'I Will' – Living Our Baptismal Vows
Recently, the Worship Team at Discipleship Ministries requested that pastors and worship leaders submit theme-based worship series that weren’t tied to the lectionary or calendar. We received many submissions that we are still sorting through. You are welcome to continue to submit series ideas. We are especially looking for worship series that address current issues or doctrinal understandings. If you have new and creative ideas, click here to submit them through our web portal.
Here is the first of what we hope will be many theme-based worship series. This one is titled “I Will”: Living Our Baptismal Vows. It was designed by the Rev. Carol Cavin-Dillon, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. We also offer supplementary resources created by the Rev. Katie Minnis, former pastoral fellow at West End and now pastor of Reidland United Methodist Church in Kentucky. These resources may be used as small-group or Sunday school class discussion materials but could also serve as additional worship resources.
“I Will”: Living Our Baptismal Vows
By Carol Cavin-Dillon, Senior Pastor at West End UMC, Nashville, TN
The idea for this sermon series came about in a staff planning session in the fall of 2021. At that time, we thought that as the season of Lent 2022 rolled around, we would be emerging from the coronavirus pandemic. (Best laid plans!) We wanted a way to invite people to be re-grounded in their baptismal identities, to remember their calling as disciples, and to re-engage in the life of the church. Out of that conversation came the idea to focus on our baptismal vows during the season of Lent.
Since 2022 was Lectionary Year C, we looked for texts in the Gospel of Luke and John to go with each vow. The theme and the texts lined up well for the season of Lent, but this series can easily be adapted, expanded, or modified to fit in any season of the church year.
Baptismal Vow: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”
Theme/Sermon Title: “Renounce, Reject, Repent”
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
Worship Practice: If your congregation does not regularly pray a Prayer of Confession, this would be a good week to do so. Pray the prayer together and then offer some time for silent confession. If you pray a Prayer of Confession every week or regularly, this Sunday would be a good time to do it a little differently, perhaps inviting people to pray at the altar. You could have small cards available to people to write down something they want to turn away from, and then have a box or receptacle to put them in (confidentially) or a way to release them.
Preaching Notes: The first baptismal vow can seem a little jarring to us twenty-first-century Christians. We don’t often talk about “wickedness” and “the evil powers of this world.” It can feel like an awkward place to start, when a family brings forward a tiny baby for baptism. Here is this innocent child, cooing wide-eyed at the pastor (sometimes), and then the pastor starts asking questions about evil. But these are ancient questions of the church, and they remind us that, on the journey of faith that begins with baptism, there are things we must turn away from if we are to turn toward life with Christ. So, this vow invites us to consider, “What do I need to turn away from or let go of to follow Jesus more faithfully?”
The text from Luke 4 shows us how Jesus turned away from temptation to be the Messiah he was called to be. Throughout the text, he renounces and rejects what the devil is offering him. We can follow Jesus’ example as we examine what temptations we face and how we are called to trust in God and God alone. There are many ways to interpret the three temptations and to connect them with our own lives, but here are some prompts that might be helpful:
The devil first tempts Jesus to trust in his own power to meet his own needs and to put the needs of his stomach before the needs of his soul. How are we tempted in similar ways? To trust in our own power rather than in God’s? To fill the emptiness within us with things that are not God?
The second temptation is to seek earthly power. Perhaps we fall into that temptation when we put our faith in one political party or one leader, or when we seek worldly power to control others or change them to our way of thinking. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if Jesus were president?” Maybe so, but he wasn’t interested in that kind of power. What does that mean for us in our day?
The third temptation is to put God to the test, to try and get God to meet us on our terms and prove Godself to us. How do we fall into this trap in our own relationship with God?
It’s easy, when talking about “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers of this world,” to point the finger at others—other people, other groups, other nations. And at times, we do need to call out the evil we see in the world. At the time this sermon was preached, Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and it was important to name that act as “evil.” However, the invitation is to look within ourselves and to where in our own lives we are tempted, perhaps in very subtle ways, to trust ourselves, our leaders, our plans more than we trust God. But if we can “renounce, reject, and repent,” we have the promise of abundant life with God.
Baptismal Vow: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, Injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Theme: “The Power to Resist”
Worship Practice: If you do a children’s sermon, you could bring a doughnut and talk about how, since you want to be healthy and take care of your body, you are going to resist eating the doughnut before you have a healthy lunch.
Preaching Notes: If you are preaching this sermon series during Lent, then today’s scripture text coincides nicely. Jesus comes to the Temple and turns over the tables. He draws the negative attention of the religious authorities, which sets off the series of confrontations that will eventually end in his crucifixion.
