Our lectionary text for today is from Mark 1.9-13.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Mark 1.9-13 TNIV
This same story is found in all four Gospels, each one a little different. Each story is unique. Mark provides a very simple retelling. Matthew and Luke expand the story to included details of the wilderness temptation. Yet, Matthew and Luke reverse the temptations of the Temple and the world kingdoms of earth. And, John’s Gospel is centered mostly around John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus and the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah.
We have been hearing the prophetic claims of Isaiah the prophet throughout Advent, and together we have discovered that the writers of the Gospel’s emphasized that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic writings of Isaiah. And, here in this text it is clear that John the Baptist is pointing to the fulfillment of the Messianic texts of Isaiah. John the Baptist was a prophet like Isaiah, and like the prophet Jesus. John’s testimony points backward to the fulfillment of a prophet’s words, and points forward to the fulfillment of the words in himself and Jesus.
When we look at Jesus’ baptism texts collectively across the Gospels, we see they are the same yet different. All of these writers were serious about their relationship with Jesus. Each one very much wanted to convey the Gospel story about Jesus to the people they loved – Jew and Gentile. Yet all these stories look completely different. It’s the same John the Baptist and the same Jesus. John and Jesus both have a prophetic calling on their lives to fulfill. It is the same God who called John to his ministry of “preparing the way” who now opens the heavens to call Jesus to his ministry as the Messiah.
Each storyteller has conveyed the story a little differently from the other. They are all different stories bearing the same truth. All of them are completely right in their own storyline. Not one of them is “wrong.” All of them are faithful followers of Jesus, not one of them was a half-hearted Christians. Yet, each one of them experienced the storyline differently. All of them were in a covenant friendship with Jesus …all of them were disciples – 1st generation, 2nd generation, and 3rd generation …all of them were accountable to their church communities when they wrote the stories. Each one was an accountable disciple in a covenant relationship with the household of God, just like each one of us here today.
As we think about the baptism of Jesus, we have an opportunity to reflect on our own baptismal covenant. Today provides us an opportunity to remember that each one of us has been called to the water to receive a cleansed and purified heart before God. Each one of us comes up out of the waters of baptism changed. Each one of is uniquely called and gifted. It is an individual experience of covenant relationship with God that brings each one of us into the household of faith to live life in community with one another. This covenant that we are called into through baptism is one of accountable discipleship in a community called the church.
Steven Manskar is the Director of Wesleyan Leadership with the UMC Global Board of Discipleship (http://wesleyanleadership.com/about/). Steve does a great job conveying to us what covenant and accountable discipleship is all about in this excerpt from Accountable Discipleship in the Household of God. Hear what Steve has to say to us today.
Covenant is a relationship between God and his people. It all begins with God extending an invitation to his people to be in relationship with him. God initiates, signs, and seals the deal with the blood of his own son, Jesus, who delivers us from the power of sin and death.
Discipleship is the human response to this covenant of love. The goal of discipleship is that we come willing into a relationship with God to be formed into his image. Discipleship says, “let the same mind be inside of me that is inside of Christ Jesus.” Discipleship becomes the life we live within the context of the household of God. When we become disciples, we give up our rights to our own personal feelings and beliefs by taking on Christ’s very own disposition about things. A disciple by its very nature means living in the context of a community of believers.
Disciples become conformed to the image of God within the context of the community of faith. Discipleship happens in community with others – not alone. Disciples are to be accountable to one another in their words and deeds. If we do not remain in accountable relationships with one another, we become self-deceived, self-righteous, and self-centered. We cannot stand as lone rangers either inside the walls of the church nor outside the walls. Because disciples submit to the transformation of their inner self to be conformed to Christ’s likeness, then we no longer get to make self-centered choices as to what we do in our lives. Our lives are given over to the collective of the household of faith.
As disciples we celebrate two sacraments – baptism and communion. Each one holds significant meaning. Today we will speak only of the baptismal sacrament. When we think about baptism, we often think of the use of water being poured, sprinkled or a person being immersed.
Baptismal Covenant is the relationship that makes discipleship possible because it binds us to God and one another in Jesus Christ. The symbol of water baptism marks the beginning of the relationship between us and the church. In the act of baptism God claims us as his very own child and adopts us into the household of believers by faith alone. In this great act of mercy God promises to always love and forgive us as his adopted children. Baptism is God’s work. In baptism we receive the gift of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Accountability is how we make sure that our discipleship is happening. Being accountable to one another helps us all grow into the image of God rather than the image of a distorted reality in our thoughts or in the culture around us. Watching over one another in love helps us to stand against the traps and vices of our flesh. Accountability helps each one of us to pull off our visors to see the areas of our lives that we are living in self-sufficiency. Being a disciple is hard work. We must fight the temptations to do what we feel is convenient for us, or to do what we find interesting, or do what we want because it just feels right. Accountable disciples do not get to do what they want to do – they do what God requires of them. They are called and sent to do tasks that only God can do through them.
