Twenty-seven years ago tomorrow, right here at St. Andrew’s, I was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church and forty-seven years ago on January 14, I was ordained a priest in the Orthodox Church. That was also the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. The ritual for ordination in the Orthodox Church is somewhat different from ours and I often reflect on how I knelt before the bishop and nervously listened to him pray over me.
Then I was raised up by the bishop’s hands and the priestly vestments were put on and as each one of them was given to me the bishop acclaimed, and the congregation repeated, “άχιος” (Axios!) the Greek for “He is worthy” It is a chilling moment to hear that word pronounced over you. In my head I was thinking “no, really unworthy.” It’s also an “epiphany” moment about what you have gotten yourself into.
The four verses in the Gospel is Matthew’s very brief account of another “Axios” event. He tells us how Jesus presented himself to be baptized by John; that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” This was God’s “άχιος” – “He is worthy.” This was God’s revelation to the world that God was in Christ, in Jesus.
This was Jesus’ ordination day to his public ministry of teaching, welcoming, inviting, healing, and reconciling. Baptism is, after all, a sacrament of ordination—our ordination to ministry, our ordination into the priesthood of Christ, our recognition of our holy vocation to follow Jesus and to be his presence and share in his work in the world.
In fact, the meaning of “vocation” is “to be addressed by a voice.” The New Testament refers to the first Christians by the Greek word έκκλεσιά (ecclesia)—the assembly of those “called out” together as a creation of the Spirit. Think about that for a minute. We are not a finished or perfected community but one baptized by water and the Spirit, anointed as followers of Jesus Christ, called out together and ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit to be a fellowship of those who will show no partiality and will welcome each and every person who comes into this fellowship as our sisters and brothers in God.
One of the tedious parts of what we know as the “ordination process” for clergy is the numerous hops through which one has to jump—meetings with commissions, theological study, psychological exams, discernment, more commission meetings, etc. etc. etc. It reminds me of the story of the Georgia State Trooper pulled a car over on I-95 about 2 miles south of the Georgia/South Carolina state line.
When the Trooper asked the driver why he was speeding, the guy told him that he was a juggler and he was on his way to Savannah to do a show that night and didn't want to be late. The Trooper told the driver he was fascinated by juggling and offered that if he would do a little juggling right then and there, he wouldn't give him a ticket.
The driver had, unfortunately, sent all of his equipment on ahead but the Trooper told him that he had some flares in the trunk of his patrol car and asked if he could juggle them. He agreed and so the Trooper got three flares, lit them and handed them to the juggler.
In the meantime, another car pulled in behind the patrol car. A very intoxicated person got out and watched the performance briefly. Then he went over to the patrol car, opened the rear door and got in. Observing this strange behavior, the Trooper went over to the patrol car, opened the door and asked the guy what he thought he was doing. Slurring his words badly, he replied, "You might as well cart me off to jail, cause there's no way in hell I can pass that test.”
The good news about our ordination through Baptism is that there is no test to pass, no juggling act, no big hoops through which to jump. God calls each and every one of us into communion with God in Christ Jesus and with one another. It is a huge and free gift. Whether one is baptized or not, believing or not, belonging or not, I think that the final verses in this Gospel today are where we might find the really Good News. What we are called, the names and labels by which we are addressed, the tone of the voices we hear make a difference. How we call one another makes a difference. Our name is important.
In his book, Mark for Everyone, theologian N.T. Wright says that the whole Christian Gospel could be summed up in this point: when the living God looks at us, God says to us what God said to Jesus on the day of his Baptism. He sees us, not as we see ourselves, but as we are in Jesus. It sometimes seems impossible to imagine, especially for people who have never had this kind of support in their life. But it’s true: God looks at us and says, “You are my dear, dear child: I’m delighted with you.”
The great joy of my life and ministry has been the opportunity to preach that good news that each and every one of you has been called into God’s fellowship, ordained to be Christ’s presence in the world, and to shout “άχιος” – “You are worthy” – worthy to be called God’s beloved, worthy to be claimed as Christ’s own forever, worthy to be infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, worthy to be the church—Christ’s chosen body in the world.
So today I proudly affirm your calling, each and every one of you who is a minister of the Gospel by your words but more importantly by how you live as an example to others and I affirm that holy vocation by proclaiming Άχιος! Because God has called us God’s beloved—every one of us. You are worthy! Thanks be to God.