It might be fruitful to explore the questions, “Why was Jesus so angry? Exactly what was he resisting?” Scholars have different answers to those questions. Some say it was the simple fact that people were buying and selling in the church. Others suggest that those practices of exchange were a courtesy, meant to be helpful to faithful Jews traveling miles to worship in the Temple. Maybe Jesus was angry because the Temple authorities grossly overcharged the worshipers, gaining riches from the religious piety of others.
Or maybe he was protesting the fact that these exchange tables were taking up space in the Court of the Gentiles, crowding out would-be worshipers of Yahweh. The full text he references is Isaiah 56:7, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.” Perhaps Jesus is protesting the ill-treatment of Gentiles in the Temple.
Here we see Jesus resisting evil, injustice, and oppression. It’s easy to read this text and think, “You go, Jesus! Go after those corrupt Temple authorities! Set them straight! Call them out!” But when we linger a little longer in the story, we might remember that Jesus is in the Temple. He’s in church! He’s not protesting the Roman government. He’s not calling out King Herod, as his relative John the Baptist had done. He’s turning over tables in his beloved Temple, the place he had as a child called “my Father’s house.” How might this invite us to look within ourselves or within our beloved institutions for signs of injustice and oppression?
Where do we see evil, injustice, and oppression at work in our world, in our communities, in our institutions, and in ourselves? What is making the headlines that might serve as an example? (As mentioned earlier, this sermon series was first preached when Russia invaded Ukraine.) Looking within beloved institutions, the preacher might look to the past and name how the church has participated in injustice and oppression. For example, in the early twentieth century, many churches in the South adhered to Jim Crow laws and would not allow black people to worship in the sanctuary. Denominations like The United Methodist Church did not allow the ordination of women or of divorced men until recent decades.
We can celebrate stories of Christians who resisted evil, injustice, and oppression and brought about change in our world. We can name those who protested segregation, who advocated for affordable housing, who increased access to health care. We can resist evil, injustice, and oppression with our voices, our ballots, our hands and feet, and our prayers. And we do so in love and hope, believing that even now God is building among us the kingdom of God!
Baptismal Vow: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord…”
Theme/Sermon Title: “Confess, Trust, and Serve”
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Worship Practice: This might be a good Sunday to invite people to the altar for prayer after the sermon, especially in a congregation that is not used to praying at the altar.
Preaching Notes: You may have had the experience of being approached by someone(s) and asked if you have been “saved.” Maybe they asked if you had a personal relationship with Jesus. Sometimes, such experiences can be off-putting, especially when you feel that the person approaching you doesn’t know you or have any inclination to know your story.
Although we may find these kinds of questions off-putting from a stranger, our third baptismal vow is in many ways asking that very question. The difference is that the question is coming from the community of faith. It’s coming from the family. It’s coming from fellow travelers on the journey of faith.
As we walk through the baptismal vows, we move from the cosmic (e.g., “the spiritual forces of wickedness”) to the personal (“do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior?”) This week’s theme gives us an opportunity to focus on the personal. Following Jesus is about seeking justice in the world, changing oppressive systems, and resisting evil in every form; but it is also about being in a living, loving relationship with God through Christ. If you come from the Wesleyan tradition, this Sunday is a good opportunity to talk about “works of mercy” and “works of piety.”
Most of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels are one-on-one, and this week’s text invites us to witness one of these life-transforming encounters: Jesus and Zacchaeus. What do we know about Zacchaeus? He was short in stature; he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. As a tax collector, he would have been working with the Roman government to collect taxes from his own Jewish people. He participated in the oppressive system of taxation and benefited from it. Not only that, but he was also a chief tax collector, which meant he got rich off the riches. He held power in the system. It’s likely, then, that he had few friends in the community.
For some reason, Zacchaeus is curious about Jesus. We don’t know why. We have no idea what he is seeking, or even if he himself knew. All we know is that Jesus sees him. Jesus calls him by name and offers to “stay” at his house. The Greek word for “stay” is also translated “dwell” or “abide,” so Jesus offers to abide with him.
Jesus offers Zacchaeus acceptance and grace. He offers his very self in relationship. He saves him and makes him whole, and Zacchaeus is transformed. We see his transformation made concrete in how he deals with his possessions. He breaks out of the oppressive system of taxation and gives half of what he owns away! Jesus also saves Zacchaeus by restoring him to the community. He tells the stunned crowd, “He too is a son of Abraham.”
