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It All Begins with Baptism

Excerpted from “Temptations and Triumphs of Ministry,” preached June 13, 2010, at the Service of Commissioning and Ordination, Holston Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Bertel Thorvaldsen’s  marble relief ‘St. John Baptizing Christ,’ c. 1809, Baptismal Apse, Goodson  ChapelLuke begins Jesus’ public ministry with his baptism (Luke 3:21–22). … John the Baptist invites the people to enter the waters of the Jordan, that crossover river between bondage and wilderness wanderings and God’s promised land. Joining the crowd entering those cleansing waters of freedom and promise was Jesus. Luke simply says, “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

… Luke knew that the divine message at Jesus’ baptism combined the words from the coronation Psalm 2:7, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” and the image of God’s servant in Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

Baptism is the outward and visible sign of God’s action in claiming us as beloved sons and daughters, those who bear the divine image and are incorporated into Christ’s body, his death and resurrection, and called to share in God’s mission of the redemption of the whole creation. Baptism defines who we are, who our family is, and what our ministry entails. This identity is accompanied and affirmed by the Holy Spirit, which persistently woos us, guides us, and reminds us that we have been claimed as beloved children of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ, and called to participate in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ.

Our primary calling, then, is to accept and live our baptismal identity! That is a ministry we share as laity and clergy. Ordination does not supersede baptism. Rather, it derives from baptism. And the bedrock calling of the ordained and commissioned is to support the baptized in living their identity in the world. There is no higher calling. ... Baptism has to do with our being as beloved daughters and sons of God: it is who we are.

… Baptism is God’s affirmation, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Therefore, our worth lies in the One to whom we belong, and nothing can take that from us, not even death itself! And the glorious good news is that it is all a gift. We call it grace. … In the words of the Epistle of First John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3:1–2).

That is the source of our morale, not the size of our churches or our titles or ecclesial positions. Martin Luther reports that when he became discouraged and depressed by conflicts within and without, he would say, “But I have been baptized.” The Tempter would say, “Luther, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner,” to which Luther would reply, “True enough, devil, but I have been baptized.”

Being sons and daughters of God and living our baptismal identity as God’s servants, however, leads us into all kinds of subtle temptations. …Every exalted position—and being the child of the King is an exalted position—has its shadows or temptations. … Henri Nouwen reminds us that “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly give in to the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power.”

… Christian ministry means living now in the light of the ultimate triumph of Christ’s reign. Christ has already taken on all the seductions and principalities and powers that threaten God’s mission. And the good news is this: God in Christ won the battle!

… You who are being commissioned and ordained: Remember your baptism. …Before you looms the wilderness and a world filled with powerful and seductive temptations. Move toward the future with courage and hope. The One who claims and calls you has triumphed through the wilderness and has overcome the world. Hear his promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:20)!”