The story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river by John the Baptist is, complicated. I feel like that’s true about a lot of things that we read in the New Testament. It’s complicated, because there’s a great deal which is unclear to us about why things happened the way they did. But here it is: Why did Jesus go to John at the Jordan River to be baptized? It’s not as though he needed to be forgiven of his sins. He is the one without sin. He didn’t even need to repent. He’s Jesus. And yet he goes, in another Gospel telling John that it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness, and we are left to wonder what he meant by saying so.
Perhaps it was that he would model for us what we as his followers are to do as part of our Christian faith. Matthew ends his Gospel with the risen Christ speaking to his disciples, telling them to go into all the world and baptize people in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit. It may be that Jesus’ baptism was an example for us to follow in our lives.
Perhaps it was to symbolize the role of baptism in the spiritual lives of the faithful. Jesus went into the waters of the Jordan, the same river that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob crossed when they had come out of slavery and ended their wanderings in the wilderness, entering the Promised Land. It may be that Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River was symbolic of our passing through the waters of baptism into the hope of eternal life in that promised land which awaits us after death.
Or, perhaps it was that Jesus’ baptism would sanctify and make holy the water by which we would be baptized. Odd, I admit it, but the early Church Fathers wrote that the waters that poured over Jesus’ head were forever made holy, and in turn make holy the water that is poured over our heads at baptism. It may be that Jesus’ baptism served to forever make holy the water that we baptize one another with.
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ baptism, there is one thing that the Gospel authors make clear–that his baptism marked the beginning of his ministry. Following the narratives of his infancy and of his journey to the temple as a young boy, the next time we see Jesus he is already around 30 years old, being baptized by John. And following this, he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, from which he emerges to preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus’ baptism was the start of his ministry.
And it is the start of our ministry too.
When I was going through the ordination process for the priesthood, I had to interview with the Commission on Ministry for the Diocese of Milwaukee early in the process. Within the materials the Diocese produced for the discernment process, were a list of questions that the candidate should be prepared to answer in the interview. Most were pretty easy to answer, but there was one that stopped me:
“Why is ordination required to fulfill your Baptismal Covenant?”
I had no answer to that.
At the time, I was working as a student chaplain in the hospital. Each and every day that I went to the hospital, I was meeting patients and sharing the love of God with them as I listened to them share their stories of suffering, joy, fear, and hope with me, and as I shared the truth of the Scriptures with them, or sat with them in silence, and when I prayed with them. Not as an ordained person–not yet–but as a person who had been baptized into the body of Christ. Certainly ordination was a vital part of my calling to ministry, serving as a priest administering the sacraments, but to fulfill my Baptismal Covenant?
In my baptismal covenant I was asked things such as:
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
- and, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
To each of which I answered, “I will, with God’s help.”
Jesus’ baptism was the start of his ministry. And the same is true for us: Baptism is the start of our ministry. Our prayer books teach us that baptism is our initiation into the household of God. We are now part of God’s family, adopted as sons and daughters. And with it comes a responsibility, to bring hope, healing, and restoration to the world.
What about you? What does baptism mean for you? How are you living out your baptism?
In what ways are you bringing hope, healing, and restoration to the world?
- In what ways have you proclaimed the good news of Christ in your words and your actions?
- Which of your neighbors have you come to love, and to serve Christ in loving them?
- In what ways have you stood up against injustice, and upheld the dignity of all people?
That is our call as those who have been baptized in Christ. That’s why, when we bring a child to the baptismal font and when we say these words over an infant baptized I think to myself, and we make the promises of the baptismal covenant over them, I frequently think to myself, “O kid, you have no idea what we’ve gotten you into!”
There is more to our baptism than conversion. There is also a commitment that we are making, that our lives are now in the hands of a Holy God, to be used to build God’s Kingdom in the hearts and minds of the world around us. Because baptism is more than our induction into Christ’s body, the Church, but it is also the start of our ministry as well.