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The Outset (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

by John Stendahl

John Stendahl is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Dec. 24-31, 1997, p. 1219, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Here it begins: the baptism of Jesus is the occasion of his calling. Even in Matthew and Luke, which begin with stories about his birth and identity, his baptism is the inception of the main narrative. It is here that the adult Jesus shows up on the stage of history.

In this event, baptism means more than repentance and cleansing. Here baptism issues in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the giving of redemptive identity. God says to Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved." Although this epiphany is a public revelation in our telling of the story, the words come intimately to the praying Jesus, not to an audience of eavesdroppers.

Much lies ahead for Jesus from this point. He must live out this identity and meet expectations laid on him. Look how John has been speaking about the anointed one already; remember how the crowds will project their hopes and desires on him.

Jesus’ baptism thus leads us to consider the meaning of "vocation," a word that has lost much of its resonance through repeated use, both secular and churchly. Vocatio means calling, but "calling" often denotes simply job or career, chosen profession or peculiar task. The notion that it is God who calls seems a commonplace piety when we are talking about "church vocations," calls to "ministry" or "the religious life," but it sounds more like an afterthought or theological overlay in regard to ordinary life. Vocations are the way we make our livings, and avocations -- the things we don’t have to do -- provide our recreation.

Of course, some of us have been so schooled in a doctrine of vocation that we know better and would hasten to include any and all virtuous jobs in this world under the heading of God’s potential callings. The work of the waitress and the plumber is as precious to God as the labor of any preacher, physician or scholar. Although this teaching itself is not bad, it often sounds unconvinced and patronizing. Class condescensions and resentments lurk here; this theology can too easily obscure issues and excuse offenses.

The language of vocation is problematic not just in its churchly usage (where the distinctions and congruities of "inner" and "outer" calls can trip us up) but in the more common reality of a multiplicity of calls with competing claims upon the stewardship of our lives. We do not have just one vocation, and we struggle to balance different responsibilities and relationships. Anointing one of our vocations as holier than another may be a dangerous thing. Is my ministry more a vocation than my marriage, or my responsibility as a citizen less than my relationship to my children? The claims of others call out to us, often by name, and often out of genuine need.

And what if vocations seem to change in the course of life? What one once felt called to do or be no longer seems right. What then? Sometimes, of course, the covenants of the past must hold us in faithfulness. But sometimes new callings come and lives are remade in response. What of those who are adrift, unsure of any calling? Our lovely imagery of vocation then seems naïve, better suited for the supposed stability and limited choices of an earlier age.

But consider this: the calling of Jesus is not about a job or a career. It is not a word of mission, sending him into the future. Not at the outset. The word of baptism is first of all about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this child called by name. Not a call to do, but a calling that names.

I was an adult with children of my own when I came across my baby book, the collection of precious trivia and wonder prepared for me when I was new in the world. Among its pages was my mother’s description of how on the day of my birth she held me on her belly and welcomed me to the world. With me there in that hospital room she offered up the great Laudamus in thanksgiving.

As for Jesus, so for us. Our first calling, the baptismal call, is the one that simply loves and names: You are my child. I delight in you. The words embrace us and promise to hold us. This is where it begins, and this is also, we dare claim, the last word, the one that holds our future.

Yet in between that beginning and that end, this baptismal call will often become a call to action. It will mean mission and ministry and all kinds of tasks. Anointing is a sign of blessing, but it is also a commissioning. As for Jesus, so for us.

Not many years after my welcoming into the world, I learned to heed my mother’s voice calling me home from play to meals, homework and chores. If love is unconditional at its root, it entails the desire and expectation of life true to its vision, living up to the good that was seen. My parents and teachers and scores of others called me and sent me to the vocations of my life. These vocations have come through human voices and relationships, institutions and communities; they call to me as a husband, father, son, pastor, citizen, colleague, friend. The calls are many, but their beginning is one.

Not every cry can be answered and not every call is from God. So it is a blessing when we can thank God for the joy of purpose in our lives and for times when the call to a certain task seems clear. Yet even when our callings seem hard to sort out or beyond our ability to fulfill, even in the day of failure and betrayal, I pray to remember again the calling that comes first and last. The tasks and duties do matter, but what abides -- our identity, our belonging, our hope -- is heard here by the waters. You are my child, beloved, delight.


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