Wonderful Words

Here are my thoughts for this Sunday morning (the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany).


They were astounded at his teaching, “For he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1: 22 ) As one commentary writes, Christ did not lean on the wisdom of other teachers and rabbis for his teaching; his knowledge and command of the knowledge came from Himself.

How many of the modern prophets of today speak with that same authority? How many of them speak as though theirs is the voice of God? It may just be me but I have heard more preachers speak of impending doom and turmoil in the past year or so than over the other years combined. I have heard more references to these being the “end times” than every before. And all of these pastors seem to say that they speak not the Word of God, but for God.

But a god that would use weather to bring torment to a people, a god that would bring calamity and disaster to a people because of how they voted is not a god that I know. Nor do I think that such gods are gods of the Old Testament. These are gods of Baal and other pre-Bible Gods, the gods that mankind knew before Abram was chosen to leave Ur and head for the Promised Land.

As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8: 5 – 6 )

And the writer of Deuteronomy tells us that “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18: 20 )

That these modern prophets can even say what they say, and that people believe those words, should not be surprising. Even Jesus, preaching in his own synagogue and other synagogues in the area, was not well accepted. Often times, the response was one violent hostility and astonished amazement.

Modern day prophets know what the people want to hear and want the people want to hear is not a call for repentance and a belief in the Good News but rather an assurance that the status quo is alright. Modern day prophets preach a gospel of heaven on earth and prosperity for the believers. But it seems that the only ones that get rich are these modern day prophets. Did not Jesus tell his disciples to give up everything and take only what you needed for the journey? Did not the rich young ruler walk away because he would have to give up the riches he had worked so hard to gain?

The churches that grow today rely more on modern marketing skills and slick techniques than they do on what the Gospel has to say. Never mind that the Gospel calls for peace, justice, and righteousness; let the people know that they are safe inside the walls of the sanctuary, away from the crime and illness and homelessness and oppression that is so much a part of our lives. Modern church goers want to know that they are doing things right, even if it means that there are homeless in the street, or people are sick and lonely, or there is injustice and oppression. If the sermon makes them feel good, then the preacher is good and the world can be tolerated. The religion of the modern day prophets is one of “no-guilt” and “no sin”.

Jesus didn’t do that; Jesus didn’t preach the status quo; Jesus did not challenge the status quo. He challenged the listeners to repent and change their lives. He addressed the injustice that was in the land, the torture the Israelites encountered at the hands of the Roman occupiers. But he didn’t call for an armed insurrection to counter the Romans; he said that those who would make peace would be blessed. The peacemakers would even be called God’s children.

Jesus shatters the perception that heaven is earth, only larger and bolder. He spoke of God not being the God of the dead but of the living. How did the people react when told to leave the dead to bury the dead and to follow Him? There must have been those who were horrified to hear such words.

And how did the people react when Jesus took the ministry outside the walls of the synagogue? There were people in the cities, the villages, and the countryside who could not attend synagogue; some of them would not have been welcomed even if they could have attended. So Jesus went to them. They heard the same words of hope and promise that the ones in the synagogue heard and those inside the walls surely must have been horrified.

They were the righteous ones; they were the ones entitled to hear the Good News. The sinners outside the walls were not worthy and one should not even extend them a small cup of water when they were thirsty.

Like today, the religious community of Jesus’ time tried to define the experiences of the people. All this could have done is made people resentful and rejected. Ultimately, they would have left feeling that there were no alternatives, not options available. But Jesus brought the Gospel to them; He showed that there were alternatives, there was hope, and there was promise. (Adapted from “Spellbound” by Ray Rhoads, in “Living by the word”, Christian Century, 24 January 2006)

Jesus denounced those who were preoccupied with questions of what people ought or might do to live faithfully before God. Those in power, the keepers of the status quo, could not have reacted kindly to such words. But what do we do in the church today? Are we keepers of the status quo? Or do we try to take the Gospel beyond the walls of our church and home?

Our challenge is much like the challenge that Paul presented to the Corinthians. Those who know should help those who lack knowledge, not “stick in the face” and taunt them. Some individuals in Corinth apparently belittled the weaker or newer members of the congregation with their knowledge. Paul points out these more knowledgeable members missed the point. They should have been using their knowledge to help other believers in the church.

Those that have knowledge have an interesting way of using it. They can use it to cause fear among others. In the days of Jesus, the powers that be used fear to control and restrict; it gave the people a sense of nothingness and powerlessness. Paul warns the people of Corinth, as he warns us today, not to use our knowledge to control other members of the congregation or society.

