Friday, January 10, 2014

The Baptism of Our Lord

I thought I had preaching duties this Sunday, but the rector and I crossed signals about the date. So I wrote a sermon this week and now have no place to preach it other than here, among my "virtual congregation." And since it's done, a couple of days early to boot!

Today is the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words epi-phanos: literally “to shine forth.” These weeks, from now until Ash Wednesday, serve as an invitation to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation and the ways that God-with-us isn’t something that happened a long time ago in Palestine, but is still true today. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. God is still being made manifest among and through us even now. So here’s my question for you: where is God being made manifest in your life, in the life of your congregation, in this part of the world - right now? Hold that thought...

This first Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of our Lord. The name is pretty self-explanatory, and today’s gospel reading is pretty straightforward: Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan River where he’s baptized by John. Soon after that, his public ministry begins. I don’t really have anything more to add to that, at least today. Instead I want to call your attention to a story that for many, I suspect, needs a bit more explanation. It may be a familiar reading since these words from the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles are read every Easter morning. But usually our attention on that day is focused on the empty tomb and the gospel reading, so it tends to get ignored. So let's stay with that text today. 
Then Peter began to speak to them. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”
These words represent a really big epiphany for good old St. Peter—a shining forth of the light, a new insight, a new perspective on the mystery of God at work in the world. Something has happened to Peter to lead him to this new place. As we consider it, we need to back and up remember another congregation in another time and place. It was a congregation that was daily being pushed out of its comfort zone—being pushed into the world in mission, being pushed to live the meaning of the Baptismal Covenant even at the risk of their own lives. Let’s call it St. Swithun’s, Jerusalem.

After the resurrection, after they unlocked the doors  for fear of the authorities and Jesus came to them to say “peace be with you” – after all that happened, you all remember what came next, right? Eventually, Peter and the others found their voices again. They found courage and trust, and then they began to share the good news of God’s mission to the world. They became part of a movement that was shattering old boundaries and inspiring hope even in the midst of a declining Roman empire. The good news began to spread from that community to the north and south and east and west. And as it did, lives were changed. Not just the lives of those who came to join this movement; the community itself was changed in the process. As all that happened, the community was renewed and transformed.

So that is what this sermon that Peter is preaching in Acts 10 is all about. Think back to Peter on the last few days of Jesus’ life, still getting it all wrong. While he had confessed Jesus to be the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi, he was confused about what that meant: he wanted victory without the cross. And then on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus wants to wash the feet of his disciples, insisting again that the power of love is stronger than the love of power. But again Peter resists. Even more poignantly, this Peter who said he would follow Jesus wherever he led ends denying that he knows the man, even when his Galilean accent betrays him. So the cock crows, and Peter weeps: a failure, a broken fisherman who risked it all and then when the chips are down blew it. End of story.

Except that it is not. Because here is the thing: Easter day isn’t just about new life for Jesus. It’s about new life for Peter and for all who follow the Way of the Cross. Brokenness becomes the path toward healing. Death becomes the way to new and abundant life. The early church, in its wisdom, was not afraid to portray Peter as a kind of loveable buffoon, as someone whose heart is in the right place but who is constantly getting it wrong. But that is because they also knew Peter to be the rock in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus saw in him all along. They knew that having encountered the risen Lord and radiating with the Holy Spirit, Peter was a man on fire, a man on a mission! And that the same could be true for us, with God’s help.

So in the tenth chapter of Acts, we find ourselves back in Caesarea again—back to the place where Peter first claimed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The narrator calls our attention to a Roman army officer named Cornelius: a God-fearing and generous man of prayer. Well that all sounds nice, doesn’t it. But still, he’s a Roman soldier (those imperialist pigs!) He’s still a Gentile. He is still part of a foreign occupying power and worse still, he’s therefore seen as ritually unclean. You don’t associate with people like that and everybody knows it! He’s the kind of guy that you know you are supposed to love, because you are supposed to love your neighbor. But some neighbors are best loved from a distance!

Anyway, Cornelius has this vision around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the narrator tells us. He sees an angel and the angel says, “Cornelius: send men to Joppa and find a man named Peter.” Joppa is about thirty miles away and there are no automobiles so it’s way more than a half hour away. Even at a good clip with no stops this is at least a seven-hour journey. But Cornelius trusts his dream, knowing that dreams are one of the ways God chooses to speak to people, one of the ways God breaks through when our defenses are down and even though some dreams may seem crazy (and this one seems a lot crazy,) And so he sends some men to Joppa.

