Tag Archives: Baptismal Vows

Imitators of God

A Sermon for 12 August 2018

A reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2.  Before launching into this reading, it might be helpful to remember that Ephesians is an epistle of the New Testament.  It is attributed to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul.  But as far as we know, Ephesians is what scholars believe to be a circular letter.  The style, language, and meanings are uncharacteristic of the other letters that we know the Apostle Paul wrote to certain church communities.  Additionally, in the opening of the letter, the earliest manuscripts we have of Ephesians don’t mention Ephesus at all.  There’s not some known church crisis outlined and refuted in this letter.  All of which points to the conclusion that the epistle of Ephesians is just a good wholesome letter of encouragement to everyday Christians – probably circulated to several worshipping congregations in Asia Minor.  Perhaps Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul towards the end of his life.  Like a wise old saint, near the close of his days, who passes on his collective wisdom to others on the journey.  If not directly from Paul’s pen, then likely Ephesians comes from someone taught by Paul who similarly sought to encourage other Christians (The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, 1994, NT p. 272).  Which is all to say that Ephesians is for us all – everywhere.  On any old day.  . . .  With this in mind, listen now for God’s word to us in a reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV).

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


Last weekend I was at the home of my childhood with my parents and surrounded by my sisters.  It was great fun!  Growing up, summers always were the best.  With time to just hang out.  Relax together outside at the beach near our house, in the water, or just wandering through the woods.  As my sisters and I got older, we were alone together a lot.  And it was then – especially in the summer when we didn’t have much else to do but mom’s chore list.  It was then that we eventually turned to provoking each other.  If you’re a sibling or have reared children or grandchildren, then you might know what I mean.  One childhood taunt I dreaded most was when my sister would copy me.  Ever experience it?  If you really wanted to get under the skin of your sister or your brother you’d just start repeating every word they said.  Scrunching your face like they scrunched their face when they protested for it to stop.  Stomping like they did.  Mimicking the whinny tone in their voice.  Relentless – especially when unsupervised ‘cuz then there was no parent to tattle to.  You were totally at your sibling’s mercy!  . . .  I don’t know why children do it – it’s totally immature, yet so incredibly effective.  It can be done without making a peep.  From all the way across the room even once mom has banished you to separate corners.  Still, your sister – or brother – could get 100% under your skin by imitating you!

Imitation’s not always a bad thing.  In fact, it’s also a pretty effect way to grow.  When not done of the purpose of driving your brother or sister absolutely nuts, imitation can lead to mastery.  Think about all the things toddlers begin to do because they see the person in front of them doing it.  Clap your hands with a smile before a little one and they’re bound to start clapping too.  Show a youngster the steps of mastering things like shoe tying or letter writing.  Soon they’ll be at it on their own.  As we age, we go through an entire period of growth called adolescents when it seems imitation will have no end.  Teens wearing the same cloths as their friends just to fit in.  Girls wanting to pierce their ears ‘cuz everyone else is doing it too.  Boys telling silly jokes because the boy who seems to get all the attention tells silly jokes too.  The way to self-assurance developmentally leads through imitation.  As adults observing, our hope is teenagers pick the right ones to imitate!  Avoiding the examples all around of bullying and disrespect and irresponsibility.  Hopefully imitating peers and role models whose values are in line with the way we want them to grow.

I’m not sure the age of those who heard the epistle of Ephesians when it was being circulated around the Mediterranean.  If the letter really was written near the end of the Apostle Paul’s life, then it’s highly likely that those who heard it were at most a few decades in to being committed followers of the Way – disciples of Jesus who early Christians came to believe was the Christ.  The One of God come to deliver the people.  We can debate all day exactly what they needed deliverance from, but it’s clear that some who heard of Jesus were captivated by his teaching.  They were astounded by the way his disciples vowed compassionate care of one another.  They were impressed by the community’s broad inclusion of Jew and Gentile alike.  It would take the established church years to develop the theological doctrines we take for granted today.  In the meantime, those who wanted to be a part of Christ’s movement came to learn just how they were to be in the world each day.

