A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2014. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, and Matthew 3:13-17.
Yesterday we had a small army of friends and parishioners who took down, threw out, cleaned, swept, vacuumed, and did various other things to our church. Thanks to each of them (and along with the downpour of rain over the last few days) it’s as though the church has gotten a good washing for the New Year. That’s especially appropriate as today is a day to think about washing, about baptism, and about the way in which God continues to renew, clean up, refresh, and give new life.
Before we think about the Gospel, I’d like us to look at the second scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. Unfortunately, it begins in the middle of a story. It’s a story about Simon Peter and Peter’s conversion to openness. The story begins earlier in Acts, chapter 10 with the introduction of a character named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman soldier. He’s not a Jew; he’s a Gentile. But God begins working on Cornelius, preparing him to meet Peter.
Meanwhile, God begins to work on Peter. Peter, like Jesus himself at the beginning of his ministry, and like many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, was hesitant to embrace non-Jews. It was unclear how the election of the people Israel might be expanded to include others. But in a vision to Peter, God makes it very clear that all are welcome, all are included, there should be no partiality.
Peter goes to sleep and has a dream. In the vision he’s hungry, and then he sees a sheet lowered down from heaven, a sheet filled with animals and reptiles and birds. And Peter hears a voice that tells him to stand up, kill, and eat. Peter responds to the voice, explaining that he’s religious, he never eats anything that is common or unclean, according to Jewish law. But the voice says to him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And then Peter wakes up.
It’s only later, when God brings Peter and Cornelius together, that Peter connects the dream about clean and unclean food, with his prior understanding of people—the false separations between clean and unclean, between those included and those excluded, between those whom God loves, and those who (for whatever reason) are thought not to be loved so much by God.
And so, in today’s reading from Acts, we hear a wiser and enlightened Peter—“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Peter’s new understanding that God does not play favorites, that God shows no partiality, that God chooses whoever and whenever God desires—all of these ideas related directly to the understanding of holy baptism, which we celebrate on this day, The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The birth child and the adopted child are indistinguishable, since in God’s sight, we are all adopted as children in our baptism. The water makes us one, and as though we were looking at the world through water, when we look out through the perspective of baptism, any distinctions we might have seen before, are blurred; edges are smoothed; difficulties go out of focus. Or at least, that’s the potential offered to us by baptism. Like regular water, it washes us. Though we are baptized only once, we partially re-live our baptism whenever another is baptized; whenever we affirm our own baptismal vows; whenever we touch holy water or are blessed by it being hurled through the air at us.
God gave Saint Peter a vision that helped him to move beyond the confines of his upbringing, his experience and his religion. Even Jesus was shaken out of his own ethnic assumptions by the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite, the Syro-Phoenician, the tax collector and many others.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and we recall our own baptisms, when we underwent the sacrament and symbol of new birth. Especially today, the scriptures invite us to ask what part of our lives God may be trying to expand or enlarge; to break down or build up? What part needs to be washed clean and made new? Are there places in our lives where we continue to hold prejudice or harbor assumptions? Are there places where we continue to show partiality and exclusion to any of God’s children?
The great southern writer Flannery O’Connor often includes characters who stumble upon this issue of where they should be in the great “pecking order” of life. In her story, “Revelation,” a lady named Mrs. Turpin has a vision like St. Peter, but for Mrs. Turpin, it may have come too late. When she’s in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, we get a sense of how she notices people. O’Connor writes,
Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them—exactly what you would have expected her to have on.
The story continues as Mrs. Turpin decides that one person in the room is suitable for conversation, and so the two talk in front of the others as they basically agree on the ways of the world as they see them. At one point, there’s a dramatic altercation with the girl Mrs. Turpin thinks is unattractive. It’s as though all the rage and anger of everyone and everything Mrs. Turpin has ever criticized or looked down on rises up and takes its vengeance.
An ambulance came, the “crazy girl” was taken off and order was restored to Mrs. Turpin’s world…. almost. As she tries to take in all that’s happened, Mrs. Turpin steps outsdie and looks across the yard. There she has a vision.
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.
For Mrs. Turpin, the vision comes late—perhaps too late. For St. Peter, the vision of God’s love for everyone comes just in time, in time to change his life and help him to be a force for change in the church and the world.
May God fill us with visions and dreams and a right reckoning of who we are and who’s we are. May we be washed and forgiven. May we be renewed, may God grant us visions that help us to extend the kingdom of God to ever corner and to every person. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.