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Sermon for January 12, 2020

Texts:  New Testament Reading: Acts 10:34—43;    Gospel Reading: Matthew 3: 13–17

Some initial notes on the story preceding the next read today from Acts:

  • Cornelius, a Roman centurion who is described as a God-fearing man, sees an angel who tells him to send men to Joppa to look for a man named Simon Peter
  • Meanwhile Peter is on a rooftop and has a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven with all sorts of food on it and a voice inviting him to eat, even though there are forbidden foods on the sheet, this happens three times
  • While he is considering this vision the men sent by Cornelius appear and the Spirit tells him to go with them as they have been sent by God.
  • Again this is unusual because these men are Gentiles, but Peter obeys and goes with them.
  • When he arrives Cornelius explains he was led by the Holy Spirit to send the men for Peter.


Sermon:  New Life!, Now What?


Our texts today continue the Epiphany theme of revelation.  Peter has a revelation that the Gentiles are to be included as members of the growing Christian movement and We are witnesses as we listen again to story of Jesus’ baptism and the revelation that he is God’s son.

As we think about these texts, another Epiphany theme becomes apparent, the theme of inclusion.

Inclusion is one of those tricky concepts.  We want to belong, to be part of family, community, church and other groups.  The desire to belong in innately human.  We want to know that we are welcome, part of the team.  Yes, of course there are groups or clubs that we may not want to participate in, but we want that to be our choice.  Certainly, we don’t want anyone else telling us we are excluded.

On the other hand, there are times and situations where we want it to be just us, a romantic dinner for two, an after party for the just volunteers who worked on the project, only members in good standing can vote on the proposal.  I was talking to a woman in my tai chi class whose daughter recently got engaged and they are in full wedding planning mode.  She told me that she had decided to invite just a few close friends and family members—people who had a long standing relationship with her daughter.  But, the mother of the groom wanted to invite everyone–all of her social and work friends.  Her attitude was, the more the merrier.  My friend said, if those people don’t really know the kids, why should they be invited?

Weddings are one of those tricky inclusion areas, which is why lots of people decide to just go to the county clerk or to a Vegas wedding chapel.  They want to keep it simple and avoid the drama.

Of course, the situation that Peter is dealing with is more serious than who to invite to the party. He is responsible for growing the church and carrying on Jesus’ legacy. This is important work.  And when we are doing important work, we want to feel like we know what we are doing, that we are on solid ground, but he has these visions that challenge the guidelines and principles he grew up with.  It was against Jewish law to eat certain foods and to associate with Gentiles– don’t eat with them, don’t invite them into your house, and certainly don’t travel miles to go visit them.

But then he has this vision of the sheet of foods and God telling him to eat.  And shortly after that he hears God telling him to go with the men who have just arrived at his home.  A different understanding of what and who was to be included was being revealed to Peter.

A few days ago, Alan and I were watching a show about different ways of doing Barbeque around the world.  And of course, one place featured was Texas.  The film makers interviewed a couple that had been doing barbeque the same way in their restaurant for many many years—they were a local tradition. The woman said that when they first opened their restaurant, it had an entrance that was for “Colored only” and another one for “Whites only”.  But she said that shortly after opening up they decided they did not want to do it that way anymore –it was not in the spirit of good barbeque.  They decided to have just one entrance.  Some customers said they would never come back, but that was ok with them because it was more important that everyone feel included and be able to share the food together in the same space.  They had a vision of the way it could be.

And we know that was the right thing to do, because the message from God is clear—everyone is included, all are welcome.

This was the message that Jesus lived out, it was Paul’s mission in life and now Peter is proclaiming, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

After Peter speaks to those gathered in Cornelius’ home their story continues –they are filled with the Holy Spirit and Peter baptizes them.

Baptism is the way we welcome people into the community of faith. It is a rite of inclusion.  The roots of baptism are deep in our tradition, they are connected to Jewish cleansing rituals.  Baptism stories are in our Bible.

The life of John the Baptist is intertwined with Jesus’ from the time that the angel appears to Zechariah saying that he and Elizabeth will have a son and then a few months later the angel Gabriel appears to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to bear God’s son.  As Jesus begins his ministry, he goes to John to be baptized in the Jordan.   And then, the heavens open and God says, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Given these deep roots, it is interesting that we have a variety of understandings and traditions about baptism.  We have this very moving story about the baptism of Jesus, but then we don’t really hear about the baptism of the disciples.  John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water but the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  This could imply that the nature of baptism changes with Jesus but then Paul is baptized and as the disciples spread the good news, they baptize the new converts.

