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Baptism: Mystery and Mission

Baptism: Mystery and Mission


by Bill Carroll


Beloved, we are entering the season of Epiphany.  From the beginning of the season, there is an emphasis on the universal mission of the Church.  The three kings come from distant lands to worship the newborn King.  Epiphany means manifestation.  In the Gospel readings for the season, we see the glory of God revealed in Jesus.  He is God’s gift for the whole world.


We begin with his baptism.  Little has happened since Jesus was born.  Then, one day, he shows up at the Jordan, appearing for the first time in public as an adult.  He is one among many penitents who have come to be baptized by John.  The crowd is so impressed with John that they wonder whether he is the Messiah.  But John points to another—to one more powerful than himself, who will baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”


At first, Jesus is hidden in the crowds.  It’s not obvious he’s anyone special.  But after he is baptized and begins to pray, heaven is opened.  The crowd sees the Spirit descending.  A voice speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  God acknowledges Jesus, as if to say, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…I have put my Spirit on him.”


This is a theophany, like God appearing in the burning bush.  In his baptism, Jesus is revealed for who he is. The Baptist’s testimony, the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice join together to say, “Here is the Son of God.”  It’s significant that the revelation is Trinitarian.  God’s voice says, “This is my beloved Son.”  The Spirit rests upon Jesus.  Here we see the one God, traditionally named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We see the other persons related to the Son, who has become human.  In and through the historical moment, we catch a glimpse of the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.


God is fully revealed in Jesus, who is God from God, light from light, true God from true God.  But God is reveled in concealment.  God comes to us hidden.  Hidden in the flesh of Jesus.  Hidden in our neighbor.  Hidden in water, oil, bread, and wine.  In the sacraments, the most ordinary things are transformed into sacred mysteries, vehicles for the saving presence of God.  Mysteries aren’t just something we haven’t figured out yet.  Mysteries evade our comprehension in principle, because they involve the living God.  Even the Scriptures are a mystery.  Without faith and the Holy Spirit, they are just dead words on a page.  The words of Scripture, in all their tensions and contradictions, point to the Word—Jesus, the Word made flesh.  He is the living center of the Scriptures. Like water, oil, bread, and wine, the Scriptures are a sacrament of Jesus.


The self-manifestation of God is real, but it is the revelation of a holy mystery of goodness and love.  God is both gift and mystery—really given, yet ever eluding our grasp.  In the words of Ignatius Loyola, God is “ever greater” than we can imagine or conceive.  We know God, and God is always with us.  Yet we can find no adequate words for God.  So, we stutter along, as best we can.


We search the Scriptures.  We participate in the sacraments.  We confess the creeds.  But we can never, ever comprehend God.  Indeed, as Augustine teaches, the creeds “fence a mystery.”  They show us where the mystery lies without taking it away.  Ultimately the mystery is the Triune God—creating, judging, blessing, saving, and sanctifying the world.  The Holy Scriptures are the story of God’s dealings with humanity.  They are the Word of God for the People of God.  Their proper context is the liturgy of the Word in the Holy Eucharist.  We do not read them alone, but in community.  They proclaim the gift and mystery of Jesus, which is summarized in the Creeds, and then given to us to touch and taste in the gifts of his Body and Blood.


There seems to be some embarrassment in all four Gospels about the baptism of Jesus.  Does it mean that John the Baptist is his superior?  Why does Jesus participate in a ritual washing if he’s really without sin?  Various explanations are given in the Gospels and in the fathers of the Church.  One is that Jesus allows himself to be baptized in order to give us an example of humility.  We ought not to fear to confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness, because the Son of God was willing to assume the role of a penitent.  Another explanation is that his baptism provides an occasion for God to make Jesus known to the crowd.  A third explanation is that Jesus is baptized in order to sanctify the waters wherein we are baptized.  Because Jesus is washed with water, water becomes a powerful and efficacious sign of his union and solidarity with us.  Because of his baptism, water is forevermore a sign of his death and resurrection, of forgiveness, of discipleship, and of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Truly, when we are washed in the font, Jesus himself baptizes us, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.


In Holy Baptism, we come to share in his relationship with God.  We are taken up into the life of the Trinity.  We become God’s beloved children.  We share in the same Spirit who rests on Jesus.  In the liturgy of the day, we confess the mystery of the Trinity as we renew our baptismal covenant, beginning with the creed of our baptism, the Apostles’ Creed.


Through baptism, we also share in Christ’s mission in the world.  So, we will continue by renewing the baptismal vows that provide the framework for our mission.  Like the Creeds, these vows “fence a mystery.”  They point us to practices that frame our participation in the crucified and risen life of Jesus.  They do not solve the mystery; they show us where it’s found.


The five promises of Holy Baptism show us what it means to belong to Jesus and his people.

First, we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”  Gospel teaching is absolutely central to our life in Christ.  So too is our regular participation in the life of the community, in the sacraments, and in common prayer.  These are not something optional that we do only when it suits us.  We are not consumers of religious services but disciples of the living Lord.

Second, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil” and to “repent and return to the Lord.”  Life in Christ involves an ongoing struggle with sin, as well as trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God.  All of us fall short in our discipleship.  Day by day, we need to return to the Lord, remembering our baptism.

Third, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Life in Christ involves sharing our faith with others, by what we say and do.  It involves making disciples for Jesus and bringing others to the saving waters of baptism.

Fourth, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  Life in Christ means that God calls us to love all people—without exception.  Our love extends even to our enemies and especially to those we find difficult to love.  It goes without saying that this includes our fellow Christians.  If we cannot love the members of our own family, how will we love strangers?  We are called to do both, but we can’t do one without the other.

Fifth, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Life in Christ means that we are active peacemakers and that we join in the struggle for justice and dignity for all people. We are to embrace this aspect of our mission even if it means that we must suffer greatly.  By our baptisms, we have taken on the servant ministry of Jesus.


Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon him.  He will bring forth justice to the nations.


The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma.   He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty.   In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.



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