Graced, Baptized, Called
Based on Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
It is the second Sunday after the Epiphany and it is celebrated in most Western churches as the “Baptism of our Lord Jesus”. Along with the Epiphany and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, the baptism story forms a three-part narrative how Jesus brought His divine light into the world and illuminated both the true nature of God and the way we are supposed to grow into the mind and heart of Jesus. It also inaugurated a transformation from the baptism of repentance that John provided into the adoption into the Body of Christ using God’s three names (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This is the first time that we encounter Jesus taking a practice that was contextual for his audience and expanding it to be more inclusive, relational and healing. Other examples of this behavior are the way he later expanded the Passover meal and made it into a divine Communion between God and humans and the blessing of the Syrophoenician woman.
John the Baptizer had been doing his thing at the Jordan river for a while before Jesus came. John was clear that his baptism was one of repentance which was to prepare the way for one who was greater; for a baptism that would bring with it a new relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus was also clear that he needed to be baptized by John so that he could fulfill the legacy of all who had come before him across the Jordan (e.g., Elijah and Elisha, Joshua and the people, the Ark of the Covenant). Jesus needed to be baptized by John to mark the character of his ministry which was to show the transformative grace of God that was available to all believers. Jesus undergoing baptism by John shows us that God’s grace, our baptisms and our calls are intimately woven together just like His. Let us go to God now in thanksgiving for God’s grace, the sacrament of baptism and how we have been gifted and called by God…
The statements of Isaiah in this week’s reading are part of the half-dozen “servant songs” contained in that Book. Christianity has often appropriated them as foretelling the ministry of Jesus, but there are other ways to interpret these songs about servanthood. In these verses are contained the essence of what it means to be graced, baptized and called. Listen to the scripture from verses 5 through 7 where God, the LORD says that, “…I am the LORD,…I have taken you by the hand and kept you…” (that is grace); “…I have given you as a covenant to the people; a light to the nations,…” (that is our baptismal covenant); finally God says through the Prophet, “…I have called you in righteousness,…to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness….” (that is our calling as beloved children of God). God has also given us the Holy Spirit in order that we as servants might “bring forth justice to the nations”.
In the reading from Acts, Peter has been led to the house of a God-fearing Roman centurion named Cornelius. God’s grace and call had been working in and through Cornelius as the text tells us that, “…He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God….” Cornelius had gathered his whole household and they were preparing to hear what God had to say through the Disciple. Peter understood through a vision he had just experienced that God was an all-inclusive God through grace, and thus he was able to say that “God shows no partiality”. He explained about Jesus and then the Holy Spirit came upon the whole house and Peter baptized all these Gentiles in the name of Jesus.
Matthew’s text tells us a unique version of the baptism of Jesus in that it includes a dialogue between Him and his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus came to the Jordan in full knowledge of the significance of that act in light of the history of the house of Israel’s relationship to God and to that special river. The author of Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, once again placed Jesus in the unbroken line of Abrahamic authority when he told John to baptize Him, “…for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness….” That is, to fulfill God’s plan for God’s people. Then God’s grace descended on Jesus and God called him the beloved before sending him out into the wilderness to be tested prior to embarking on his public ministry.
I have met many people who call themselves Christians for whom baptism seems a curious, antiquated and unnecessary custom; something that they will get “around to” one day. These same people will often have their children baptized but can’t say much about why they want it or what the sacrament might signify. I suspect that many adults who attend church nominally (or even routinely) would be hard-pressed to say what their baptism means to them – as the majority were probably baptized as infants. You see, the impact of the Christian sacrament of Baptism is so much larger than people realize when they say, “I was baptized a Catholic,” or Episcopalian, or Methodist, etc. A Christian is baptized into the enormous whole of the Body of Christ – never into a tiny denomination. Baptism, therefore, connects us across the planet in the first and longest lasting world-wide web of relationship to God and to one another.
Baptism is about celebrating the freely given gift of grace we receive as beloved children of God. While baptism in a Wesleyan sense is a “means of grace” – a way to connect with God, baptism is also about the beginning of our spiritual journeys where we discover the call that God has put on our lives. The baptism of Jesus initiated his public ministry, a call which ultimately led him to the cross. For Christians, baptism is our inauguration into a new kind of community called the Body of Christ, which leads us to die and rise with the Christ again and again as each of us discovers God’s call on our lives. Yet it is together as the Church universal that our call is to bring peace to a cruel and violent world and a message of hope to all those who despair. Whatever the worldly powers and principalities, be they Roman oppressors or contemporary autocratic leaders who seek their own glory, baptized Christians are called to witness to and serve an Almighty and egalitarian divine power.
Today’s scripture readings offer us a glimpse of God who is awesome and mysterious: a God who is not limited by our lack of comprehension or ability, a God who created humanity in the divine image and whose love (whose grace) for us is so great that it embraces all people without exception. This God is beyond our understanding and our comfort zones; and yet we see that Jesus’ life and ministry were never separated from his identity as God’s beloved. They are incarnated through his objective to create beloved community. The shared life of Jesus and the Disciples has both eternal and immediate implications because all their ministry together is rooted in baptism. You see, each has been called out by the voice of God’s grace; each is recognized in their humanity as God’s beloved child. This is what makes their work (and our work) for the kingdom not only possible but ensures that one day it will succeed.
This is the truth and promise that Jesus carries into the wilderness after his baptism. It’s the reminder that we all came from somewhere, and we’re part of the timeless legacy of “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” who came before us. This is an expression of God’s ever-present grace. Our beloved-ness in God is never separate from the experience of belonging within the all-encompassing Body of Christ. Baptism ties us to all believers and to the eternal communion of the saints which strengthens our resolve to live fully into our calls. All of us have been graced, baptized and called to use our gifts in ministry to the world in the blessed name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. For this we were created, for this we are baptized and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for this we humbly offer ourselves to God and to each other. Amen and amen!