Rev. Jeff Bacon
January 12, 2020
Let’s open our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, open our hearts and minds, and fill us with your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
William Barker tells of a machinist at Ford Motor Company in Detroit who became a Christian and was baptized. Shortly afterward, the Holy Spirit inspired him to make restitution for some car parts and tools he had stolen from the company before he had become a Christian. The next morning, he brought everything back to his employer, explaining how he had just been baptized and wanted to make things right. His boss was dumbfounded so he sent a cable to Mr. Ford, who was out of the country, asking him how he should handle the situation. Mr. Ford sent an immediate reply: “Make a dam in the Detroit River, and baptize the entire city!”
Damming the Detroit River would, in fact, “baptize” the entire city. The word baptize comes from the common Greek word baptismo which simply means to immerse or to dunk. For example, a garment is “baptized” in liquid dye, where by immersing the garment, the dye penetrates every fiber of the fabric. So, in a literal sense the people would be baptized by the water of the river, but every fiber of their being would not be filled with the Holy Spirit!
Our reading from the gospel according to Matthew this morning describes the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, by full immersion in the Jordan River. John the Baptist clearly recognizes Jesus as his spiritual superior, and acquiesces to baptizing Jesus in obedience to Jesus, which reflects Jesus’ obedience to God. The “Spirit of God descending like a dove,” after Jesus emerges from the water of the Jordan River, signifies the new beginning of a new Creation, reminiscent of when “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” in the Creation account of Genesis 1.
When Jesus emerges from the water, God’s voice from heaven exclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This statement is similar to the First Servant Song of the prophet Isaiah, which Matthew quotes again later in his gospel. Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased, and Jesus is also a servant; a servant for God in total obedience, and a servant for all humanity. The conclusion of the gospel according to Matthew is the risen Christ telling his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” The disciples’ total obedience as servants is expected. The ordinary water of baptism becomes Holy Water.
Our first scripture reading from Acts this morning describes the first gentiles joining the early Christian church, and how Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, becomes the Good News for all nations. It’s the climax of an important story.
The apostle Peter, the rock upon which the early church was founded, set out on his ministry travels near Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a small town called Lydda, about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem, Peter healed Aeneas who had been bedridden for eight years. From Lydda, Peter was called to go to the ancient Mediterranean seaport of Joppa, about 11 miles further northwest, because a female disciple named Tabitha had become ill and died. Tabitha’s body had already been prepared for burial when Peter arrived. Peter told her to get up and raised her from death.
Meanwhile, in Caesarea, about 30 miles further up the Mediterranean coast from Joppa, there was a Roman centurion named Cornelius who was a generous man who believed in God. At three o’clock in the afternoon, a time that was set aside for religious observance for the faithful of Israel, Cornelius saw an angel of God who commanded him to send for Peter, who was staying at Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa. Cornelius complied and sent three men.
Back in Joppa, at about noon the following day, Peter went to Simon’s rooftop to pray and he fell into a trance. He saw a large sheet descend from heaven filled with ritually unclean four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds. A voice told him to kill and eat, but Peter refused because he would not eat what is profane or unclean. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” All this happened three times to reinforce its importance to Peter and then everything disappeared back up into heaven.
Peter was puzzling about what his vision meant when the three men sent by Cornelius arrived and the Spirit told Peter to go with them without hesitation. Peter invited them in and the next day, Peter and some of his friends from Joppa went with the three men to meet with Cornelius and some of his relatives and close friends in Caesarea.
When Peter arrived in Caesarea, he began by reminding the gathering of gentiles at Cornelius’ house that it was unlawful for a Jewish person to associate with, or to visit, a gentile, but God had told him not to call anyone profane or unclean. And then Peter began to speak to them in the words that Carolyn read today. Peter recounts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and the anointing of Jesus by God with the Holy Spirit and with power. Peter continues with how Jesus did many good deeds and healed many, and was then crucified, rose again from the dead and met with his disciples, commanding them to baptize people and share the Good News.
Then an amazing thing happens. The Holy Spirit falls upon all who hear Peter speak. Peter and all of his Jewish friends are astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out even on the gentiles, so Peter decides that they should all be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Ordinary water becomes Holy Water. Cornelius is the first unclean, uncircumcised gentile convert to Christianity. What an amazing epiphany for Cornelius and his family; what an amazing epiphany for Peter and his Jewish friends from Joppa; and what an amazing epiphany for us gentiles today.
This event, which is sometimes called the Gentile Pentecost, marks a new beginning for Peter and for the Christian church that was implied years before by the epiphany of the three gentile wise men that visited Jesus as a child. Christianity is totally inclusive. To that point in time, the disciples had been trying to follow the Jewish rules, which required the men to be circumcised, divided the world into clean and unclean, and required obedience with hundreds of strict Jewish codes of conduct. But Peter and Cornelius, with visions from God, began a religious revolution that defined Christianity. In about the year 50, less than 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, there was the first gathering of disciples in Jerusalem called the Jerusalem Council, where it was determined that gentile converts to Christianity would not have to be circumcised because “a person is justified not by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Peter learns of God’s will by puzzling about his divine visions, by considering the reports and divine visions of Cornelius, and by prayerful reflection. Our understanding of God’s will is also often puzzling, influenced by unusual thoughts and experiences, influenced by the reports and visions of others, and influenced by prayerful reflection. Our faith is a prayerful process of discernment, like Peter’s.
But we shouldn’t confuse our lengthy discernment process with the complacency of God. God is not a bystander or observer in our passages today. God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power at his baptism by John the Baptist; God sent messages of peace and love through Jesus; God raised Jesus after his death; God enabled the risen Christ to meet with the chosen witnesses and tell them to baptize people and share the Good News. Then, God is totally active and engaged in the lives of Peter and Cornelius, orchestrates the “coincidences” of their encounter and sends visions for both of them. And now, God continues to be active and engaged in our lives and sends visions and inspirations to us.
Our baptism is not a passive or merely symbolic event. Baptism is often likened to a wedding ring given in a wedding ceremony. The wedding ring, like baptism, publicly marks a new commitment for a new beginning of a new relationship. Baptism is certainly symbolic of our faithful commitment to God. But baptism is more than that. After our baptism, if we open our hearts and minds in total obedience and vulnerability, God will make God’s-self intimately known to us in a powerful personal epiphany. It’s the life-changing Good News of Holy Water! Thanks be to God. Amen.