In the early times of the Roman Republic, the 5th Century BCE, the city was in great danger while fighting tribes who lived nearby. The Republic was headed by two elected officials called consuls who presided over the Senate, however in times of trouble when there was need to national unity they would appoint a single person to rule for six months called a dictator. They called upon a man named Cincinnatus, who was an effective military leader in the past, to guide them in 58 BCE during their time of distress, which he did very quickly and efficiently. At the end of the war sixteen days later, they invited Cincinnatus to continue ruling over Rome, but he declined, gave up power and without a lot of fuss went back to his farm and the plow he left behind when he was called to lead. He did this more than once.
George Washington had a similar career in a very important way. He did campaign to become the commander of the armies during the American Revolution, however, when the war was over he resigned his commission and went back to his farm until they called him back to help write the Constitution and become our first President. He could have served as long as he wanted, however after two terms he left office quietly and returned to his farm in Virginia. Around that time they were settling Ohio, and when they founded the main city of that rough new state they named the city Cincinnati to honor George Washington, who was the modern Cincinnatus.
When we look at the Baptism of Jesus, we could say the same thing that John says: I should be baptized by you. After all, Jesus could do anything he wanted, he didn’t have to follow our traditions and conventions. But from the beginning, Jesus marked out his relationship with us on an equal footing. He refused special honors and did not rewrite tradition without good reason. He knew that his ministry was about God’s embrace of the world and not just working out whatever he, Jesus might want to do. His ministry wasn’t about personal privilege or fulfilling his personal needs, but about serving the world on its own terms. As Jesus went through his ministry, he had this talent of blending in with the crowd at times. He did not have to be at the front of the group, but he could travel in the midst of his people or even behind them. As we go through this year of readings that navigate the life of Christ, we will hear of Jesus sending his disciples on ahead of him, and of Jesus fading into the crowd at times when the attention of everyone was one him. Just after this account in the gospel of Matthew, we don’t have anything flashy going on: Jesus retreats to the desert for 40 days, drops out of sight.
As we make this turn in the story, as we conclude this Christmas season and turn to the adult life of Jesus, we are linked to Jesus Christ through out baptism and called to continue his mission in earth. We are called to carry on as he did. It is tempting to look at ourselves as church as a system of perks; to take turns riding the pony at a party, to take turns getting our way when it’s our term to serve. But that’s not why Jesus was here and it’s not why we’re here. Jesus did not come to make everyone do things his way without explanation by the authority he possessed. He came to show us a new authority, an authority that serves the needs of others first, as an authority that did not seek to guarantee its own interests before anything else. An authority that calls us to serve one another, to put aside how we might want to do things, to accept the needs of all above our own personal preferences.
Just as Jesus committed himself, we commit ourselves through baptism and renew that commitment every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. When we’re called to lead, we take it up only as long as needed for the good of all, and we hand it over when we’re done. Our main calling in everything we do is follow Christ, and we best evangelize him by how we serve rather than how we lead.