The Rev. Teri Daily
“You are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.” I remember well this paraphrase of Romans 6:4. It was proclaimed at my baptism. I was fifteen years old and a Baptist at the time. It had taken several hours to fill the old baptistry of the church in which I grew up. As I prepared to enter the water, a couple of women I knew were ready and waiting with dry towels and a smile. I walked down the steps into the water in front of the entire congregation, remembering to wet the hem of my dress thoroughly before the third step so that the dress would not float up all around me in the water. (This is a tip that all good Baptist women pass on to one another.) I crossed my arms over my chest, and the pastor placed one of his hands behind my head and one over my hands. As he plunged me under the water I heard his booming voice above me say “You are buried with Christ in baptism,” followed by the words “and raised to walk in newness of life” as I was brought up out of the water. There was that day no getting around the fact that death is a part of baptism, a part of new life.
Although most baptisms here at St. Peter’s look different from my own, the theology underlying them is not different. In Episcopal baptisms we pray over the water, saying: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Death is a part of rebirth, of newness of life, of resurrection. Dying to our own skin-encapsulated ego is part and parcel of handing ourselves over to something larger than ourselves, of making ourselves part of a dream that is bigger than our own.
I wonder how many parents think that when they hand their child over to be baptized, they are in a way handing that child over to death. It doesn’t sound like a comforting thought, and yet I know one man for whom this understanding of baptism has brought profound comfort. When his own daughter died at the age of 29, the tape that played over and over again in his mind was that of handing her to the priest at the time of her baptism. As he grieved, he remembered that he had handed her over to death and new life once before; in her baptism, he had already given her to something greater than them both. And that memory shaped his experience twenty-nine years later.
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and on this Sunday we always celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. To be honest, Jesus’ baptism could be a source of embarrassment to the gospel writers. After all, people were coming from Jerusalem and all of Judea to confess their sins; that’s why they were being baptized. If Jesus had no sins, like the Church traditionally holds, then why should he be baptized? Matthew knew that his readers would have just this question, and so he was sure to portray John as reluctant to baptize Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus’ baptism is not about the forgiveness of any sins, but about fulfilling “all righteousness”; it is about being obedient to God’s will. What takes place in today’s gospel is that Jesus hands himself over to a larger purpose at work in the world, to a vision for the world that includes his own thoughts and experiences but at the same time is more than them. This is what ministry means for all of us; it is giving ourselves over to God’s dream for the world.
Jesus spends the rest of his life showing us what that dream is. It’s not a coincidence that the people organizing our lectionary readings chose to pair a passage about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with one of the so-called “servant songs” from Isaiah. Although we’re not sure who or what the servant songs of Isaiah actually refer to, the Church has come to recognize precisely this kind of servanthood in the ministry of Jesus. They saw in Jesus a gentleness; there were no bold proclamations, no forcing people to follow him, not even enough blustery talk to blow out a dimly burning candle. And yet a love that seeks healing and wholeness is the most transformative thing there is; according to Isaiah, it can bring justice to the entire world. This is the ministry Jesus takes on at his baptism, a ministry of servanthood. And to be buried and risen with Christ means that this is the ministry we take on at our baptism as well.
At our baptism we hand ourselves over to God’s dream for the world – by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by striving for justice and peace among all people, by respecting the dignity of every human being and the more-than-human world as well. This is a ministry of servanthood. It is death to our skin-encapsulated egos, to our understanding of the world only as it pertains to us; it is the beginning of a new life in which we take our place in God’s dream for the world.
While our baptismal covenant tells us what a ministry of servanthood looks like, I think it’s also important to say a few words about what it does not look like. It is not arbitrary submission to the will of others; it is not choosing to place ourselves in situations of danger or pain simply because we think that submission in and of itself brings salvation. It doesn’t. Servanthood is not running ourselves ragged until we collapse in exhaustion because we think that no one can do God’s work except us; in fact, that is making an idol of our own work and of the concept of servanthood itself. The practice of Sabbath is intended to combat just this idolatry. And, finally, servanthood is not about negating our selfhood – denying our own ability to choose and to act and to make a difference in the world in new and creative ways. It’s not about giving up who we are.
I think Jesus’ baptism tells us something about how all this works. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism we see the life of God, the Trinity. God the Father booms from heaven “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove. Here we see that Jesus is already part of something more than himself, and by playing his role in the life of God – that of the Son, the beloved of God – he doesn’t become less of who he truly is. In fact, Christ is revealed ever more clearly as himself in and through his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The same is true for us. When we give ourselves over to God’s dream for the world and to our place in that dream, we don’t give up or do away with who we are. It’s only our false illusion of who we are that dies; our true self – who we are as God’s beloved and unique child – becomes more, not less, apparent. Yes, true servanthood often requires a shifting of our priorities, a stepping out of our egos, and a letting go of a variety of idols. It may even place us in difficult and vulnerable circumstances. But doesn’t Matthew say just seven chapters later, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10:39)? True servanthood is life-giving.
In the end, each of us has to figure out what this ministry of servanthood means in and for our own life, what it looks like to hand ourselves over to something larger than we are, what changes might occur if we were to find our place in God’s dream. What might servanthood look like in your life?