It is an enormous pleasure and honor to be here today to participate in the ordination of Janet H to the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. Janet has extraordinary gifts to bring to her ministry, and this should be an occasion full of celebration and much promise. It is not only the promise she herself has for ministry, but the promises we will ourselves make today to support and nurture her in her ministry.
Ordaining someone for the ministry of the church is an earnest exercise in church politics, and it should be done with great seriousness and with resounding joy. But our joy might be too hollow if we neglect to consider the truly astounding act we are performing in daring to ordain someone in these perilous and challenging times for the church. Properly performed, this ordination—done in and by the church before the world—should be a defiant and defining act that we intend to be the church of Jesus Christ and that we refuse to merely be the miscellaneous collection of Americans who also, sometimes, gather together for sentimental gestures of hymn singing, Bible reading, and self-help homilies.
I want to invite us all to remember anew what it is to be the church of Jesus Christ, with helpful reminders from the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth.
Having written that “we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them…,” Paul goes onto to say that “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”
Christians and the church are the sort of folk who know themselves as the beneficiaries of Christ’s living and dying and being raised and who, therefore, know themselves as “in Christ”. And they are the sort of folk who now regard other folk from the point of view of Christ, which means they regard others as ‘in Christ’ as well. Or to put it succinctly: the church is that sort of community that regards all other people from the point of view of their being in Christ. Because of Jesus, Christians construe the world differently from the many human points of view that shape human identity and living.
We can make no progress toward the renewing of the church or revitalizing the church if we do not digest what Paul is saying to us. Without Paul’s guidance about what point of view the church has, we the church, in our desperation to fill our pews and pay our bills, might succumb to points of view that are quite antithetical to that view rooted in Jesus Christ.
What are these all too human points of views that, according to Paul, misconstrue the truth about human life and God? Of course, these views are many and are as old as human kind. We can minimally say that for Paul the ‘human points of view’ are simply those communal points of view by virtue of which persons have an identity and a way of living and of construing a world. These points of view enthrall folk and help them to construe who they are and who the others are who are not like them and are not part of their community.
This ordination service is taking place in an American Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana in that nation that calls itself the United States of America. We cannot escape doing what we are doing in just this social environment. But what points of view are deep within us precisely because we are Americans living in Indiana and variously related to the Baptist traditions?
Well let us look at the points of view that stalk our hearts and experiences these days. We have the point of view of a people who are at war, in which the war itself has been promoted as a just war of self-defense and liberation. We have been attacked by folk who identify themselves as our enemies, and we so identify them as well, which means that our fear of these enemies drives us to defend ourselves with great ferocity of force. Whatever may be the truth about the motivations that have led our leaders to push into the further Iraqi war, we seem to be sort of people for whom going to war is viewed as a justifiable and necessary action, however reluctantly we might perform the action from time to time.
From this point of view, our soldiers—the one’s who are killing and being killed and who have come from all walks of American life—are declared to be ‘fighting for our freedom’ and ‘to be sacrificing themselves for us.’ This is how we construe going to war in general and going to this particular war—it’s a point of view, an all too human point of view.
Looking further we see that it is a point of view that teaches us that there are some human beings we can identify as ‘enemies’ that are appropriate targets of killing. Their lives are forfeitable and expendable. And, it seems, our soldiers’ lives are forfeitable and expendable in ‘defending our freedom’. O Yes, from this point of view it is also the case that killing some noncombatants is unavoidable, however regrettable as well.
Now here is a point of view about ourselves, about other human beings, and about our wars that is deep and identifiable, and it is present among us as we meet today. If it is any comfort to us, it is also a point of view similarly present in Russia, in Israel, in Iran, in Germany, in France, in Egypt and in almost all other nations of the world. It is deeply human, and it shapes how we construe the world and others and, therefore, how we live. It is like an iron mask we think is necessary for us to wear and to bear.
This point of view is in the church right now, right here in Indianapolis, even among Baptists and other Christians, and we might even say it is so powerful and dominating that it makes it difficult to have and live a different point of view.
I propose to you that we have no theologically justifiable business engaging in this ordination to the ministry of the church if we are no more than a people shaped and formed by this human point of view. If we are merely a people shaped basically by an American point of view, we simply are not the sort of people Paul is talking about when he talks about seeing all others from that point of view that is rooted in Christ. People rooted in Christ construe the apparent enemies as those for whom Christ lived and died and for whom he was raised.
Is it really possible to be that sort of people who see things through the lens of Christ? Is it really possible to be that sort of people who dare, in the face of war and declared enemies, to ordain folk to give leadership in proclaiming and living that radically new point of view of being in Christ?