Rather, we know are to follow the example of Christ. Paul says to use the words of Christ as an example of love for others and respect for others. Bring them along, teaching as you go; do not cast them aside because they are not like you.

Christ tells us we can choose to live free and close to God. Jesus speaks the word of life. His living word from God bestows on us freedom to live as God intends. There are many out there who preach false words, words that exclude and reject, words that offer no hope and promise. But we also hear the words of Jesus, the words that bring in all who are lost, all those without hope.

We are challenged to take those words, those wonderful words of hope, promise, justice, and freedom out into the world today. We can do so by what we say, what we do, how we act, and how we think. Let us choose to say the wonderful words of hope and promise.

“Wonderful Words of Life” – United Methodist Hymnal #600

Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life; let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life; words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty.

Christ, the blessed one, gives to all wonderful words of life; sinner, list to the loving call, wonderful words of life; all so freely given, wooing us to heaven.

Sweetly echo the gospel call, wonderful words of life; offer pardon and peace to all, wonderful words of life; Jesus, only Savior, sanctify forever.


Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.


Hearing the call

Here are my thoughts for this morning, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.


And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.” (1)

There are some today who really want to hear that proclamation, for they believe the time of the Second Coming is at hand and they are going to be swept up in the rapture and taken directly into heaven. But I think that many of these individuals are going to be in for a very rude awakening when that happens.

If one focuses solely on this passage today, they are likely to forget what transpired before hand and they are likely to forget what they will encounter when they approach the final judgment. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (2)

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (3)

We are reminded that when the final judgment does come, we are going to be faced with a series of questions.

The Judgment

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.

“All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?

‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’

“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’

“Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’

“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (4)

I keep thinking that many of those who would welcome the coming of Christ are going to be confused by the questions that they are asked. “What do you mean that I was supposed to take care of the sick and the homeless; what do you mean that I was to feed the hungry and visit the lonely?” Did it not mean anything to you that I kept your church clean and that I kept the “riff-raff” and the undesirables out of the church? Did it not mean something that I tried to make the Law the way of the land, even when I and the pastors that taught me the Law didn’t always follow it? Did I not invoke the name of God when I sought to destroy other countries where the people did not believe in you? How is it that you are telling me now that all that I have done is worthless?

It is one thing to obey the Law but it is another thing to live the Law. And just as John the Baptist had proclaimed before Jesus, Jesus proclaims that now is the time to repent. To repent doesn’t just mean that you stop doing what you are doing; it means to change what you are doing, it means to change the direction of your life.

In calling for people to repent Jesus was heralding a new order, a new way of life. If you are to be a part of this new order, you must undergo a fundamental transformation in your life. This new order is so radically different that we must be spiritually remade before we are ready and equipped to participate in it.

That is why the people of Nineveh were ultimately destroyed. When warned by Jonah that they had forty days in which to change their lives, they did so and God changed His mind about the calamity that He envisioned for the city. The people of Nineveh did as Jonah told them to do; they repented of their past and God forgave them and removed the threat of destruction. It is noted in most of the commentaries that Jonah wasn’t happy about this, believing that anyone who proclaims destruction should complete what they set out to do. But God points out that it is entirely within His prerogative to show mercy to those who repent of their ways. And that is the lesson from Jonah. (5)

But later on, in the Book of Nahum (6), we read that the people of Nineveh have fallen back to their old sinful, corrupted ways. And thus God destroys Nineveh, not because God is a vengeful God but rather because the people of Nineveh, having been warned of the consequences, returned to the old ways of life. If you repent, you cannot go back to your old way of life.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians illustrate this point. (7) If you led a life that is focused on what you have now, then you can never move forward. The call to enter the Kingdom of God means leaving all you have behind. Jesus called people to follow Him. The first disciples took Him quite literally, leaving their families and responsibilities behind. This was no easy choice, to give up an established livelihood and the symbol of their identity for something unknown. But in doing so, they would become the disciples of Jesus and would be bound to Him and His Kingdom. Their lives would never be the same again. They made a choice; this choice had consequences.

