This was the message I presented on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday (12 January 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 1: 1 – 5, Acts 19: 1- 7, and Mark 1: 4 – 11.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Carl Sagan was a young astronomy professor at Cornell University. At that time, his primary research interests were in planetary exploration and the search for life outside the boundaries of earth; though well known in the astronomy community, he wasn’t quite the “star” that he later became. It was in one of his classes at Cornell that he posed a very simple question to his students. “How,” he asked, “would you test for life on Mars?” One student replied, “Ask them. Even a negative answer would be significant.”
Our recent record of failure in trying to orbit satellites around Mars and even landing robots on the surface of this mysterious red planet has prompted many to say that the inhabitants of Mars don’t want us there. Perhaps we should have taken the advice of this student some twenty years before and asked those there on the planet if they wouldn’t mind our visiting.
Of course, there is no life on Mars and the only intelligent species that will live there will be those, a la Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”, that we put there. But the student’s reply points out the basic idea of any research plan; you must start at the beginning of the project.
No matter if a project is extremely complicated or even if it has never been done, one must always define a beginning, a point at which to begin. We know where it is that we want to go, but we must also know where it is that we are starting.
For the early Hebrews wandering in the desert, it was not always easy to see where they were going, let alone even think of the future. It was necessary then to know where they were coming from, where they had been. Genesis means “beginning” and it was written to emphasize God’s presence and the Hebrew people were a part of God’s plan. The chronology of Genesis was written to show God’s hand present in the creation of the universe and his presence in everyday life. Even today, as astronomers, undoubtedly including that young student of Sagan, search for the beginning of the universe in terms of time and cause, it is done knowing that God had a hand in it.
That is also why, as our Gospel reading last week emphasized, that John, the Gospel writer, started by including Jesus at the beginning. With Jesus present at the beginning of time, his presence in Galilee some two thousand years ago could then be seen as part of God’s plan for this world.
Both our Epistle and Gospel readings for today emphasize the beginning of a new life through baptism. Just as life began on this earth through God’s hand, so to does life begin anew through baptism.
But we must realize that baptism is only a beginning and not an end. Those that heard the Baptist preaching in the wilderness heard him say that his baptism was only a preparation for the coming of Jesus and a baptism through the Holy Spirit. That is why the people in Ephesus asked if the baptism they had received by John and his disciples was sufficient. Those who had been baptized were ready to receive the Holy Spirit and did so upon hearing the Gospel from Paul.
But baptism is only the beginning. Unfortunately, for many people and many churches, it is the end as well. Having been baptized and having joined a church, nothing more is ever done. And the frightening thing is that many people think that they don’t have to do anything else.
We celebrate the Lord’s Supper today. We do this because we want to be in fellowship with Christ. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1: 9, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” But it is also a fellowship with other Christians. Our common union with all Christians, be they United Methodists, Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Roman Catholic, is our communion with Christ. We cannot have fellowship with Christ without having fellowship with others. One is not possible without the other for we all partake of the same bread, Christ.
The theologian Hans Küng wrote,
So much is clear: the Lord’s supper is the center of the Church and of its various acts of worship. Here the Church is truly itself, because it is wholly with its Lord; here the Church of Christ is gathered for its most intimate fellowship, as sharers in a meal. In this fellowship they draw strength for their service in the world. Because this meal is a meal of recollection and thanksgiving, the Church is essentially a community which remembers and thanks. And because this meal is a meal of covenant and fellowship, the Church is essentially a community, which loves without ceasing. And because this meal is an anticipation of the eschatological meal, the Church is essentially a community which looks to its future with confidence. Essentially, therefore, the Church must be a meal-fellowship, a koinonia or communio, must be a fellowship with Christ and with Christians, or it is not the Church of Christ. In the Lord’s Supper it is stated with incomparable clarity that the Church is the ecclesia, the congregation, the community of God. In the Lord’s Supper in fact the Church is constantly constituted anew. If the Church owes to baptism the fact that it is a Church, and does not have to become a church through its own pious works, the Church owes to the Lord’s Supper the fact that it remains a Church, despite any falling away and failure. From God’s viewpoint this means that while baptism is the sign of electing and justifying grace, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of sustaining and perfecting grace. From the human viewpoint it means that while baptism is above all the sign of faith and obedience, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the response of love and hope. (From The Church by Hans Küng)
So when we come to this table, we are not only reaffirming our own fellowship with Christ, we are reaffirming our fellowship with others as well.