As the early church began to grow there were some parts of the Christian movement that started the practice of preparing people for baptism, including months of study and preparation.  Also, the belief developed that once you were baptized, you were washed clean of all your sins and needed to remain clean and free of sin.  Now that would be quite a challenge!  So as you might imagine, in those days Christians began deferring their baptism until they were at death’s door and could be confident of their success in meeting that challenge.

Then baptism made a 180° turn.  In the middle ages it was Augustine who began talking about the whole concept of original sin and the need for children to be baptized soon after birth to wash away that sin.  With the Reformation, Martin Luther rejected the concept that baptism was necessary to wash away original sin.  Instead he understood baptism as an act of God’s grace, a “washing of regeneration” in which infants and adults are reborn. It had nothing to do with the faith of the believer, rather it was the action of God choosing that person.

Later, the Anabaptists rejected the concept of infant baptism citing no biblical foundation for it and so supported the practice of baptizing believers. People who chose to become part of the faith.

So there are lots of ways of understanding baptism.  And thank goodness that idea of sinning no more after baptism has faded away.  But one thread that runs through all these understandings is the concept of new life and rebirth.  In the act of baptism, we become part of a new family, the family of God.

So those of us who have been baptized have been changed, we have been reborn, claimed by God.

And frankly, even if you have not been baptized, you are still included, still claimed by God.  Just as Peter had the revelation that the food laws and laws about associating with Gentiles were no longer operative, so it is with baptism.  You don’t have to be baptized to be included.  God claims all of us! God’s grace and love is available for all of us!

Yes, we could say no thanks, I don’t want to be a part of that.  But if we say yes to God, then in that act, we are essentially reborn—made new.

And so the question becomes, now what?  What does it mean for how we live our lives?

What does it mean that God chooses us?

One of the things that is interesting to note about the response of God to the baptism of Jesus, calling him “the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” is that Jesus has not really done anything yet, other than get baptized.  He has not performed any miracles, has not cast out any demons, he has not even told a parable.  In Matthew’s gospel, this story is our introduction to Jesus as an adult.  God is not saying; “Good work Jesus, job well done.”  Instead, God is affirming God’s love for Jesus.

It is not all that surprising that God would express love in this moment.  Just think about your own children and how you love them unconditionally, how just hearing from them can brighten your day.  And even when things are difficult, or they disappoint you in some way, you still love them.  At those rites of passage in their lives like birthdays and graduations you are filled with love for them.

God loves us in this same way saying, “I delight in you, I am proud of you—just for being who you are.”

And so what is our response to that love?

Step 1:  we begin by accepting it, and seeing ourselves as Beloved.

In baptism we are immersed in the water and this serves as a metaphor for being immersed in God’s love.  We are invited to let it soak in, to fill us and to deeply feel this gift of inclusion.

This is the message of Epiphany, that we live in God’s light.  It is a positive and uplifting message. And even though we all want to belong and feel accepted, it can also be a struggle for us.  We may not feel like we deserve all this love and light. We may not feel worthy.

Brene Brown is a social researcher who has studied belonging and vulnerability.  In her research she found that the one thing that separated people who had a strong sense of belonging from those who struggled to feel accepted was that people who had a strong sense of belonging also had a strong sense of worthiness.  They had  good self-esteem.

So, if you find yourself struggling with your own worthiness, remember that God calls you beloved.

Brown writes:

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

We hear in this quote another answer to the question of how do we live our lives in the light of God’s love?  We do that by staying true to ourselves, listening to our heart and sharing who we are with others.

As part a Christian community we have God helping us to feel accepted and loved.  So let that love sink in and know that you are beloved, worthy, and included.

And then, as the song says that we will be singing at the end of our service, we pass it on.  We share this sense of love and belonging with those around us.

Jan Richardson,  a pastor, artist and writer, says “ The “small-g” graces flow out from Big Grace and come to meet us in the midst of our daily life, helping us know we are beloved and inspiring us to respond in love to an often graceless world.”

Baptism happens to us only once in our lives, but we are invited every day to remember that we are God’s beloved and that we belong.  So accept this gift and know …that God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it!