God Calling

Matthew 3:13-17

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Much of what is today called “spirituality” seems to be highly individualized. It’s geared to one’s personal needs and longings and desires.

As a result, people seek inner peace for themselves – and when they find it, they consider their religious problems to be solved. After they have learned how to pray or meditate, or they have found books that help them cope, they go back to their ordinary lives.

For Christians, though, the spiritual journey doesn’t end when our inner needs are satisfied. We see this in the life of Jesus himself. When Christ appeared at the River Jordan to receive a ceremonial washing from John the Baptist, even John was mystified. What was Jesus thinking? As Matthew’s Gospel relates, “John would have prevented” Jesus from being baptized. John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

John was offering baptism to people who felt a need to draw closer to God. But he recognized that Jesus already possessed an immense spiritual authority, so in his case baptism didn’t seem to be needed. And in any event, John the Baptist felt that he himself was unworthy to confer a rite of spiritual cleansing upon a person who was already closer to God than he was. Yet, as Matthew tells the story, “Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then consented.”

After Jesus was baptized, Matthew says, “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The only explanation Jesus gives for why he needs to be baptized is the statement that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Christ seems to mean by these words that in order for God’s plan to be followed, the prophetic tradition represented by John the Baptist has to endorse the upcoming ministry of Jesus. In other words, baptism was a necessary beginning for Christ’s work. And so, later on, when the church was formed, baptism became the sign of commitment to the way Jesus introduced for people to find God.

This story also shows how Christian baptism isn’t just a rite for infants and children. Tradition holds that Jesus was just over thirty years old when he walked down the banks of the river Jordan. Even today, when the church welcomes persons of all ages to the rite, there is still a unique value in the baptism of adults. Older persons take away a mature appreciation of the new relationship with the divine that the sacrament gives them.

Those of us who were infants when we were brought to the baptismal font can only imagine the event. My grandmother loved to tell people what a commotion I made when I was baptized – wailing at the top of my lungs throughout the service! That might have been fun for me at the time, but my spiritual response to the sacrament could come only much later.

Adults can appreciate their own choice to become Christians. While babies are carried to the font in their parents’ arms, adults seek baptism as Jesus did – striding forward, according to their own free will. They can also appreciate that their individual choices are a choice to serve. We can see this in the example of Christ himself. Christ’s life after he emerged from the river Jordan was devoted to ministry. He cared for the poor and sick; he encouraged people to share their money. He helped to form communities of the faithful, and he tried to insure that these communities were open to everyone.

And so they should be in our own time. The annual Meeting of the Church of the Incarnation today is, in one sense, just a bureaucratic formality. Our parish must obey certain regulations in order to remain what the State of New York calls a “religious corporation”; these regulations include electing governing officials such as vestry members at an annual meeting of the members of the religious corporation.

But our work is more than keeping our organization running and ourselves content. Whether it is fund-raising and prudent use of our money, whether it is collecting food for the elderly or magazines for the sick, whether it is visiting the shut-in – these activities have an effect beyond the satisfaction of our spiritual needs. At Incarnation, we have been working especially hard this year to keep our church building clean and comfortable with a reduced maintenance staff; we have also had to find the money to pay for a much larger than usual heating bill.

But all this church housekeeping doesn’t just provide a house of worship for ourselves. God uses us to bring his light to others. Last Monday, I received a postcard that gave dramatic proof of the impact of our ministry. I couldn’t tell where the postcard was sent from; it had a picture from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The note on it was dated December 27 and signed with the initials “M.S.” The writer addressed these words to our congregation:

“Thank you for opening your doors and encouraging folks to come in, say a prayer, and light a candle. I walked by with a heavy heart and a lot of pain and fear on Christmas Eve. Your open-door policy helped me release some of that pain through prayer and a candle. Thank you!! Best to everyone involved with the church.”

By the same token, when in a few moments Allen Cohen follows in the footsteps of Jesus and is baptized as an adult, after a long intellectual and emotional journey, his act will remind all of us that baptism is a beginning of ministry. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we look not only for peace within but also for ways to serve God in this place.


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