We must seriously ask these questions of ourselves or we will be forever a church dominated by its surrounding culture in ways similar to how the church has allowed itself to be dominated by other national cultures. Instead of proclaiming Christ as the Lord of history, we will pray that our nation might be the lord who will protect us from harm and who will lord it over others, of course, in the good cause of something called ‘peace’. We will, then, accept that war is a moral necessity in a world full of sin, and we will be ready to go to war when our leaders tell us it is time to go, as in Vietnam, as in Panama, as in the Gulf War, as in the Iraqi War, and as in this haunting, elusive, but all encompassing War on Terror. We will be a people who go to war when the leaders of our nation state say we should.
But we do think we are a people created by Jesus Christ, and that very self-designated fact about our language and scriptures is an awesome challenge to our inclinations to adopt and hold other human points of views.
So, given Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God, Lord of all time and history, the one who was reconciling the world to God, yet the one crucified as a criminal and enemy of the state, and the one raised from the dead, the one who is the grace of forgiven life for us—given this Jesus, how are we called to live and to view other persons?
Paul is ahead of us. He says we are to live as ambassadors of reconciliation, no longer regarding anyone from an all too human point of view and certainly not counting their sins against them. Rather than being warriors of an angry god out to slay the evildoers, we are to be the reconcilers of a world loved by God in Jesus Christ. For the sake of that reconciliation, we Christians ought to be ready to die, to be ridiculed as weak and passive and as those unwilling to kill others. The church itself ought to be a witness to an alternative way of living and construing others.
Dear friends in Christ, I am not inventing just another political ideology either from the left or the right on the political spectrums. I am just reading and reflecting on what the Apostle Paul said in writings the church regards as Holy Scriptures.
Paul seems to be telling us that we the church—all of us together, not just some who are specially designated or called—have the ministry of reconciliation as our defining mission. Being reconcilers of humans—who are full of fear, conflict, and enmity—is an alternative way of living in the world.
In performing this ministry we might also call special others to give leadership in guiding us in being a reconciling and peaceable people who vividly know and live as though nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
In this ministry of reconciliation, we the church will be the sort of people who construe the world differently from many others. We will construe the least of these in the world as the ones who need our extended and nonviolent help. We will see the enemies that seem bent on doing us harm as the ones to be reconciled by new and resourceful means of witness. We will refuse to construe some of the others in the world, however horrific might be their sins and evil deeds, as the ones who must be slaughtered, whether in jails or on fields of battle.
This is an awesome task, and without continuous prayer, earnest conversation, strenuous love among us, and the guidance of the Spirit, it is impossible. But it is possible given who God in Christ is. It is not true that the Christ way of life is an impossible ideal, which the real world and the church must reject because of the evil and sin in the world.
We are simply being asked to be witnesses in this troubled era that there is an alternative way of living. We are being called to be the body of Christ in the world and for the world and to be that with faithfulness. In living and witnessing in these ways, we are empowered to have a joy and hope in our work that is not rooted in that human point of view of enemies and wars, of conquest, victory, and defeat.
From the point of view of our being in Christ, we, the church of Jesus Christ, now dare to ordain one of our own to lead us, to inspire us, to love us into constancy of faith, and to pray steadfastly for us as we intend to be the body of Christ in the world.
I want to confess to you this afternoon that it is a special blessing from the Spirit of God that Janet has been raised up among us as one strongly called to leadership. She has been a special blessing to me as one graced to have her as student colleague, as loyal friend, and as fellow disciple of Jesus.
We must not, however, ask of her that she be less than a reconciler in and for the body of Christ. We must not cajole her into adopting those human points of views that bring enmity and strife and partisan degradation of others. We must not pin her into leading what is no more than a gathering of Americans, wanting to do a little good here and there, keep our bills paid, and endure a few years by not being too visible and too vulnerable for the Gospel.
We may, however, pray for her and for the church. We may love her with a passion commensurate with her passion for the Gospel and the church’s mission. We may cajole her a bit when she loses perspective and becomes discouraged. We may open our arms to supporting her family that will surely experience her absence more than they would prefer. We may pray for her family that her ministry may be a blessing to them as well.
If we do truly intend these beliefs and practices, then let us be the church of Jesus Christ and ordain this beloved woman to the ministry of reconciliation, in which—for her and for us—whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
All this dear friends in Christ, I have dared to preach in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.
[Posted 8/21/03 This ordination sermon for Janet Hoover was preached on July 20, 2003 Tuxedo Park Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.]