Remember that Peter, the leader of the twelve will die in Rome, crucified upside down. Andrew, Peter’s brother, will also die by crucifixion in southern Greece on a X-shaped cross. James, one of the “sons of thunder” will be beheaded. Philip will die a martyr’s death in Turkey. Bartholomew (or Nathanael) is rumored to have died in either Armenia or India by beheading after being skinned alive. Thomas is said to have died in southern India. Matthew (or Levi) is said to have died in either Ethiopia or Persia. James (referred to as James the Less) died a martyr’s death in Egypt. Jude (or Thaddeus) was killed in Persia along with Simon the Zealot. Judas Iscariot died of his own hand after betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Only John, the other “son of thunder”, died a natural death, though in exile on the island of Patmos. It is for certain that none of the twelve knew what the outcome of their ministry would be when they started; they had to know they were not likely to return to the lives they lead.

So the call is made to each of us today. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and Jesus is calling upon each of us to repent of our present lives and follow him. It is a path marked by uncertainty but it is a path in which the outcome is certain.

It is a path that we can begin to walk today. It is a path that is marked by the proclamation of the Good News, “the prisoners will be set free, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk, and the poor will know that there is hope in a world which offers none.” These are the tasks that Jesus asks us to undertake as we follow him. Will you follow Jesus; will you repent and lead the new life that you are called to lead this day?


  1. Mark 1: 14 – 15
  2. Isaiah 61: 1, 2
  3. Luke 4: 17 – 21
  4. Matthew 25: 31 – 46
  5. Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10
  6. Nahum 1:7 – 15
  7. 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31

Hearing God’s Call

I got the call last night to fill in down in Harriman, New York. Interesting how things work out. Here are the thoughts that I will use this morning.


I entitled this sermon “Hearing God’s Call” because of the call God made to Solomon and the call Jesus made to each of his disciples.Little did I realize that God’s call to me on a Saturday evening would be from Newburgh asking me to cover a church down in the Harriman area of New York.

Do you remember those days back in elementary school when you would go out for recess and you would pick teams for whatever games you were going to play that day?Remember how it was that the more talented boys and girls got picked first and the lesser talented ones were always the last to be picked?Perhaps you were in the first group; perhaps you were in the latter group.To a certain extent, we still work in that type of “pick me first” type of environment; one in which we hope that our talents are sufficient to do the task at hand and which meet the requirements of whatever we are trying to do.

In writing about his early coaching career, John Wooden tells a story about a high school player he was coaching who was not a good “practice” player.And since, at that time, he believed in a strong practice ethic, he would not start the young man.But the young man keep pestering Coach Wooden to start him, insisting that he could do the job that was required.Finally, Coach Wooden let the young man start a major game.He figured that the young man would do poorly and be embarrassed about his performance and would let Coach Wooden alone after that.But, to his surprise, the young man turned in one of the most stellar performances imaginable.And Coach Wooden admitted that his assessment of the young man was faulty, for what happens in practice does not always happen in the game.The young man went on from there and Coach Wooden went on to UCLA; and we know how that story ended.

We think that we must have certain skills or talents in order to do many tasks.And occasionally that is true; we cannot drive a car without some rudimentary instruction and being able to bowl for a high average cannot be done without some instruction and practice.But God does not call us because of our talents; He calls us because of our faith and commitment.

But I have to be able to do something, you say; I cannot simply say to God “Here I am, send me” for I won’t know what to do.We will bring whatever we have that we allow us to adhere to God’s standards of truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness, and love.We will use whatever skills and talents that we have that will allow God’s presence to be known in this world.

The Corinthians thought that the freedom that was gained through Christ gave them license to do just about anything they wanted to do.But sin is still present and when you use your talents, whatever they are, however limited they may be, for your own good then your talents are wasted and abused and you have fallen into sin.You cannot work for Christ in this world if you hold your talents back and do things more for yourself than for Christ.

So it is not about the talents we have or don’t have; it is about faith and commitment.Following God requires faith and commitment.If we have the faith to believe and we make the commitment, we can do anything.Ask Noah or Samuel or any of the earlier disciples what faith meant to them.Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America what commitment to the program meant.Could they have survived the weeks traveling from town to town, in all types of weather, were it not for their own faith or their commitment to the Gospel message?Where would this church in Rockland County be today if not for those early circuit riders?

Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of our church, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that these early preachers would have to endure.He didn’t want someone whose commitment was weak or whose faith was not the strongest.He wasn’t looking for someone who was in it for personal glory, for there was none to be given back then.Glory and fame would come later, if at all.

Just as then, our own encounters with God today will come through those moments where our service is needed the most. An atheist is said to have proclaimed, in what must have surely been a shock to his or her friends, that they met Christ in Calcutta after observing Mother Teresa move about quietly, taking care of those in need, without fanfare or announcement.For Mother Teresa, service was more than praying about the outcome.Service was helping those in need because it was a completion of Matthew 25: 31 – 46, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless and you took me in.”