One source tells of early baptismal liturgies that ritualized the expected behavior.  G. Porter Taylor writes:  “in the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness”  (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  We see remnants of this in baptismal vows of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The first vow in the covenant of Baptism reads:  “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” (Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018, p. 409).  “I renounce them,” the baptismal candidate is to proclaim (Ibid.).  In the PCUSA, after professing the One to whom the candidate for baptism will turn, they are asked:  “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?”  “I will, with God’s help,” PCUSA baptismal candidates respond! (Ibid.).  In those first baptismal liturgies, after turning to the west to renounce the forces of darkness; baptismal candidates “then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world” (G. Porter Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  Taylor goes on to write:  “They literally stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized.  They were then brought into the community of faith.  In baptism the old self is killed off, and the new self is raised” (Ibid.).  From that moment on, the baptized live as those aligned to the Light of the World!

“Imitate God,” Ephesians 5:1 declares.  “And live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  Imitate God.  . . .  Lest we fail to know what that means, the writer of Ephesians fleshed it out with description after description.  The world may be full of those who want to lie.  Those who imitate God speak the truth.  The world may be full of those who get angry and immediately lose their temper.  Those who imitate God get angry.  We recognize anger and every other emotion as the signal they are from our own body-mind.  Then we act free from sin – not stewing in disgruntlement lest those forces we renounced in baptism have a chance to take hold.  The world might be full of those who labor for their own ends.  Imitators of God labor honestly so as to have something to share with those in need.  Ephesians reminds that the world may be full of those who let all sorts of drivel come forth from their mouth.  Those who imitate God use words to build up others so that grace abounds.  Bitterness, wrath, wrangling anger, slander together with malice may surround us daily in our streets and from our cities.  But those who imitate God practice kindness – in big and small ways.  Imitators of God are tenderhearted – no matter how callous everyone else might get.  Those who imitate God forgive; for we know it’s only so long until we’ll need the same forgiveness.

Imitators of God are beloved children.  A fragrant gift to the world around.  Not always perfect, but still striving for the goal.  We seek to imitate the One we know in full through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord.  In our life together.  In our lives at home.  In our lives wherever we go in the world.  Let us live love, as Christ has loved us.  Let us imitate God.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Shaking the Foundations

A Sermon for 13 December 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 3:7-18. Listen for God’s word to us.

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


I wonder if you have anyone in your life like my friend Rita. She’s a dear ole soul and I love her immensely. She’s an amazing listener really and always wants to know the most up-to-date goings on in my life. In some ways she’s like my Tennessee momma, because she’s my parents’ age and has that way of wanting to know all the kinds of things really nurturing mommas want to know. Rita’s great fun! But she’s got this one thing about her that I don’t always appreciate. She knows. Rita, in her own words, loves to slap ya’ up. She never does it literally, just figuratively when she senses you’re wallowing in your own pity party, or caught up in your own stuff, or not quite being the well-mannered person she believes we all need to be. She’s got no problem calling out your foibles – which she does for the sake of love, I know. I like when she wants to slap up others in my life who really need it because of their bad behavior but I never seem to have the guts to do it myself. She always volunteers. I just don’t always appreciate Rita stepping in to slap me up when I might really need it, but certainly don’t want it! She’s like the ever-nurturing mother who suddenly can turn stern to let you know it’s time you change your ways. And off she goes with her good ole’ fashion slapping! Really, do you have anyone in your life like this? Someone who knows you well enough and someone you know who loves you deeply – warts and all – so that they’re able to speak the truth you need to hear now and again when you wander off the path?

Maybe because the lectionary fears not enough of us have Ritas in our lives who will slap us up when necessary, we get John the Baptist each Advent. Crying out in the wilderness to get ready to walk in the ways of the Lord! Sometimes I just can’t believe the way he talked to his listeners and got away with it! “You brood of vipers,” he starts out. Name-calling: children of slithering snakes! . . . These people came to him to be baptized – they wanted to do something and he talks to them like that?! I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it, say if Christmas Eve, one of our favorite worship services of the year, the preacher got up here to tell us all: “You little snakes! Who warned you to flee from a horrible end?” . . . The thing that is absolutely amazing is that they listen! The wildman in the wilderness tells them that nothing they relied upon before is enough and they listen!?! They beg to know what they need to do.

