Today is all about baptism. Today, when we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, it’s obviously about baptism. I remind you that it’s seldom we get to celebrate this feast, this festival of the Church separately from Epiphany – usually on the second Sunday after Christmas we celebrate both Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ, all together. And they’re not unrelated: at Epiphany we observe the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles – represented by the three kings. It was then that those three non-Jews recognized the unique, special nature of this infant they came to visit. It was then that Herod (a Jew, but only nominally so – there’s nothing to indicate that he was an observant Jew) came to recognize that a very special child had been born in Bethlehem. And it was at his Baptism that Jesus for sure, and in one Gospel, John the Baptist, also recognized the special call, the special relationship to God the Father that Jesus had. It’s interesting that we always imagine these baptismal manifestations – the clouds parting, the Holy Spirit as a dove, the voice from heaven – as public spectacles that lots of people witnessed. But if you read very carefully, you’ll see in all four Gospels (and the baptism is mentioned in all four – that means it’s seen as a very important event to the writers of the gospels) that only Jesus (and John the Baptist, in John’s Gospel) saw this parting of the heavens; only Jesus heard the voice. It was really a rather private event, not the public “manifestation,” or Epiphany, that we always imagine. But, as I said, it was a seminal, defining moment in the life of Christ and in his ministry. Perhaps it was at that moment that he knew he was born for something very, very special. I’m not sure he knew the fullness of just how special his birth and life, his death and the aftermath would be, but Jesus was, after all, fully human – and the fullness of things tends to come gradually to us humans – and sometimes we don’t understand the fullness until it has already happened – sometimes long after something has happened. Then we look back and see the size and scope of something that has occurred, and we have that awakening – “Oh, now I see!” In any event, whether Jesus knew the fullness of his call all his life, or at the moment of baptism, or gradually over the course of his discernment and/or his ministry, or only afterward, when he was seated at the right hand of the Father – his baptism was a defining and revealing moment for him.
And for us as Christians, it’s really all about baptism, too. Our baptism is the moment that we know (or others know for us) that we’re adopted fully into God’s family. We make certain renunciations and take certain oaths (or others make them and take them on our behalf) – those can be found on pages 302-305 of the Prayer Book. Let’s take a look at them (the renunciation of Satan, the evil powers of this world, all sinful desires; the turning to Jesus, putting our whole trust in his grace and love, following and obeying him; continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers; persevering in resisting evil, repenting and returning to the Lord, proclaiming by word and example the Good News, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being).
And just like Christ, baptism is our defining moment, as well. We are fully adopted, fully members of the family, and we also are called. We are called by our baptism to be ministers, just as surely as Christ was called. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And with membership in Christ’s body, there are expectations and responsibilities: ministry. Read the catechism if you don’t believe me – it’s right in the back of the prayer book. Just as Jesus went into the wilderness – to be tempted, but also to discern the shape that his ministry would take, we are also called to give some thought to what sort of ministry God might be calling us to do as members of God’s family. Jesus kind of outlines them in the parts of the Gospel we’ll get to as we go on this year, but the simplest way is to remember: “Love God, love your neighbor.” We spend our whole lives as Christians figuring out what that means for us individually, and reading and studying scripture for more details on the subject – but that summary of the law is a neat little “cheat sheet” reminder, when we get unclear on things. Love God with all that you are and all that you have, and your neighbor as yourself. Easy to remember; very, very hard to do. Also a good guide for a review of the day (remember how I’ve been saying that’s a great thing to do?), to ask yourself, “How does everything I did today stack up against the summary of the law? Did I reflect love of God and love of neighbor in everything I did today?” That means the way we drove, the way we spent our money, the way we dealt with the cashier at the store and the stranger in the parking lot, the way we cooked and served our meals – did everything we do reflect love of God and neighbor? If not, then we can ask God to help us make course adjustments the next day. There’s always another chance with God (“repent and return to the Lord,” our baptismal covenant says – and if we invite God in to work on us, God will accept the invitation!
Lots of folks think you must be ordained to be a minister; surely you know by now that this simply isn’t true. Anyone who is baptized is a minister and has a ministry as defined in the catechism. First of all, back on page 855, the list of the ministers of the Church begins with lay people, not ordained persons. What comes first in any list in the prayer book means something, just as it does in scripture. So non-ordained people are the first and most important ministers of the church. And the ministry of the laity is defined thus: “…to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”
Now, as the prayer book says, based on our gifts, how that ministry of proclamation, reconciliation, and participation in the church looks will be different for everyone. But those three things: proclamation (or representation – when we represent Christ, for better or worse, we are proclaiming the gospel – and that’s supposed to be good news!), reconciliation (how often we bring division and conflict, rather than reconciliation!), and participation in the Church, are part of our ministry. What shape might that take for you? As I said earlier, we Christians spend our lives discerning and defining what our ministries are; but ministry is something we can’t really escape, if we take our Christian walk seriously. Just as Christ went from baptism to the desert for discernment, so we must proceed from our baptisms to discernment of our ministries.
If we’ve not thought about it before, it would be an eye-opening experience. Some of what we’ll discover is that we’re already ministering, even if we haven’t ever called it that. We are already representing Christ (proclaiming the gospel through our behavior, if not through words), already doing the ministry of reconciliation – between people with one another, with the world, and with God (or not doing that ministry), and participating in the life of the church (or not). We’ve been doing those things without even intentionally doing so! But if we become more aware of our call to ministry, might any of those things change? At the very least, what we already do becomes imbued with the awareness that we do it for God. Sometimes what we actually do might change, when we come to view ourselves as ministers; and sometimes it’s simply the quality of what we do that changes when we realize that we represent Christ to others, and that we’re doing something holy, something true to our call as Christ’s ministers.
So: baptism, call, and ministry. All part of the same package. All part of that package we call being Christian, following God, being part of the body of Christ, the family of God. Holy things, we’re called to do. Holy things, we do. Amen.