Jim Wallis, the noted evangelist, wrote that he struggled with the notion of the church during his college years.Those were the years of turmoil and strife, of fight for justice and peace.Some of those who were in this fight spoke of revolution but gave up because the threats and punishment of the system were too strong.

But Wallis writes that it was with all that was going on, he was pushed to know Jesus even more than he already did.During those times of the late 1960’s, he was called again by Jesus to put into action the words of the Gospel.Growing up as he did, Wallis thought he understood who Jesus was and what the call was, but the strife and the apparent lack of concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, and the oppressed led him, if you will, back to Calvary.

In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins described his journey from Alfred University in upstate New York through North Carolina and Alabama to New Orleans.Along the way, he had a chance to attend an old-fashion church revival in Mobile, Alabama.There it became clear that what he would find on his journey was his own salvation and the answers he was looking for in his search for the truth.But he also found that what he was looking for was not found at the revival; rather, it was at the revival that he discovered that he had met the Holy Spirit through the quiet lives of people he had encountered during his time walking down the Appalachians.It was at the revival that he began to understand how the presence of the Holy Spirit provides the strength and support needed when encountering many great difficulties.

The problem is that we are often like Samuel, who heard the voice of God but did not know that it was God. (1)  Other times we are like Nathanael, who was skeptical that God would be represented by a man from Nazareth. (2)  When Nathanael was told by Philip that the Messiah had called them (Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip), all Nathanael could say was “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

There were going to be others who were skeptical of the claim that Jesus was and is the Messiah.Those that kept the minds closed and their hearts hard will be among the ones who turn against at the end.

In this world of ours today, we hear some proclaim say that the word of God brings death and destruction to lands and people.We hear some proclaim, in the name of God, that it is okay to exclude people from our churches because of their status or lifestyle.We have a right to be skeptical if we think Christ calls us to destroy or exclude or ignore those less fortunate.We have a right to be skeptical if those around us say Christ calls them to hate or speak of disaster because of lifestyles or choices.

But when we hear Christ’s true words, we no longer are skeptical.That is why Nathanael followed Jesus when he was called; he was open to the possibility that Jesus is.Nathanael is described as one in whom there is nothing false.This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have some wrong beliefs, as the world false might suggest but rather that he is honest and clear-sighted.Nathanael is one who sought God before all else.Jesus told Nathanael that He saw him under the fig tree before Philip called.This was enough for Nathanael to explain that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Only someone with an open mind and a clean heart is going to understand in that brief moment who he was meeting.He accepted Jesus because he understood the truth that Jesus has looked into his heart and knew who he, Nathanael, was.For Nathanael, that is reason enough to heed to call to follow me.It is reason enough for us as well.

The critical thing is that Nathanael’s mind is open, his heart is clean.What skills and abilities he brings to the mission will be there for the mission and nothing else.This is what Paul is alluding to in his letter to the Corinthians. (3)

It is hard to describe how one hears God.Often times, we think and are told that such encounters must be like Paul’s on the road to Damascus or Moses’ with the burning bush.Even today there are those who will tell you that your encounter with God is limited and invalid unless there is thunder and lightning or other similar events taking place, at least in your mind.

We should not try to justify or question someone else’s calling.But we should make sure that we hear the calling that is meant for us.The church in Corinth struggled with division among its members, division created by how each group was identified and how it interpreted the Gospel message.The Corinthians interpreted the message in terms of the person delivering the message rather than through Jesus Christ.Paul’s words for today were meant to show that you could not interpret the Gospel in a way that simply justified what you wanted to do.Rather, in following the Gospel, you choose a different path.

We might be tempted to just write off this problem, saying that it was a young church, still in a growing stage of life.But it is something that we still do today.Society today tends to exalt dynamic leaders, especially those who are engaging Christian speakers or vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders.Our identification belongs with Jesus Christ and His message, not with the messenger.

We are called to come and see, as Philip invited Nathanael.Christ calls us to build, not destroy.Christ calls us to unify, not separate.Christ calls us to bring the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed into the community of God, not cast them out.

It may be that some will not understand that they are being called.They need those who understand Christ’s call, just as Eli helped Samuel (1), so that they too may join Christ in His mission on earth.That is why we have the church today; we are here, we must be here for that one individual who walks through the door in his search for Christ in his life.

