January 8, The Baptism of Christ

Kristin White

Matthew 3:13-17

Kevin and his family had come to their church when he was in the fifth grade. They stuck to the edges of things over those next several years – they attended worship once in a while; they didn’t get involved in small groups or ministries; they didn’t really get to know other people very well.

So their pastor, Rodger Nishioka, who tells the story,[1] was happily surprised when Kevin opted to join the other ninth graders as they went through the process of confirmation. Kevin was not yet baptized, so he would prepare for both his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday the following spring.

Pastor Nishioka held an orientation meeting, and Kevin and his family showed up. At the meeting, he asked the confirmands to sign a covenant that they would participate fully. Kevin signed it. It was clear that he took this process seriously, because he showed up for everything: the two retreats, the mission work, the meetings with his mentor, the weekly classes. Kevin did it all.

At a festive Pentecost celebration, Kevin was baptized, and Kevin and the other young people confirmed the promises of their baptism.

And then he disappeared.

After a time of just not seeing Kevin or his family, on the heels of a year when he and they had become so much a part of the church community, Pastor Nishioka reached out to them.

Kevin’s mother seemed surprised by his call to check in. “Oh,” she said, “I guess I thought he was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Doesn’t that mean he’s done?”

 There’s not much about Jesus’ first 30 years of life in the lead-up to today’s gospel passage. The gospel of Matthew begins by telling us the genealogy, that beautifully involved and convoluted and blessed family history that Frank Senn recalled when he preached a few weeks ago.

Then comes Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth: the coming of the magi with their gifts, which marks this season, and their going home by a different way; it remembers Herod’s attack on the innocents.

Next is the description of John the Baptist, with his calling to prepare the way…and, yes, with his calling the Pharisees and the Sadducees a brood of vipers.

And then we land on today’s passage. It’s only chapter 3 in Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry – there are 25 more chapters to go.

In today’s gospel, Jesus comes from the Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. (And I just have to tell you…next Sunday, my group on pilgrimage will go from the Galilee to the Jordan River to renew the promises of our baptism. I will carry you with me. Thank you for this opportunity.)

So Jesus comes from the Galilee to the Jordan River, to be baptized by John. John can hardly help himself: “No no no – I should be baptized by you,” he protests. But Jesus answers him: “Let it be, for this way it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” John consents, the text tells us. And he baptizes Jesus. When he does, the heavens open, and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

In the very next verse, the same Spirit will lead Jesus into the wilderness. There, he will fast for 40 days, and be tempted by the devil. He will return, and call disciples to drop their nets and follow him, and they will. He’ll teach, and preach, and heal, and feed people, and cast out demons, and do miracles. He will upset the powers and principalities. He will set his face toward Jerusalem, toward the cross and the tomb.

Those next 25 chapters of the gospel of Matthew encompass the whole of Jesus’ ministry during his earthly life. And that ministry begins with his baptism – it doesn’t end there. Jesus’ ministry begins with that blessed convergence of recognition at baptism: the heavens open, the Spirit descends, the voice says this is my beloved son. This confirming of Christ’s identity is the ground from which his ministry will grow.

We have spent a good deal of time over this past year discerning the ministries of this parish, asking questions both of ourselves and of leaders outside the church about who and what St. Augustine’s is called to be and to do.

That conversation began with last year’s Annual Meeting, and continued with the vestry retreat and in individual and shared discussions throughout the year.

What became clear through it all is that there are a variety of good gifts and callings among the people of St. Augustine’s Church. What became clear is that people are compelled to share the gifts that have been conferred on us by virtue of our baptism: gifts of hospitality, calling us to shelter and to feed people; gifts of questioning and teaching; gifts of caring for one another; gifts of advocating, of doing substantive work for justice; gifts of praying, for each other and for this beautiful and broken world.

I hear you naming those gifts. And we will have an example of that today, at the end of communion, as we commission Eucharistic visitors who will practice the ministry of their baptism by taking the blessed bread and wine from this table out to people who cannot be here with us for worship.

Helping each other recognize and name and claim the gifts we have been given, and then equipping ourselves to live into God’s calling on our lives, is, I believe, one of the most important callings of this church. And it’s happening. It is beginning to grow.

Kevin and his parents came back to church, not too long after that phone call from their pastor. They came back to the now-confirmed classmates and the mentor and the worshipping assembly that they had become such a part of in those past months; and they were welcomed warmly.

I don’t know what came next for Kevin, because that was just the beginning. But I give thanks for the fact that, whatever his own next steps in the journey, he took them within the context of relationship with a community of faith and love. I give thanks that Kevin’s baptism and confirmation were not the culmination, but just the beginning.

My prayer for St. Augustine’s Church is that this is a place of beginning, again and again. My prayer is that we will discern God’s gifts in our own lives – to name them for each other, to ask questions, to imagine the ways God may be calling us to put those gifts into practice for the good of this world, to equip ourselves for that work, and then having begun, to come back and tell each other about how we have seen God in and through it all.

My prayer for this church is that every time we renew our baptismal promises, as we will very soon, we will have own identity confirmed and reaffirmed. That we will hear again: “this is my beloved child.”

My prayer is that we will all remember our baptism, and we will know it as a calling to begin.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. Roger Nishioka “Pastoral Perspective.” Knoxville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 302.