And so the season of Epiphany unfolds with another revelation of who this Jesus really is from the Gospel of Matthew. Like the stars that revealed the birth of the Messiah to the wise ones from the East, the Spirit shows up today in the descending of a dove and a voice from the heavens…
Today in the life of the church we remember that Jesus, God with Us, our Emmanuel, entered into ministry after three decades of life, and he did so with something of a splash.
No pun intended.
Jesus places himself in John’s care for the baptism John offers, and John knows that Jesus is the One. The One that he has been sent to announce. The One that will work over the next months and years to teach and heal…and he will teach and heal, dine and hang out not just with the Jews but with a wide range of folks…Jews and Gentiles, saints and sinners, men and women.
There is something really big going on here. Who Jesus is and what Jesus will do is so much bigger than the imagination of most of those around him. Did John really know? Did he know what a big deal this was?
Here at the Jordan, God claims Jesus as his beloved. Audibly. Visibly. Publicly.
Let’s take some time to unpack our text from Acts today because the snapshot we get is only the end of a longer story – a story of baptism and of the bigness of what Jesus has done and is doing.
Prior to the text we read today, Peter has had a vision about eating unclean food, with God speaking to him, telling him it is not for Peter to decide what or who is clean and unclean. At exactly the same time, Cornelius, who is a Roman citizen and the commander of a large group of Italian soldiers, but has also been devoted to the one God Yahweh, is visited by an angel – an angel who praises his loyalty to God and sends him to Joppa in search of a man named Peter.
This is important set up to what we’ve heard today. Because what we’ve heard today is Peter’s address after having Cornelius show up at his house and tell of his vision. Peter realizes that the Holy Spirit is up to something – that Cornelius, a gentile, has been sent to Peter whose been commanded not to decide what’s unclean.
When Peter puts this all together, he testifies to what is happening, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as a judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
In the next few verses, which weren’t read today, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who are listening – the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out “even on the Gentiles.” And Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
This is the first Gentile conversion…it is the moment when we – you and me - are grafted into the body of Christ. A moment when baptism became a vital part of how we entered into new life in Christ.
This is the beginning of how we fit into God’s covenant promise as it is summarized by the prophet Jeremiah – I will be their God and they will be my people.
We become part of that covenant relationship. We. You and I.
In this season of Epiphany, we are watching for what God is revealing.
Last week we talked about discernment…about those places where we are using all of our senses and our gut to help us see how God is speaking into our lives individually and collectively.
Today, we are reminded by the very life of Jesus that through baptism we are part of a covenant community. And so we focus today on covenant.
A covenant is a commitment between two parties. In the Old Testament, the Covenant, in simplest terms is the promise that God makes to the Israelites to be their God…but really, it begins with the relationship in the Garden.
God creates a beautiful garden and sets a rule. Adam and Eve accept the rule and then break it. God could destroy them and does not. And while turning them out into a harsh world, God also clothes them, providing for their survival.
God provides the Law and promise land flowing with milk and honey. The Hebrews struggle, following, doubting, murmuring, turning away. And God keeps faithfully showing up – with water, with manna, sometimes with a cross word. And sometimes the Hebrews return to God and sometimes they drag their feet a bit. But they do eventually come into the Land.
Throughout the scriptures, time and time again God’s people turn away. And sometimes in the Hebrew scriptures, it seems that God gets angry… but he always returns and gathers God’s people back in.
Then in Jesus, God expresses a new covenant. A promise that we are forgiven and loved…as he pours that love out on God’s own son who is flesh and humanness just like we are. This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.
Today, in light of all this, we make space to reflect on our own baptism. And I hope we do more than reflect. My prayer is that we hear our commitments anew and consider how we might draw closer to the God who loves us so.
The hymnal says this about our baptismal covenant – the promises we make to God and to one another while God pours out the Holy Spirit over the water:
“The baptismal covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God promising our response of faith and love. Those within the covenant community constitute the church…”
To be clear, that means that all the baptized constitute the body of Christ.
And to be clear, baptism isn’t something we do as a congregation – we witness what God is doing. (Just like at communion when we remember this isn’t our table but God’s, baptism isn’t something we the church do – it isn’t something we much control. God’s got this.)
In our baptismal vows, taken for us if we were baptized as small children but confirmed in the act of confirmation when we are old enough to speak for ourselves:
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent.
We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
We confess Jesus as Savior and Lord and agree to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.
Are we keeping up our end of the deal?
I suspect that many of us don’t think daily about this commitment we make, the relationship to which we’ve agreed. I doubt that we think about the promise of God’s loyalty and our promises in return. I suspect that the ins and outs of our daily life – our jobs, traffic, our bills, our travel plans, our schedules, our health, our kids and our parents – keep us in moments from being fully aware of the relationship that we’ve been included in. The larger family into which we have been adopted. The loving arms in which we are embraced.
It makes me think a bit of a hug. A hug really takes two people, right? I know that sometimes as an act of resistance my kids would refuse to participate in a hug… I kind of imagine God hugging our selves that aren’t actively hugging back because we are busy with other things…
I wonder how often we pay attention to our part of that hug with God whose arms surround us each and every day…who longs to whisper – beloved, I am pleased with you.”
And I am mindful then of all the people to whom God reaches with that same love and grace. Every single person. No matter what. Loved. Embraced by this promise to be loved.
God is there keeping up God’s end of the covenant… even when we fail at whatever effort we make to try.
How many places can we say that is true for us in life? That someone is holding on to us with unconditional love?
And we can think about this in a highly individual way – and it becomes more powerful and possibly more difficult when we think about it as the body of Christ?
Where are the places we fail to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness? the places we fail to resist evil, injustice or oppression?
Because that stuff is hard, and would probably interrupt our lives on a regular basis if we were truly focused on it all the time. We’d have to rethink a lot of how we interact in the world. Are the clothes we wear made on the backs of children forced into child labor? Is our produce picked by folks paid less than a living wage? Is our choice to drive everywhere impacting the sanctity of God’s creation? Are we preserving our own comfort in our church rather than radically welcoming everyone – because the “everyone” might make us uncomfortable?
Today’s word is covenant. It’s complicated. And I suspect we never fully live up to our end of the deal. I try. Sometimes. And honestly, there are times I am too distracted to remember my end of the deal.
My prayer is that we can be grateful for the way we have been fully adopted into God’s loving arms.
And that we will, individually and together, seek ways to reach back out in love on God’s behalf.
May it be so.