Around noon the next day, Peter has his own dream. He is up on his roof praying when he has this strange vision: he sees the heavens opening and something like a large bedsheet being lowered and on it are all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds. And a voice says: “Peter, kill…eat.” Now that sounds like the voice of the devil to Peter; it sounds like a voice of temptation to be resisted. So he responds:

. . . no way…I’ve kept kosher my whole life and I’ve never eaten anything unclean…well, maybe I did once gaze lovingly at net full of shrimp on a fishing trip me and the boys once took but I swear I didn’t eat one!

But the vision happens three times, and three times Peter hears a voice that says: “what God has made clean you must not call profane.” And so he starts to wonder: maybe this isn’t a temptation at all. Maybe it’s an epiphany. Maybe God is trying to invite him to see things in new ways and to act in new ways. Still, though, this makes no sense to Peter. It goes against everything he has been taught his whole life and it would totally freak out his kosher grandmother! Peter isn’t a Christian, remember. That term comes later and doesn’t even exist yet in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is a faithful Jew who believes Messiah has come and that his name is Jesus. As Peter would have understood that, it doesn’t mean he has “converted” to a different religion. He remains a devout Jew and he is expected to continue to keep Torah; all of it and not just the convenient parts. And the heart of Torah is about being set apart. That’s about keeping the Sabbath holy (Saturday, not Sunday!) and about circumcising your sons and about avoiding certain foods. None of that was supposed to change when messiah came!

Well, can you see where this thing is going? Cornelius’ men now arrive from Caesarea and they knock on Peter’s door and they find this rather perplexed apostle and they ask him to go with them, which is to say they ask him to travel thirty miles back to Cornelius’ home for some lunch. (Apparently Cornelius has this new chef from Louisiana who makes a mean crawfish and sausage gumbo!) Something inside of Peter convinces him to accept. These two guys—this Jew and this Gentile—get together to exchange visions, and they figure out that God is doing something new here. They eat together and then Cornelius is baptized and as Paul Harvey might say, that is the rest of the story. So that’s when Peter says it: I truly understand that God shows no partiality…

I could stop there and that is probably a long-enough sermon for most and maybe even kind of interesting to some. But let’s be honest: Jewish dietary laws don’t tend to get Christians all worked up in 2014. So now I want to move from preaching to meddling. Because if the story is to stick for us, then we have to realize what a radical thing has happened here. So imagine that Peter is Irish Catholic and Cornelius is Protestant and they both live in Belfast, and they find a nice pub and sit down and share some shepherd’s pie and a couple of pints of Guinness. Or imagine yourself in South Africa during apartheid, and Peter is a guy who has done some prison time with Nelson Mandela and Cornelius is a white Africaaner. Or that Peter is a Palestinian Muslim and Cornelius is a Russian Jew living on West Bank and they sit down over a falafel. Or that Peter is a traditionalist Anglican and Cornelius is an openly gay priest and they find themselves at the same Super Bowl party eating chicken wings and drinking Pepsi. You get the point? I truly understand that God shows no partiality…

What we need to realize when we hear the opening words in Acts 10 is that worlds have collided. We are used to seeing what happens when worlds collide, both on the international stage and much closer to home. Usually when worlds collide, violence ensues because of decades or even centuries of fear and mistrust and old grudges. But in Acts 10, instead of violence, there is healing. There is reconciliation. There is a pretty intense epiphany: I truly understand now, Peter says, I get it! God shows no partiality

Ultimately Peter and Cornelius follow their dreams, and they break bread together. They come with joy to meet their Lord, forgiven, loved, and free…and strangers now are friends. They become companions along the way. Literally. They “bread with” each another: com-panis. They get a sense in their bones (that they both trust to be of God) that it’s time to find common ground and reconciliation and healing and new life. What then is to prevent the community from baptizing Cornelius? Which is really to say, what is to prevent the community from welcoming Cornelius and his family and including them in their life together? It’s a totally rhetorical question, and the deed is done.

This bizarre dream about clams and shrimp and pork chops coming down on a sheet from heaven is ultimately an invitation to every generation of Christians to become first aware of all those places of division in our world, and then for us to accept God’s call to be peacemakers and ambassadors of reconciliation: and when we do that, when we build bridges rather than walls, God is made manifest. The light of Christ shines forth and it is Epiphany again and again and again.  

And so I end where I begin, asking once more: where is God being made manifest in your life and in the world around you? How is the light of Christ shining forth, even now, and how is the living God inviting you to live more faithfully into the dream of God, until it becomes a reality?

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