A Sermon for the Baptism of Jesus
A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a trip to Israel with a collection of clergy from Maryland, Jewish Rabbis from conservative and reform traditions, Christian clergy of a variety of denominations, and one Imam. The trip was sponsored by the Institute for Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Studies and I was both honored and excited to attend. We were engaging in a unique kind of trip that would immerse us in the sacred sites of all three faiths born from the same small patch of land in the Middle East. We were challenged to remain in relationship with each other as we explored the sacred as well as the painful and divisive history of our three faiths and present political situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It was an amazing experience that caused the locations and geography of the scriptures to come alive for me in a way that I had never really imagined before.
On the first day of our trip we walked South from our hotel in Tel—Aviv and visited the port city of Jaffa, in scripture this city is called Joppa. We walked along the water's edge, passing boats and ancient architecture lining the docks that looked as though a fisherman—Apostle might at any moment, stumble out of the door and hop on his boat to cast his nets into the sea. I was still very jet—lagged and it all felt like an out—of—body experience. Along the way, I saw a plaque next to one of the doors and went over to read it, "Simon, the Tanner's House." The place where Peter had a vision that all food is clean, and all may eat together. Woah . . I looked at the stone building, the wooden door, the roof, and I remembered the story in the book of Acts where Peter falls into a trance on the rooftop and God shows him three times that all creation is clean and acceptable and no food is profane. In other words, the kosher laws laid out in Leviticus no longer needed to keep people who were Jewish apart from the Gentiles who ate pork, lobster, and mixed dairy with their meat.
Peter's vision came at a pivotal point in the development of Christianity because as the Apostles carried the gospel around the Mediterranean, the Gentiles also heard the good news and began following Jesus and receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and yet they knew nothing of the Torah or the God of Israel and the men were not circumcised. (Adult circumcision is a hard sell when you are evangelizing gentile converts.) This was very astounding for the original Jewish followers of Jesus who found themselves rubbing elbows at communion with people who would never previously been invited to the dinner table. If all baptized people are children of God, then through Christ, baptized Jews and Gentiles become one family of siblings because they are followers of the same Savior. This new reality was quite shocking.
Right after passing the seaside door to Simon the Tanners house, we walked inland toward the central square in Jaffa and facing the square was a large church in striking sunset orange stucco, called St. Peter's. The interior was undergoing restoration to its frescos, but I found another plaque explaining that this church was erected by the Franciscans in the 1650s on top of an old medieval citadel to remember St. Peter's vision and the development of the Christian community to embrace all people, regardless of their faith heritage and ancestry. I looked around at my interfaith companions and I began to feel like perhaps the book of Acts was still being written in the coastal town of Jaffa as we attempted to embrace and understand each other as brothers and sisters in our sibling faith traditions. Maybe God is still trying to bring us all together into one family?
The Acts reading that we heard this morning is Peter's speech to the gentile community who arrives at Simon's house in Jaffa right after Peter's vision and invites Peter to come to Caesarea and share the Gospel at Cornelius' house. Cornelius is a gentile and a centurion in the Roman army. Peter has every reason to refuse their invitation, but God's vision urges him on to create community where there has only been division, exclusion, and conflict.
Peter preaches the good news to these hospitable gentiles, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all . . " The gentiles are not people of Israel, but they are part of the ALL that Jesus as Lord of. In the midst of Peter's preaching they are filled with the Spirit: they begin speaking in tongues, and extolling God. Peter and his Jewish friends are shocked to see gentiles immersed in God's Holy Spirit. Then Peter says, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invite him to stay for several days. I have to imagine that Peter got hungry and ate a few meals with his new gentile brothers and sisters in Christ and violated a few dietary laws. The exclusive nature of belonging to a tribal faith was being overturned by an inclusive adoption initiated by a God who shows no partiality.
The baptism of Cornelius' community by Peter was a watershed moment for the life of the developing Christian community. Prior to this moment, the apostles thought that they controlled who entered the family of Christ by choosing who to baptize with water. And up until then, their Jewish community was invited into the waters of new life. But after Peter's vision and the Holy Spirit showing up before the water had ever covered their heads, God reminded them (and us) that God chooses who is part of the family and God includes every one, no exceptions.
Sometimes, even today, I think we get confused about the exclusive or inclusive nature of our baptismal faith. We are given the great commandment at the end of Matthew's gospel, "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." We must take these marching orders seriously. And yet I wonder if we have too often used baptism as a litmus test to separate us from one another instead of an experience of God's overwhelming generosity? We certainly recognize baptism as an entry point into a life of faith in Jesus Christ. But is baptism the exclusive entry point into the household of God? Do we really control who is in God's family and who is left out? Who is welcome to break bread at the table and who is outside of the communion? Isn't it possible that God might baptize a person in the Spirit ahead of our scheduled Sunday to get them wet in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Throughout the book of Acts, every time the Apostles think they are in control, God shows them that the community of the faithful includes Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor, men and women. In our own Acts movements God has shown us that infants and mature adults, gay and straight, Lutherans and Episcopalians are all equally welcome to serve and receive from God's table. I find that I'm with Peter when he says, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God."
Now don't get me wrong, I believe baptism is a sacrament, a holy gift offered through the ministry of the church to all people. I am honored and humbled to celebrate this sacrament with all those who request to receive it and be welcomed into the household of God. But after standing there in the town of Jaffa with my interfaith clergy beginning our journey to understand our complicated relationship as three Abrahamic faiths and wrestling with centuries of wars, crusades, and holocaust. I am aware of the power of God's ability to overcome our limitations and make us brothers and sisters in spite of ourselves.
—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
January 8, 2017