Let us then open our hearts and our minds; let us hear God calling to us this day and this moment.Let us take to God that which he has given us and work so that others will come to know the joy and peace found in Christ.God called Samuel, Jesus called the twelve, and now today we hear Christ calling to us, over the loud noises of the daily world.Should we not heed the call and follow Christ?

Jesus calls us over the tumult

Of our life’s wild, restless, sea;

Day by day His sweet voice soundeth,

Saying, “Christian, follow Me!”

As of old Saint Andrew heard it

By the Galilean lake,

Turned from home and toil and kindred,

Leaving all for Jesus’ sake.

Jesus calls us from the worship

Of the vain world’s golden store,

From each idol that would keep us,

Saying, “Christian, love Me more!”

In our joys and in our sorrows,

Days of toil and hours of ease,

Still He calls, in cares and pleasures,

“Christian, love Me more than these!”

Jesus calls us! By Thy mercies,

Savior may we hear Thy call,

Give our hearts to Thine obedience,

Serve and love Thee best of all.


  1. 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20)
  2. John 1: 43 – 51
  3. 1 Corinthians 6: 12 – 20

The best of the year

Gavin Richardson conducted a survey that asked each member of the Methodist Blog Ring what their top 5 blogs of 2005 were. The list from each member is at http://gavoweb.blogs.com/mbrtop5/

This is my list:

  1. Tenants of The Vineyard – 1 October 2005
  2. The Coming Revival – 19 November 2005
  3. What Child Is This? – 18 December 2005
  4. So This Is Christmas – 24 December 2005
  5. What Is A Person Worth? – 17 September 2005
  6. Who Goes First? – 28 September 2005

Send me an e-mail (TonyMitchellPhD at verizon.net) if you have one you think I missed. Or you can post a comment to this note.

Have a good year.

That First Baptism

Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the Sunday we call the Baptism of the Lord.


It was a dreary night in late March, 1969, and I was struggling to get back to school after Spring Break. I had flown from Memphis to St. Louis only to be told that I could not fly into Kirksville. As I recall that conversation, nothing was said about why I could not fly into Kirksville but I surmised that there had been a rather severe storm during the period that I had been “down south” and the new runway the airport authority had laid down must have cracked, so no planes could land.

Being rather new to the air traveling process, I opted to fly to Columbia and go from there. That was my first mistake. I should have allowed Ozark Airlines to get me from the St. Louis airport to Kirksville by whatever means they could; it would have been the correct thing to do. But I didn’t understand that and so I opted to travel as far as I could. When I got to Columbia, I had to take a bus northward to Kirksville and shortly after I left Columbia, I found out why no planes were flying into north central Missouri. A rather large snowstorm was dropping snow from Moberly north to Kirksville.

The bus trip ended in Moberly, some 60 miles from Kirksville and there were no busses going north until the next morning. So I was stuck in Moberly, a town I was familiar with but one in which I knew no one. Somehow I ended up at the small Bible College located there. The inhabitants of the men’s dormitory found me a space in which I could sleep that night.

In the course of that evening’s conversation, one of the soon-to-be evangelists and preachers asked me about my baptism. I replied that I had been baptized when I was three months old. The young man who asked me this question then informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my infant baptism didn’t count and that I needed to be baptized as an adult if I was ever to see the gates of Heaven.

Perhaps those weren’t his exact words but the meaning of his message was clear and I was greatly disturbed by what he said. First, I was not ready for such words, traveling in difficult circumstances and in a time when my whole future seemed so uncertain. I was also struggling with life as a college student and trying to get my grade point average back up after a disaster fall and winter quarter. (1) If I messed up the courses that spring, my academic career would take a beating.

And since this was the spring of 1969, I thought that there was a good possibility that I would spend the next semester registered as a student of the University of South Viet Nam at a branch campus designated by the United States Army. My request for a draft deferment had been messed up and I anticipated receiving that wonderful letter from my Uncle in Washington at any time.

Just before I had left Kirksville for home and some quiet time, I met with the pastor of First United Methodist Church to have communion. Reverend Fortel admitted to being surprised by this request (perhaps, because most of the students who attended First Church were from communities nearby and would have taken communion with their parents in the church where they grew up) but he agreed to meet with me before I left. It was just the two of us, meeting in the chapel of the church. Rather than the ritual of communion, it was more of a discussion about communion. And in the process, I came to find out that I did not completely understand what it was to be a Methodist. I had gotten caught up in the “works versus faith” argument that dominates so much of the writing of the Bible and I wasn’t sure which side I was on. But it was clear that my understanding of what it meant to be a Methodist and perhaps a Christian needed some clarification.

