This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday (9 January 2005). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 42: 1 – 9, Acts 10: 34 – 43, and Matthew 3: 13 – 17.
"What do you do" has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves "What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?" What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry. The real question must always be "How shall we respond?
Martin Luther responded to these questions by posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. John Wesley responded by going to Bristol to preach.
In 1514, Martin Luther was a theology professor at Wittenburg University as well as serving as the priest at the City Church in Wittenburg. He began to notice that many of the people in Wittenberg were not coming to confession but rather going to the neighboring towns of Brandeburg or Anhalt to buy indulgences.
The people had begun to believe that buying indulgences was a way to buy their salvation. As people began the practice of buying indulgences, they began believing that other parts of church membership, including confession, were no longer needed. To Luther, such practices were totally unacceptable. He believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive God’s grace.
The other problem with the sale of indulgences was that the Papal Court in Rome was in great financial trouble and the sale of these paper scripts was being used to finance the church. When Luther read an instruction manual for indulgence traders, he wrote a letter to his church superiors hoping to get rid of this abuse. In this letter he included the 95 theses which were to be the basis for discussion on the topic. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This act, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation was akin to posting the topic on a bulletin board and opening the discussion for public debate. (Adapted from http://www.geocities.come/Heartland/1700/95theses.html)
Martin Luther posted the 95 theses because he saw a church headed in a direction away from the intent of the Gospel. He saw a people who were no longer willing to work towards their salvation through faith but rather by taking an easier way.
John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. Following that evening at the chapel on Aldersgate when he became aware of the presence of Christ in his life and what that presence meant, Wesley left for Bristol, in what was open defiance of the Church of England.
In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.
Bishop Butler — "You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence."
John Wesley — "My lord, my business on earth is to do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do the most good here. Therefore here I stay." (Frank Baker, "John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal", 16th to 24th August, 1739.)
John Wesley understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action! This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.
Today, I think we are in a similar situation. We give great lip service to the presence of God in our lives but our words and our actions do not always reflect this. While it is commendable for the outpouring of support by individuals and nations, why are we not always doing this? What will happen to the relief work of the various agencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa after a few more weeks? When all the American citizens have been found or accounted for, what will be the concern of American society?
And how can we justify the expenditure of 350 million dollars in relief for the people of Southeast Asia when we spend that much money in one or two days in the war in Iraq? I am not saying that we shouldn’t support the relief work; I am just wondering if our priorities are in line. Are we returning to the days of indulgences in hopes of buying salvation? Have we forgotten what salvation is and how it came that we might be saved?
And this comes at a time when the very nature of the church is coming into question. Are we a church that understands what Peter said to the gathering in Acts, a church that shows no partiality and is open to all? Or are we a church becoming closed both in mind and body? When he began his own mission work, Peter was among those who thought the church should be closed but through a vision from God, he came to understand that the message of Christ was for all, not just a select or chosen few? I think this is a message that has been forgotten by many pastors today.
I think that sometimes we also forget the message that Jesus sent to John the Baptist when he, John, was in prison. Herod had arrested John and placed him in prison. John knew that his mission on earth was about to end and he wondered if Jesus was the true Messiah, the one whose coming he, John, had been sent to proclaim. Remember that John should see the oppressed who were being freed, the sick and ill who were being healed, and the poor whose spirits were being uplifted. These were the people Isaiah refers to in his prophecy, the poor and the oppressed, the sick and ill, those who have lost hope in the Lord.
I cannot say for certain but I think those thoughts were in the minds of Luther and Wesley when they began their defiance of the church authority. You cannot have a church that ignores the people or takes away the basic message of the Gospel and have any credibility.
But if Jesus’ ministry was to have any credibility, Jesus could not come as a King but rather had to come as a servant. He could not be the King who ruled above the people but rather He had to be a servant who was with the people. He could not be the sacrifice that Isaiah prophesized unless He was the servant to the people. So, like us, Jesus had to be baptized by the water of repentance.
So, the question is "why did He do that?" So that the Gospel would have meaning and hope would be brought to people living in the darkness.
And we are reminded today of something else Jesus did. We are reminded that he gathered with His disciples that evening before His death and celebrated not His impending death but rather His resurrection and our victory over sin and death. He called them together and asked that they remember what they had done together and that they should carry the message of the Gospel into the world for all to hear. We are reminded once again that this celebration of life over death, this celebration of the defeat of sin is open to all, not just some, as long as one accepts Christ as his Savior.
The ultimate question perhaps is "why did Christ die on the Cross?" Because, in doing so, He gave us eternal life. That’s why He did it.