Before I was a pastor, I volunteered as a youth group leader. I loved hanging out with the teenagers. I relished hearing them talk about their faith and taking them on mission trips and retreats. One of my proudest moments was getting to stand with one of them as a confirmation sponsor!
Helping the priest run the confirmation class was such a great experience in learning about ministry. We went outside the box helping the kids explore and express their own faith in personal and new ways. We even led them in a creative exercise, debating one another and reaching consensus on writing their own personal Creed! While at the time I wasn't extremely happy to help lead them to a less than orthodox outcome, the process of writing a creed and the experience of having to agree and compromise, while talking about theology, I think was overall an extremely positive experience for those kids for their journey of faith.
So I was very surprised when, after confirmation, most of those teens never came back to church or youth group.
The church I volunteered with had a very vibrant youth ministry, and many kids did come back and keep coming back, including the youth that I sponsored. This really only made it more surprising: there was so much for them to come back to! And yet, after confirmation, the same old story played out. Most of those youth, and probably their families, didn't come back regularly. Sure, many of them probably stayed members of the congregation. Most of them probably went to church on Christmas and Easter. But we missed teaching them something crucial in the confirmation class:
Baptism (or in this case Confirmation) is only the beginning.
This Sunday's feast day is called "the Baptism of our Lord" because we remember and celebrate a different baptism, different in so many ways, the baptism of Jesus himself. It might seem strange to celebrate Jesus' baptism so soon after Christmas, during the season we call Epiphany. After all, Jesus was baptized as an adult, not as a child. If you've been following the weekly readings or coming to church at Christmas, then you know we skipped thirty years in a week!
We just heard the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Joseph that Mary would conceive and bear a son. We heard angels announce this good news to the shepherds, and we witnessed the birth of Jesus. We celebrated the giving of his name and his circumcision in the Jerusalem Temple as an infant. Epiphany celebrates the announcement of Jesus as the Messiah, God's Anointed One, a coming King who would save the people. Yet what happens about this message of good news, this proclamation, this King? For thirty years, apparently nothing - or so it would seem.
The Baptism of our Lord teaches us something important. Jesus comes to John, who tries to turn him away from baptizing him. He tries to tell him it should be the other way around: Jesus should be baptizing John! Jesus doesn't need to be baptized for repentance, he has nothing to repent. Jesus is the greater one, and coming out and publicly confessing sin and repenting by being baptized by John would have come at the cost of his reputation. Jesus insists that John baptize him, to fulfill righteousness, or in other words, to be faithful to fulfill God's purposes.
So John does baptize him, and in Matthew's Gospel it is quite an event. The Holy Spirit descends on the waters just as at Creation, the Spirit enters into Jesus, and God's voice speaks: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." At Jesus' baptism, God announces this King yet again, this time to the people of Israel. This is royal language. Jesus is anointed like a king, but by God's own Spirit. He's filled with that Spirit. He's called God's Son, a term often used in Israelite scripture for the king. Jesus' baptism announces his coming Messiahship to God's people, and his ministry begins.
Jesus' baptism is at the beginning of his ministry, not the end. It fills him with the Holy Spirit. It declares who he is to God's people. It fills him with passion and purpose. It drives him to the wilderness to commune with God and be tempted by Satan. It marks the beginning of his three year ministry that concludes with the Cross and Resurrection. All the healing, all the feeding ministry, sitting with the poor and outcasts, teaching, announcing the coming reign of God, all of it begins here, at his baptism. Jesus' baptism is only the beginning.
Just like for Jesus, our baptism is only the beginning. Our baptism and the baptism of Jesus are different in so many ways. For Jesus, it is a complete reversal. We desperately need him to baptize us, to wash us clean. We need to repent of who we've been. We need to be put to death so we can be filled with his resurrected life. Yet for us, just as in Jesus' life, our baptism marks the beginning.
Like Jesus, in our baptism we receive the Holy Spirit poured out on us. We pledge to fulfill God's purpose, not our own. We make what is called the Baptismal Covenant, a series of promises of how we will live our lives devoted to God's purposes for us and all Creation. Just as Creation began anew in the Incarnation of Jesus, his birth, his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection, so it begins anew in each of us when we are baptized. The New Creation happens in us as we're transformed by our Baptism into something new, and it happens through us as we live out the New Creation in our mission, our ministry, our lives.
Baptism is only the beginning.
It marks the start of the journey, the road to deeper and deeper depths of faith, hope, and joy. It starts us out along the path of going endlessly farther up and farther in to the Eternal God and all the incredible life and blessings God longs us to receive.
Baptism is only the beginning.
St. Irenaeus once said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. That glory starts at our baptism, when we receive grace upon grace. God marks us and seals us as his own forever, and imparts to us his own Divine Life so we can have a life so much greater than we could ever ask or imagine on our own. It begins a life lived fully and authentically.
Baptism is only the beginning. Maybe for you it isn't baptism. Maybe for you it is Confirmation, like my youth group kids. Maybe for you it is being Received into the Episcopal Church, as some adults do who come from other traditions. Maybe for you it is completing the New Member group, or coming for the first time on Christmas or Easter, visiting a new parish, volunteering once or twice for a special event, etc. This is only the beginning.
You'll find your personal fulfillment in fulfilling God's purposes. Have you ever wondered what the meaning of your own life is? What your purpose here on Earth is, or what you are here for? The answers begin at your Baptism, but it is only the beginning. Following the way of Jesus takes a lifetime of living into those baptismal vows we made and going farther up and farther into who God is and who God made us to be.
Baptism is only the beginning. Now, here is a take away for you. This week, find one single way you can live out your Baptismal Covenant in the next week. Need a reminder what those baptismal promises were? Start here, and commit to one way you can live these promises out this week.
Stay tuned because in Lent this year, we'll explore more deeply the meaning of your life and how to find your personal fulfillment!