And it is that fellowship upon which the future of the church lies. One reason that the population of many churches, especially those in the traditional denominations such as the United Methodist Church, is declining is because such churches feel that it is internal growth that will provide the means for survival into the future. That may have been the case in the 1800’s and the early 1900’s when people lived in the towns where they grew up and went to church where their parents went and where they grew up. But society has changed over the years and it is more likely that those who grew up in a community are not likely to live in it once they have completed school. In this day and age, if a church is to survive, if a church is to go beyond where it is now, it must look beyond its traditional roots. Otherwise, the time will come when membership will decline and eventually the church is faced with extinction. If the fellowship of the church is not expanded, then slowly and surely that church is going to die.
Now, the good news for Tompkins Corners is that we actually grew last year, going from a membership of 84 at the end of 2001 to 88 at the end of 2002. But that growth comes with a warning. The average attendance on Sunday mornings last year was 24; the average attendance for 2001 was 27. This means that the number of people who say that they are members but do not regularly attend Sunday services went from 57 to 64. Now, there are 15 members with reasonable excuses for not being here, for they live in other states. But that still means that there are 49 people within driving distance of this church who are not here.
As we look to the future, we have to look at ourselves. Can we say that the fellowship of the church is present here today and that the fellowship goes beyond a select few? Can we say to those 50 or so people who are not here today that we miss them and want them to come back and be a part of the fellowship?
Now, I realize that for some of those membership is a convenience, done so to please another member of their family. Those are the hardest ones to reach, for their hearts are not in this church. To bring these people back will require hard work and an effort to find out why they don’t come at all. But others are not here today because they believe there is nothing here for them. There is nothing for them to do and the fellowship that others receive is not extended to them. These are the ones we must reach now.
Church growth is not simply a matter of having Sunday School and a confirmation class. We provide Sunday School so that children, even after they leave home and begin their own families, will continue to be active members of a church, even if it is not this one. We must also remember that the Methodist Church recognizes the baptism of infants and youth and it is our duty to see that the children are raised so that someday they will come to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. When children are baptized, we ask the parents to raise them in such a way so that by their own teaching and lives their children will accept God’s grace for themselves later in life. And after we ask the parents to do so, we ask the congregation to do the same, to see that the children are raised and nurtured in an atmosphere of Christian faith and life. So Sunday School is a part of the fellowship of Christ.
To those who say, “I would come if there was an active Sunday School program,” I reply, “There cannot be an active Sunday School program without your presence.” We have the makings for such a program, we have people willing to work in Sunday School; but it will be a more active program with others involved, working together in the fellowship of the church.
Likewise, there are those who say that we do not have the resources to expand beyond what we have now, that all we can do is keep what we have right now. But there are members not here today whose presence would expand our resources. Resources are more than finances; resources are the means to get things done. If all that we do is to maintain what we have now and no thought is given to what the future will bring, then all we are trying to do is fill the treasury, not fulfill the Gospel.
The hallmark of any church throughout time has been its place in the community. Look at any topographical map and in the heart of the community, the church is clearly marked. It was the church to which the people came, not only for worship on Sundays but for fellowship. It may be blunt to ask, but why will people want to come to this church this year?
This sermon was entitled “How Do We Begin?” because it is about beginning the rebirth of the church. The answer I hope is found at the altar rail this morning. The invitation to come to the Lord’s Supper is an open one. There are no membership requirements or dues; there are no qualification tests. All that is asked of you individually is that you come with an open heart, confessing your sins before God. The fellowship we enjoy with Christ through this supper is extended to all. And as we leave the table this morning, our fellowship should not end there, for to do so would give no meaning to our having come in the first place.
Sometime during this week, take a few moments to call a member of the church who hasn’t been here in some time. Extend to them the fellowship that you received and were a part of this morning. Invite them to come and once again be a part of this church.
We begin this year through fellowship with Christ; we continue this year through fellowship with others. That is how we begin; it is how we continue.