Just as Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, he reaches out to each of us. He calls us by name. He offers to abide with us. No matter what the world thinks of us, no matter the labels we wear, or the things people say about us, Jesus sees us and offers himself to us in living, loving relationship. How do you respond to such an offer?
Baptismal Vow: “…which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?”
Theme: “The Union of the Church”
Scripture: John 17:1-9, 20-23
Worship Practice: If you have a Children’s Sermon, you can teach the children “I Am the Church.” There are several hymns in the “United in Christ” section of the United Methodist Hymnal. “The Church’s One Foundation” (UM Hymnal, 545) could be referenced in the sermon.
Preaching Notes: Leaning against an external wall of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a ladder. It has been named the “Immovable Ladder” and has been there for at least three hundred years. There are six Christian denominations that have responsibility for maintaining the holy site. For anything to be added or removed from the church, where tradition claims that Jesus was crucified and buried, all six denominations must agree. For at least three hundred years, the denominations have not been able to agree on what to do with that ladder. So it remains.
There are many stories we could tell that point to divisions in the church. The history of the church can be told as a history of divisions, disagreements, schisms, and splintering. And yet, in John 17, as Jesus prays his last prayer with his disciples, he prays that all who follow him “might be one.” Do we read this prayer and despair? If not, what does his prayer call us toward? Perhaps we can find hope in this text that speaks into our day.
One piece of hope can be found in the fact that this is a prayer. Jesus is speaking to God and praying for his followers. What if the union of the church is God’s work? And what if it’s already accomplished? What would it mean to think that, whether we like it or not, whether we live like it or not, we are already one; that God has created one body, the Body of Christ, and we are simply called to live into it; and that there is a “mystic sweet communion” (“The Church’s One Foundation,” UM Hymnal 545) that is God’s doing and not ours?
Another piece of hope can be found if we hear Jesus’ prayer that we might be one in love. We do not have to be one in opinion. In his sermon entitled “The Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
Maybe in the end, that Immovable Ladder, which Pope Paul VI declared to be a sign of our disunity, is actually a sign of hope. Everyone seems to have agreed to let it be. It’s now a great story to tell. The different denominations respect one another enough not to move it without everyone’s agreement. Perhaps God can take our differences and transform them into a sign of “mystic sweet communion.”
Theme: “Nurture and Include”
Scripture: John 13:1-5, 12-14, 34-35
Worship Practice: Footwashing or symbols of it on the altar table
Preaching Notes: The text from John 13 is always in the lectionary for Maundy Thursday. Because it is often reserved for that day, many parishioners never hear it read aloud or preached on a Sunday morning. Using it as part of this series gives the preacher an opportunity to explore this powerful story at a different time of year or with a Sunday morning gathering during Lent.
In a denomination like the United Methodist Church, which practices infant baptism, we often see parents bringing their children for baptism and worrying that the baby will cry or be asleep or fussy. It’s a natural worry. Every parent can sympathize. But from the congregation’s perspective, even if the child is squalling, the celebration of baptism is a joy. Of course, it’s more than just a joy. It’s a responsibility because the congregation has an important part to play and promises to make.
Baptism is a three-part covenant between God, the one being baptized, and the church. It is a covenant initiated by God, who reaches out to all with unconditional love and prevenient grace; then the persons being baptized (or the parents/guardians of a child being baptized) make their promises; and finally, the congregation makes a vow.
The congregation is asked, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this person now before you in your care?” And we respond, “With God’s help, we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ…” The scripture reading offers us a powerful “example of Christ” nurturing and including when he washes the disciples’ feet on the night before his death.
The disciples would likely have been reclining at the table, as was the custom then. Their feet would have been as far away from the table as they could get them, away from the view of others. Jesus, however, made a point of going to their feet—to those scarred, dirty, and calloused parts of their bodies that they might have been trying to hide—and cradled them in his hands to wash them.
Like the disciples, we might prefer to hide our weaknesses, scars, calloused hearts, and vulnerabilities from others. We might tell ourselves that church is a place where we must put on a happy face and pretend that we have it all together, but Jesus sets the example for us. He nurtures those vulnerable places in all of us, and he calls us to nurture one another. Where have you seen the church following Christ’s example?
In baptism, the congregation also vows to “include this person in our care.” To get a sense of how radically inclusive Jesus was with his love, we need only to remember that Judas was at the table that night and had his feet washed by Jesus.
Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” It’s an enormous responsibility! But we must remember the very first words of our congregational vow in the baptismal liturgy: “With God’s help.”
Possible Week 6 or even Weeks 6-10
Theme: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness