Do you remember when you were ordained? You are, you know, ordained. You are a minister of the gospel. In the early rites of baptism, the church made this clear. The newly baptized Christian was given a white robe, symbolic of the new life now being lived. Hands were laid on the person’s head, oil was poured on their forehead and the sign of the cross was made-all symbolic gestures that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been bestowed upon the candidate in the act of baptism. Through baptism, the candidate was ordained for ministry in the world.
Alas, most of us now associate the laying-on of hands with clerical ordination or perhaps confirmation. Over the centuries, baptism has lost its significance as the making of “priests” and become only a rite of initiation into the church. This has led many to the unfortunate conclusion that bishops, priests and deacons are the real ministers of the church, and that the laity exists just to support the clergy. You may remember the old 19th-century adage that the role of the laity is to “pray, pay and obey.” But that is wrong.
In Luke’s gospel, chapter 3 verses 21 to 22, there is an account of the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus is baptized, a dove descends and a voice proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved son. Following this event, Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing-a sign that the reign of God is breaking into the world. Jesus’ baptism is the day of his ordination, the beginning point of his work, his ministry.
From the baptism of Jesus I draw this conclusion: our baptism conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit, which commissions us for ministry. We are given the Spirit in baptism so that we might be empowered to participate fully in the ministry of Christ in the world.
All of us are ordained by God to be ministers. Clergy, in the New Testament sense, are not here to do the ministry of the people, but to equip the people to do the ministry. How different this understanding is from the view that the clergy are the paid professionals who minister to a passive congregation content to be served. The New Testament has no such view of ministry.
Of course, we do have different functions. We have different roles. We exercise different gifts. But we are all ministers because we all have been ordained by the Holy Spirit at our baptism.
I have been blessed to travel throughout North America, teaching and preaching about church growth and stewardship, and in my travels I have come to know many parishes, large and small. I see choirs of all sizes singing their praises to God. I see church-school teachers and pastoral care visitors and members of the altar guild and ushers and greeters. I see prayer partners and prayer intercessors, people who serve at soup kitchens and homeless shelters and addiction treatment centres and homes for abused women. I see people who volunteer to prepare the Sunday bulletin, or paint a room, or mow the lawn, or help with coffee hour.
I see ministry in countless ways: taking the time to listen to a person in pain, or calling the homebound on the phone to let them know someone cares about them. I see people being involved in diocesan work, sometimes travelling long distances without any compensation to fulfill their obligations. I see people making a difference where they work and live, impacting their communities and leaving this world a better place for everyone.
Look around you. There are a lot of hurting people beyond our church walls: lonely people, impoverished people, people who are confused, anxious, afraid and maybe even in despair. People who yearn for a word of hope-a word that says God loves them, God cares about them and God accepts them as persons of infinite worth and value.
Will they hear that word from you? Think about it. You may be the only gospel they will ever read, the only good news they will ever hear. In some mysterious sense, you and I are living, walking gospels called to share God’s love with every person we meet. And who knows? You may be the one person who draws some lost soul into the kingdom of God and right into the arms of Jesus.
My family and I were in Michigan for an overnight trip the Friday after New Year. We were travelling on I-75 interstate highway in the late afternoon, chatting about one thing or another, on what was a bright and beautiful day. Suddenly, a giant black SUV ahead of us in the acceleration lane veered sharply to the right, crossed into the other lanes and crashed into a snowbank, where it flipped over and over and over again-at least three times by our reckoning. It was a scene of total devastation.
We, along with several other cars, immediately pulled over to the side. We were all calling 911 on our cell phones as we rushed to the SUV, which was upside down. Two people were inside the vehicle-a man and a woman. The man, on the passenger side, was bloodied and barely conscious. The woman, on the driver’s side, was buried in the car beneath the rubble. We couldn’t see her, only hear her voice as she cried out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Oh, God, I don’t want to die like this!”
A dear woman, who was not wearing a coat in the freezing temperature, was speaking to her, “Hold on, honey. The ambulance and fire trucks are coming. The police are on their way. Hold on, honey. Don’t be afraid. Don’t give up.”
But the woman kept repeating, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Oh, God, I don’t want to die like this!”
At that point, I got down on my knees in the snow and called out, “Lady, I am a priest. I don’t know your faith or religion or what you believe, but I am going to pray for you and give you general absolution for your sins.” Then I pronounced the words of absolution: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him: Of his great mercy forgive you all your offences; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” I then added, “The Lord has put away all your sins. Be at peace.”
With that, I got up from the snow. The woman without a coat continued speaking to the woman, encouraging her not to give up hope.
In a matter of minutes the police and rescue workers arrived, and immediately began trying to save the couple. They worked hours into the night and eventually managed to pull the man from the wreckage. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. The woman, the one to whom I had given absolution, was not so fortunate. When the rescue workers finally reached her, she was dead.
Later that night we learned that the man and woman were husband and wife. Later it was reported that the couple had six children and that the woman was just 38 years old.
What an awful tragedy! Where was God in this tragedy, you might ask? Well, consider this: from the moment their vehicle crashed into the snow bank, this husband and wife were surrounded by total strangers who cared for them-the woman with no coat who stayed by the woman’s side until the rescue workers arrived, the men who stayed with the husband, laying on the snow, assuring him that help was on the way; the rescue workers-the police, firefighters and ambulance corps who gave their very best efforts to save these persons-and me, a priest who was able to say a prayer, give a blessing and pronounce words of absolution to a dying woman buried in a car wreck.
Who was the “priest” in this scenario? Certainly I had my role as an ordained minister of the gospel. But the people who stopped their vehicles and stayed with that couple until help arrived were also priests-agents of God’s compassion and caring. The rescue workers who did their best in subfreezing temperatures were priests who were willing to sacrifice their own well-being for people in need of help.
The truth is: ministry is not confined to any one person or any one role or any one group or any one church, even if one wears a clerical collar or a purple shirt. By virtue of our baptism, all Christians are ordained for ministry-wherever there is hurting, we are called to heal; wherever there is suffering, we are called to comfort; wherever there is despair, we are called to offer hope; wherever there is dying, we are called to be life-givers.
So go on and be a minister! You have been baptized. God ordained you to ministry. God empowers you for service. Use the gifts God has given you as a sign of the outbreak of the reign of God. Take on new challenges in your ministry. Make the challenges so great, so demanding, that you will either have to rely on the Holy Spirit to uphold you or else fail miserably.
Go on, be the minister God is calling you to be-the minister you have been ordained to be.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.