vacuum is created, and nature abhors a vacuum. When God is not at the center of our lives and at the center of our church, all sorts of other things rush in to fill that vacuum. Agendas, personal preferences, and human institutions try to occupy the top spot, and we will watch all these things grapple and topple with each other like schoolchildren playing king of the hill. If God is not our center, then we will never reach our potential. Potential is that thing within us about who we can be and become, about the lasting mark we will leave on the world. But we can and will reach our God-given potential if we will pause, place God at the center, and remember to worship God above all else.

Going back to those Greek and Hebrew words for ‘worship,’ roughly half the time they are translated in that way of bowing down. The other half of the time, they are translated as “service,” meaning that worship is something we do for God. It means serving God, carrying out God’s instructions. Praise is good, but if all we ever do is praise God, without listening to God, we have to ask ourselves if we believe the words we are singing and saying. If we say God is all wise and all loving and all powerful and all that, then we need to be attentive to what God is telling us, because certainly such a God is worth listening to. If we want to know and carry out God’s instructions, we have to listen for them.

It is important here when the Holy Spirit said to the church "choose out for me Barnabas and Saul." In the midst of worship and prayer the church believed they had heard the word of and will of God.

We refer to this book of the Bible as the Acts of the Apostles, but I think it might be more appropriate for us to refer to it as the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Time and time again, the story is recounted for us of what the Holy Spirit did – through the apostles, certainly – but make no mistake here, it was the Holy Spirit who served as primary actor in the drama.

It all started in worship. In worship, they were all together. Depending on your translation, this is the place Japanese cars are mentioned in the Bible. Don’t believe me? Some translations will say, “While they were all together in worship,” but other translations might say, “They were all in one accord.”

It starts in worship – where people gather to praise God, to listen to God, and then to do something in relation to what they have heard from and experienced of God. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

And so it was that St. Paul and his partner in the Gospel, Barnabas, were ordained. Ordination is that act of setting certain persons apart for the work of the Gospel. It begins in worship, it proceeds with a call from the Holy Spirit, it is discerned and confirmed by a community, representatives of the church lay hands on heads and offer prayers and then we are sent off – out into the world – across the globe and across the street to join in sharing the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.

The verb, “to ordain,” comes from the same Latin root as “to order,” and it means basically the same thing. Ordination is, presumably, about putting things in the right order.

As a pastor, people sometimes ask me to describe my call into ministry, and they are often surprised at my response. I don’t remember the day, but I know the day I first received my call into ministry. A certificate in my home reminds of this day when God first called me into ministry. It was November 11, 1980, and I was exactly 7 months old. I was first called to ministry at my baptism.

Ordination is about getting things in the right order, and we all need to get some things in the right order. At his baptism Jesus experienced his call. From that time forward the world knew that he was grasped by God’s spirit and that God was calling him to unique service, and God was setting him apart. And God said, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I will always be with you."

At baptism, God claims each of us. Baptism is a time when God claims us, places a mark on us, if you will, as members of the family God. Did you know that I have never performed a Methodist baptism? It’s true. Baptism claims people as Christians in the name of God, not as members of a particular denomination. There is no such thing as a Methodist baptism, or a Baptist baptism, or a Lutheran baptism, or a Presbyterian baptism, or a Catholic baptism, or a Biblical baptism. There is only one baptism – a Christian baptism. Baptism claims each of us as belonging to God in Christ.

You all remember several years when the Harry Potter craze hit. I had several people who wanted to know what the church’s stance on Harry Potter was. Some were concerned that Harry Potter was going to teach impressionable children about witchcraft and sorcery. Now, Harry Potter is a great story that teaches a whole lot of other things about life, and coming of age, and difficult family circumstances, and meaningful relationships and friendships; how evil it is depends on how evil you choose to make it.

You may remember that in the story, Harry is scarred on his forehead as an infant, and that because of that scar, or that mark, he has a very specific role in overcoming the forces of evil. In that mark, a claim is made on his life. If you can understand that, then you can understand the similar way God marks us and claims us as His own in baptism. Baptism seals us with a new identity as God claims us as members of His family. As God did with Jesus, God looks at each of us and says, “This is my beloved daughter.” “This is my beloved son.” Baptism marks the beginning of a brand new life that belongs to God.

But beyond claiming us, baptism commissions us. Baptism is a call to ministry. Every person who has been baptized has been called into ministry. You can’t be a Christian from the sidelines. You have to live the life God has called you to lead—a life of healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked—a life of sharing the good news anywhere and through every means you can.

Everyone is called to ministry! It’s not only pastors or teachers, missionaries or evangelists or so-called professional ministers who are in ministry. Now we can truly embrace St. Peter and Martin Luther’s ideal of “the priesthood of all believers.” The unspoken contract between pastor and congregation can be re-written, for we are all called to ministry, all called to serve God daily and wholeheartedly.

