Baptism of our Lord
Fifty years ago yesterday, and just about at this time, I knelt before the bishop and was ordained a priest. In the Orthodox Church, January 14 is always celebrated as 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 the words of the ordination prayer I nervously listened to as Bishop Andrew Kuschak prayed over me and I felt his strong hands on my head:
“The Divine Grace which completes all that is lacking and heals all that is infirm, elevates by the laying-on-of hands the deacon Nicholas to be a priest; wherefore, let us all pray that the grace of the Holy Spirit will come upon him.” Well, there was probably a lot lacking in my 24-year-old life and divine grace was surely something I needed.
Then I was raised up by the bishop’s hands and the priestly vestments were put on me. As each one of them was given to me the bishop acclaimed, and the congregation repeated the Greek word “άχιος” (axios) – “He is worthy” for it is the community of the faithful that gives its assent to the ministry of the ordained person. It is a chilling moment to hear that word pronounced over you and a humbling and defining moment about what you have gotten yourself into.
And what that little ritual says is that the people of God should have the last word about who the church raises up as their ordained leaders.
The Gospel for today’s feast is Luke’s rather brief account of what took place after Jesus had been baptized by John in the River Jordan. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” God’s “άχιος” – “He is worthy”
This was an ordination day—Jesus’ ordination to his public ministry of teaching, welcoming, inviting, healing, and reconciling. Baptism is, after all, a sacrament of ordination. But 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.
Sadly, too many people don’t hear the voice that Jesus heard, that voice from above that called him “Beloved of God” affirming him, proclaiming his worthiness. Sadly, many people grow up hearing other voices and are called by other names and labels. Sadly, many people never hear the άχιος affirming that, as one of God’s precious creations, they are worthy of God’s unconditional, all encompassing, radical love. For too many people religion is more about obstacles in the way than unlocking and opening the door.
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—a difference in how well we are able to claim our belovedness in the eyes of God. Names and labels that demean us, belittle us, and erode our fragile self-esteem are never of God.
Listen carefully for that same voice. You may hear the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved daughter, my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased “Hey there, yes you Barbara and Jan, and Chris and Ed and Charlene and Marty and Jen and Patrice and Donna and Joe and Bob—and you fill in the blanks—you are my beloved ones and you are very, very dear to me.” God clearly speaks to us in uncanny moments calling us by name but often we miss the message.
Some years ago, I read the story of a doctor who had fought against the idea of a personal God who cared about him and the world. He found his comfort in his agnosticism by listening to classical music. Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of the fugues. Meanwhile, his life was falling apart. His wife left him and he started drinking heavily—which, of course, affected his medical practice.
One day, as he was driving to work, he pounded on the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, “God, if you’re really there, you’re going to have to say something! And you know what kind of person I am. No screwing around, now—no damn signs. You’re going to have to talk my language!”
Just then on the modern jazz station played, “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” He sobbed and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderful word this was to him. And just in case he might try to explain away the moment, saying that Bach was often played on that non-classical music station, the next song that came on was “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Fifty years ago yesterday I was ordained a priest. Thirty years ago, a few days after my reception here by Bishop Arthur Walmsley, on this very Sunday I celebrated my first Holy Eucharist as an Episcopal priest at this Altar.
The great joy of my life and ministry has been the opportunity to preach the good news that each and everyone 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 who completes in you all that is lacking and heals all that is infirm, worthy to be the church—Christ’s chosen body in the world.
My priesthood is not about me but about the people of God. So today I proudly affirm your calling as my partners in ministry, your holy vocation to be the heart and hands of Christ by proclaiming Άχιος! Άχιος! Άχιος!