By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
When the history of the Church in our time is written, an outstanding feature of that story will be the rediscovery of the vital connection between baptism and mission.
We have come to realize once again that there is nothing passive or static about being a Christian, but that every one of us — man or woman, child or adult, rich or poor, healthy or infirm, sophisticated or simple — every one of us has an active role to play in the mission of the Church. Each one of us has a unique part in that purpose of God, which is nothing less than to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. In serving so great a purpose, no one’s role is small or insignificant. What each of us can do is essential and unique.
We are reminded of the vital connection between baptism and mission Sunday by Sunday in the final words of the service. “let us go forth in the name of Christ.” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Whichever form is used, the message is the same. The assembly of baptized people, the Christian congregation, is called upon to leave the place of worship and enter the field of mission. We go forth in the name of Christ. We go forth to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving the people around us. We go forth in peace, rejoicing that the Spirit’s power works through us to redeem and renew the world.
We are also reminded of the vital connection between baptism and mission several times each year when our worship includes the renewal of baptismal vows. On these occasions — and one of them is today — we recommit ourselves to the Christian life. This life includes not only faith, worship, and fellowship, but also repentance, proclamation, service, and peacemaking. We commit ourselves yet again to the mission that is ours in the home, the classroom, the office, the factory, and the store — wherever it is that we find ourselves between one Sunday and the next. We recommit ourselves with confidence because we know that in the most important sense Christ has already won the victory.
In our time the vital connection has been rediscovered between baptism and mission. But that connection is nothing new. We find it in today’s Gospel, the story of the baptism of Jesus. Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan. A voice from heaven recognizes him as God’s beloved child. The Spirit alights on him, gentle as a dove. This affirmation and empowerment is what Jesus needs to go forth on his mission. As our reading from Acts describes it, he “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
God is with him in that mission. And God is with him as that mission draws to its conclusion. The desertions, the trials, the cross, the tomb — God is with him on that mission even in the moments when he feels utterly alone. And God is with him when the tomb is empty and the disciples are astounded and the world is reborn. The mission of Jesus comes to its climax on a Galilean hilltop when the risen One sends the disciples forth on their mission. But it is in the muddy waters of the Jordan River that the mission of our Lord has its inauguration. It is there that the mission of Jesus is launched with power.
I invite you now to consider just how it is that the mission of Jesus begins. He is not given a throne to sit on. He is not invested with a sash of honor. No one gives him either keys or crown. Instead, he goes down, he goes down, he goes down into the muddy brown river water. This is not an elegant Episcopal font. This is not a pristine Baptist immersion tank. This is not even the bright blue waters of our Lake Huron. This is the murky old Jordan, with stones and mud there at the bottom. Jesus humbles himself. This is how his mission gets started.
We human beings, small specks that we are, we’re so concerned to climb the ladder. But the career of Jesus is marked by downward mobility.
First he comes down from heaven to earth. As the poet Christina Rossetti puts it, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.” The Son of God is born as one of us, and Herod almost gets a chance to butcher him in his bed. Christmas is a feast of the downward mobility of God the Son.
But it does not stop there. Jesus now adult, Jesus free from sin, joins up with the sinner folk at the riverbank and plunges in with them for a washing of repentance. John, who knows purity when he sees it — well, his jaw drops open. But Jesus insists that John get going and baptize him. It’s all part of the plan. So on this day, we remember the baptism of our Lord, we celebrate yet another feast of the downward mobility of God the Son.
But still the descent is not complete. Another baptism waits for Jesus, not a baptism by water, but a baptism by blood. The scourging, the crown made of thorns, the nails in hands and feet, the lance stuck in his side — all the blood of the passion and cross — this is another baptism.
As the washing in the Jordan is for our sake, so too this bath of blood at Jerusalem is for our sake also. There in the Jordan he does not drown: he rises to his feet again. But when baptized in his own blood, he drowns and dies, he sinks into the dark mud of death. Yet he rises, he rises from this baptism, and begins a new mission, and that mission still lives through you and me.
There is a vital connection between baptism and mission. Another way to put it is that there is a vital connection between going down and going out. We do not play our part in the world’s redemption when we climb ladders so much as when we are pulled downward. It is out of our pain that we heal. It is out of our poverty that we make others rich. It is from our ignorance that we enlighten others. It is by our brokenness that others become whole. It is from our dying that others come to life. We must follow Jesus in his descent, we must accept his downward mobility and our own if we are to be his true disciples, if we are to allow resurrection in our lives.
In this terrible demand that we go down with Jesus in downward mobility, that we go down with him in the murky waters of the river and the dark waters of death — in this terrible demand there is good news for us. For we already know what it means to go down. Perhaps you went down at some time in the past — an unhappy childhood, a broken marriage, a career failure, a horrible bereavement. Perhaps you find yourself down at the bottom right now — estranged from a loved one, troubled by an aging body, upset at a world that’s changed too fast. You already know what it means to go down. You feel confused, ashamed, and without any power. Your downward descent leaves you groggy.
The good news is this: there is power in that downward descent. Not power to grab and keep yourself, but power to use in serving other people. Whatever it is that has taken you to the bottom has been a baptism — if you stand out of the way and let it work. The death you have experienced can be life for someone else. That baptism of yours, horrible and unwelcome though it was, can lead you to some unexpected mission where Christ will rise again in you and your neighbor.
A couple weeks ago I had breakfast with a man who had served with the Marines in Vietnam. This man now operates a small business here in town. He’s also involved in ministry at a prison in Macomb County. This man is not ordained, but he is baptized, baptized with the water in the name of the Trinity, and baptized also through his Vietnam service. That battlefield experience took him down, down to the bottom, down to the place of mud and stones, of blood and death.
I don’t know about you, but if I were a prison inmate sentenced to spend years inside the same four walls, I would want someone like that man there to help me. He can help a prisoner deal with the hell of confinement because he has experienced the greater hell of the Vietnam battlefield. His present ministry builds upon both of his baptisms.
Each of us has had experiences of descent. Each of us has gone down to what has been for us the place of mud and stones, of blood and death. It is these baptisms that have empowered us for our ministry. Our downward mobility has been a time, strange to say, when the divine voice affirms us and the Spirit enlivens us.
When we go down, we need not be lost. We can rise from whatever death we experience and be ready for mission. It is God who calls us forth.
When the history of the Church in our time is written, an outstanding feature of that story will be the rediscovery of the vital connection between baptism and mission. In other words, we have come to see anew the link between going down and going out. Strange to say, affirmation and empowerment come to us so often through our experiences of mud and stones, of blood and death. It is these baptisms that equip us to communicate the Gospel of life.
Copyright 2002 the Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.