If only it would be that easy. That we could be bullied and terrified into an open stance so that we really would cry out: tell us then what we should do! I mean, we know, don’t we? One commentator writes of our annual Advent visit from John the Baptist that “there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness calling us to repentance. . . . Trying to avoid or sugarcoat John’s words is just not possible. Faithful and fruitful arrival at the manger will be possible only after the careful self-examination and recommitment called for by John” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol, 1; Kathy Beach-Verhey, p. 69). We know we have to make our hearts ready if we want to stand in Bethlehem with any sense of wonder, gratitude, and joy. But as we’re just a dozen shopping days shy of Christmas Eve, who really has the time? Here alone this week we have the Christmas Joy lunch right after this, followed by a session meeting for some of us, and assembling care gifts for our homebound members this afternoon too. Then getting ready for Wednesday’s Christmas cookie exchange, and an end of the year Dinner Club party next Saturday. If you’re in the choir, you’ve got notes to get right for your upcoming pieces next Sunday and Christmas Eve too. And that’s just here! Hopefully you’re almost ready at home! If you don’t have your packages shipped soon, you know delivery by Christmas Eve cannot be guaranteed. And while all of it can be great fun and very meaningful to participate in the wonderful traditions of Christmas in the church and in our individual lives, we’re right here hearing from John the Baptist to change our ways! With his crowds, we might be wondering: “What should we do?” Focus, of course, on the love of God and the love and care of neighbors because nothing else is enough!

It’s Advent, but today John takes us back to our baptisms. He reminds us that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We made promises – or had them made for us as children and confirmed them later for ourselves – that Jesus Christ is the One we follow. He’s all that can save us – not our own efforts to make the most perfect Christmas or any other day of the year. We promised we would turn from the ways of the world (renouncing evil and its power in this world) and turn to the Way of the One who lived simply among us — embracing life as the most precious gift to be savored as we seek connection with God and each other. We promised, in our baptisms and confirmations, that we would “be Christ’s faithful disciples, obeying his Word and showing his love” as The PCSUA Book of Common Worship’s baptismal vows go (1993, p. 407, #1). Which means that even in these final Advent days, we will put first Christ’s call to follow in the footsteps of his self-emptying love for the sake of Life in this world – for the sake of those who experience little love in this world and need the reminder that Light always outshines any darkness. All is well because God-in-flesh has come to dwell with us! And God, in the Holy Spirit will keep on working in us until all that is unfaithful in us is blown away in the same way chaff is parted from the wheat in winnowing to leave the wholesome grain. . . .

Something I read this week suggested we actually include a renewal of our baptismal vows in worship today – not only to satisfy John the Baptist’s insistent instruction, but also to align ourselves more firmly during this time of the year which is ours – which belongs to Christ Jesus our Lord, but has become so incredibly consumed by the societal pressure to buy and sell and get ready to get instead. . . . If we were to do so, I’d go over by this baptismal font and ask you to respond to these questions: “trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting alone in his grace and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” (The PCSUA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 407, #1.) Because especially at this time of the year our families and friends and neighborhoods and countries need to see something else in the midst of these busy holidays. They need to see the kind of generosity we see in the face of a newborn child being swaddled by his willing mother in a cave out back because there was no other place for them. They need to see the kind of awe the angels observed on the faces of simple shepherds who were overcome that they too would have a role to play in the drama of God’s grace. They need to see peace that resides in each one of us because the Light broke into this world that cold, dark night to let us know that God’s final word to us is love: good will; for the favor of God rests upon us all! We need to re-commit ourselves these very days to the vows of our baptisms so that the whole world can see that God’s endeavor to live among us anew was not in vain. Our lives are the proof! . . . What then should we do? Once again, say yes! Say yes! Say yes; then go forth faithfully to love and serve the LORD! Children of the covenant; followers of the Way!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN 2015  (All rights reserved.)