So on that night a week later, battered by travel and angst, I received another blow when I was told that there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get into heaven, no matter what had happened that Christmas Eve in 1950 in Lexington, North Carolina.

I declined the offer to be baptized that night, perhaps because I wasn’t sure but more likely offended that someone would tell me in the name of Christ that my baptism didn’t count. Even back then I had a dislike for those whose process of evangelism is to tell you how bad your life has been, especially when you are already down.

I am not going to get into a theological debate about the justification of “infant baptism versus adult baptism”. It falls under the same category as “immersion versus sprinkling.” Yes, I do not know what was said that night in Lexington, North Carolina by either the minister or my parents on my behalf but I do know that my parents, each in their own way, saw to it that what was done that night was not done in vain.

As I began my confirmation classes in 1964 I also began working on my God and Country award for Boy Scouts. As part of that award, I worked out a way to hold a brief service while my troop was camping in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver. We were a troop that many times camped way back in the hills and that required that we carry every thing in. My father built me a cross that I could take down and fit into my backpack and then put together for the service.

My mother was the rock of my foundation, making sure that Sunday School was a part of my life. Ours was not the most spiritual or religious family but God was present and it was that foundation that got me through those troubled times of 1968 and 1969.

The two scripture readings for today from the New Testament both acknowledge the baptism by water followed by the baptism by the Spirit. Paul asks those listening to him how they were baptized and they replied “into John’s baptism,” meaning the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist offered in preparation for the coming of Jesus. (2)

We have come to think of repentance in terms of feeling guilty or sorry. But the word repentance goes deeper than that; it represents the first step in a transformation or conversion into the disciple of Christ that we are meant to be. Repentance turns us from sin, selfishness, darkness, idols, habits, bondages, and demons (both private and public). When we repent we turn from all that binds and oppresses us and others, from all the violence and evil in which we are so complicit, from all the false worship that has controlled and corrupted us. Ultimately, repentance is turning from the powers of death. That one ominous force that seems to be so much of our life no longer has the power it does when we repent. (3)

Some might say that you must be aware of your baptism for that to take place and that as a child I could not have been aware of what was going on. But my parents were aware and, no doubt the charge was given to them, just as it is given to parents who bring their children forward to be baptized in the United Methodist Church today (4), to raise their children in such a way that the power of this baptism is understood. And don’t forget that in the United Methodist Church, the congregation accepts the responsibility to raise the child in a manner consistent with the message of the baptism. (5)

However one is baptized, it is the first step. It is the beginning of the process. As we read in Genesis today (6), it is the step that will allow us to see the light.

In one sense that young man in Moberly who told me that my baptism didn’t count was correct. If I had been baptized and my parents had done nothing to raise me in such a way that I would come to know Christ in my heart as my personal Savior, then my baptism would have been meaningless. It would have the same value as the baptism of Carlo and Connie’s baby in the closing scenes of “The Godfather”. Michael Corleone has assumed the role of godfather for his niece and while he is reciting the ritual of baptism, renouncing evil and the powers of Satan, his henchmen are imposing their own justice on The Godfather’s enemies and opponents.

Just as John the Baptist announced that there was someone greater than he was to come (7) and the people should be watching and waiting for him, so too did I look for the signs of the Savior.

Baptism is the outward sign of God’s grace; it is the beginning of a new life. As we begin this New Year, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, both as an infant in the temple and as an adult on the banks of the River Jordan, let us stop and think about our baptism. Let us make sure that we have walked in the path that was illuminated for us that one day in our lives. Let us also make sure that our lives provide the illumination that others will need so that they can come to the Light and the Life.


  1. For those readers who attended Truman State University, my alma mater, the 1968/69 academic year was a transition between an academic year based on quarters and an academic year based on semesters. The spring term was a semester term but the courses were designed to get everyone on the same track for the upcoming fall semester.
  2. Acts 19:1 – 7
  3. From Jim Wallis, “The Call to Conversion”, page 5
  4. From the United Methodist Hymnal, page 40: the pastor asks, “Will you nurture these children (persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life? The parents each respond with “I will.”
  5. From the United Methodist Hymnal, page 40: the pastor asks, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?” The congregation responds, “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
  6. Genesis 1: 1 – 5
  7. Mark 1: 4 – 11