But beyond the general call to ministry that we all experienced at baptism, there is another call.

Ordination is an act of setting a person apart, but it is not an act of setting them above. The Holy Spirit sets men and women apart to order the life of the church, to be shepherds, to care for the flock, to care for the temporal needs of the congregation, to lead the congregation in mission, to bring people closer to God. The pastor does not deliver the truth – that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. The pastor gathers us and helps us to develop theological language to describe and re-describe our lives. The pastor reminds us that we are a royal priesthood, that we are the body of Christ. Within the body, we all have a role to play. Every member of the body matters, whether ordained or lay. This is not authoritarianism but cooperation.

Ordination is about setting persons apart for specific functions in the body of Christ. I was ordained to ministries of Word, Service, Order, and Sacrament. God has set me apart to preach and teach the Word of God, to lead the congregation in service and mission, to provide leadership for ordering the life of the church, and to celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, these are my roles.

What I want you to notice about all of these things is that they have absolutely nothing to do with me. These things are about being and communicating the presence of God in the world. They are about announcing the reign of God, they are about being the channels through which God’s grace is shared freely and abundantly in a broken, bruised, and hurting world.

Friends, I have no idea why God chose me for such a task. I’m nothing special – I’m just me. But while I was working on this sermon earlier this week listening to Pandora Radio, the song “Take a Chance on Me” came on. Yep, I was rocking out to ABBA. But I got to thinking, why would God take a chance on me? I’m broken, I’m flawed, I have my failings and shortcomings – surely there are others better-qualified for the job than me. But then, why would God want to take a chance on St. Paul? He was a sexist, racist, elitist, bigot. He certainly had his own neuroses, and was, in every sense of the world, a cracked clay pot. And I realized that if God was willing to take a chance on someone like St. Paul, then maybe God would be willing to take a chance on someone like me, as well.

And really, it’s not about God taking a chance on St. Paul, or on you, or on me, or on us as a church. It’s about God setting us apart and pouring out the Holy Spirit upon each of us to accomplish the work of God in the world. It’s not about me. It’s about God.

These things all remind me that I belong to God – that my life is not my own but God’s. And so every Sunday, when I put on this robe and place this stole – this symbol of ordination – around my neck, I am reminded that I do not belong to myself. I belong to God. I am reminded that I have been set apart for a specific role within the body of Christ. This stole weighs heavily with the solemn and sacred duties I am called to perform.

I remember the night of my ordination – both the culmination and confirmation of God’s prompting and, at the same time, the unfolding of a wonderful and mysterious journey in leading and serving this thing called church, this thing Jesus loved so much and for which he was willing to die. The highlight of the ordination service is the bishop laying hands on each ordinand, calling them by name, and calling for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon each. I remember how heavy those hands felt when they went down on the top of my head. Then, other hands were added – on my shoulders, on my back, including the hands of my father behind me – hands that pressed down with the weight of a great cloud of witnesses willing to give their all for the cause of Christ.

I am well aware that I am a little extreme or a little fanatical, a little too impatient with mediocrity, a little intolerant of people’s petty and private agendas, a little too focused, and a little too driven to see the church live into its God-given potential. So be it. I am simply not willing to give my life to the maintenance of mediocrity. I refuse to believe that God sets any of us apart so we can simply come and play church. I am almost 30 years old and only have 60 years or so left on this earth – I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to play church. I have given my life to this because I believe it matters.

Paul was set aside in worship. When the community was all together – when they were all on the same page, when they had agreed that God was at the center of their existence, that other agendas wouldn’t shear them away from the work God had for them, that God was in charge and not anyone’s pettiness or personality – the Holy Spirit spoke and set Paul apart. I have to wonder, if we do the same thing, who and what will be set apart in our midst? I have to wonder, how will the world be changed because of it?

It all began in worship. It began in praising God, in listening to God, and then going out into the world to do the things God tells us to do. Can we say the same thing? Has worship changed us? Have we felt called to do, or be something other than what we were when we came in? Or, have we come week after week and left pretty much unchanged? If so, nothing could be sadder.

This morning, I am inviting you to allow worship to leave its mark on you. Today, our worship is going to conclude with a healing service. What I realize is that we all stand in need of healing. At different times, we may need healing in our body, in our mind, in our spirit, or in our relationships. At times, we feel broken and incomplete. We all need healing.

Laying on of hands is a powerful symbol. It is a symbol of ordination. It is a symbol of healing. It is a symbol of commissioning us to ministry. And each and every time, it is the Holy Spirit at work. This morning, as you come forward to receive the laying on of hands for healing, I pray you feel the Holy Spirit at work in all areas of your life. I pray we all feel the Holy Spirit at work in our church. And I pray that we will all be sent forth from this place to share healing freely and abundantly with a broken and hurting world.

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