Disciples have one main goal – to tell the story of Jesus Christ in their lives. Disciples tell the Good News to the world around them. Disciples live holy lives that others can see – humility, compassion, healing, wholeness, justice, peace keeping, and holy contemplation. The Holy Spirit guides and empowers each of us as disciples to be faithful witnesses to God in the world and in the church.
Jesus gave the disciples one main household rule. He told them to love God and neighbor. And when he told his disciples to love their neighbor, he offered a clause – love your neighbor …as yourself.
For us United Methodist we have added three rules to support this notion of loving your neighbor. First, do no harm, and avoid all kinds of evil. If what you are doing or saying is creating harm, then you are to stop doing it. Period. If you are participating in evil or your friend or family member is choosing to do evil, the change your relationships. Second, do all the good you can. If you are not doing good, then you need to start looking for opportunities to do good for your neighbors, not only in the church but especially to those outside your sphere of influence. Third, employ the means of grace – offer prayers continually, “fast” often, participate in communion as often as you can, study God’s Word diligently, and join an accountability group that you might grow and mature in your faith.
Through baptism we are made one Body in Jesus Christ. We are commissioned to service and witness through our various responses to God’s love shown to us through Christ Jesus, the source of our salvation. Through the renewal of our baptismal vows we are given the opportunity to enter into this family we call the church.
As the church we have been called out to express the mind and mission of Christ by devoting ourselves to a life of gratitude and devotion, witness and service, celebration and discipleship. We have been called to proclaim the ongoing work of salvation through worship of God and the constant use of all the means of grace as we strive on toward perfection.
As we renewal our baptismal vows today we affirm our commitment to the covenant of reconciliation that is the foundation of our faith. And, our pledge to serve God, study Scripture, offer our spiritual gifts, give our financial talents, and practice our Methodist heritage of accountability as faithful members of God’s household.
To remember our baptismal covenant let us hear what Hoyt Hickman writes in The Worship Resources of the United Methodist Hymnal. Hickman offers us this reflection on the Service of Baptismal Covenant.
In baptism we were joined to God and to the whole church through a gracious covenant. A covenant implies an interaction between parties – one person to another. In the baptismal covenant God promises that we are adopted sons and daughters by divine goodness, not by anything we merit or can earn. In response, we promise to live as faithful people within the community of the church.
God’s promises are never broken. There is no such thing as rebaptism, because God never goes back on the promise to regard us graciously. But we continually break our promises to God, if only by forgetting about them. Therefore, we are called to renewal again and again. From time to time it is well for us to be reminded of our faithlessness and to reaffirm our part of the baptism covenant.
Every time we witness someone else’s baptism, confirmation, or reaffirmation of faith, we should renew our own commitment, whether aloud as a part of the service or quietly in our hearts. But on some occasions, like today, when there are no candidates for baptism, confirmation, or reaffirmation of faith, we can join in such a renewal as an entire congregation to remind one another that we are all in this together. Our commitment to God and each other remains strong if in the midst of schism and disagreement with one anther.
This is the meaning of our service today. When we have affirmed our baptismal faith through the vows and the use of the Apostle’s Creed, we give thanks over the water by recalling God’s mighty works of goodness toward us and his whole creation.
In these actions we gratefully remember our baptism. [Today some of us will remember our own water baptism event, or the moment when we realized God wanted us to be in a deeper relationship with him.] Today we remember the deep meaning of the covenant grace of baptism. We remember God’s mercy and strengthening power by the act of faith. We remember our resolve to be faithful Christians.
Hickman points to the words of the prophet Ezekiel that each time we proclaim our baptism we are fulfilling this prophetic word across time and history. Through baptism we are declaring the words of the prophet Ezekiel has been fulfilled. Ezekiel 36.25-26 says that God has a covenant promise for his people. God says to his people, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” Water is the symbol of this cleansing act where God gives us a clear conscious to him and one another. As far as it goes for you, let this water by a reminder of what God has done for you, and with thanksgiving in your heart, renew your commitment to Jesus Christ in his Church.
As we think about our Wesleyan roots let us further remember the words of Mr. John Wesley who teaches us in his writing entitled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection that we are to be guided by the principle of unity in the church. Mr. Wesley once instructed his followers to beware of schism, of opinions coming to tear the church apart with inward disunity among the believers. Wesley did not believe other people’s opinions should ever come to divide or separate people.
Wesley urged his people not to condemn others who think differently from you. Wesley urged his disciples to remain in fellowship with those of differing opinions, and not flee from them. Mr. Wesley warned his followers to beware of pride, self-will, anger, and unbelief that will lead astray into self-deception. Wesley reports that bearing with one another and suffering our differences in meekness and silence is the sum of the good Christian life.
So as we gather around the baptismal font today let us recall our commitment to God and neighbor, church and the world. Let us remember that we are called to a covenant relationship with God …we are called to be disciples who live in an attitude of the Good News …we are called to accountability within the household of God …we are called to fast, pray, read God’s Word, take communion regularly, and be in small accountability groups which Wesley calls Christian Conferencing. Wesley warns us to suffer our differences with meekness and in silence as that is the sum of the good Christian life. These are the practices of the people called Methodist and we would do well to be guided by such principles.