Today the church asks us on the first Sunday of the Epiphany season to meditate on the baptism of our Lord.
The great puzzle about this event is why Jesus should undergo baptism at all. John the Baptist certainly seems puzzled. Jesus Christ has no sin to repent, so why does he need John’s baptism of repentance?
Well, for one thing, I think it reasonable to suppose that Jesus intends to share every part of our lives with us, to enter into every aspect of human existence, a fact that we celebrate in the incarnation that we especially remember at the recently passed Christmas season. In coming to John to be baptized, Jesus in yet another way identifies himself with us and follows a pattern that we need even though he does not.
For another thing, Matthew is at pains to show that Jesus and his family are perfectly adherent to the law of Israel. Jesus has not come, according to Matthew, to abolish the law but to fulfill it. By being baptized by John, Jesus shows his readiness to “fulfill all righteousness” as he puts it, to honor the requirements of religious life even though they are not in fact required of him.
Finally, and I think most important of all, our Lord’s baptism is an opportunity to establish with clarity and certainty who he really is and why it matters. In this moment the three persons of the Holy Trinity seem to align, together breaking into the horizontal line that is human history: The spirit descends upon Jesus, and the Father speaks those definitive words: “This is my beloved Son.”
So begins the drama of Christian salvation. And that drama continues today, here at the Church of the Advent, because we will baptize another young person, baby Keza, into the faith.
To appreciate how the drama of salvation continues through baptism, I want to turn to Peter’s preaching in today’s reading from Acts. I do so because Peter’s preaching ties directly to the baptism of Christ and shows us how the salvation that Christ offered was understood in the earliest days of the church.
You will notice that Peter says God sent his own word to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ and that this process began in Galilee after the baptism offered by John. And Peter informs his listeners that it was precisely at that baptism that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, just as we read in Matthew.
Yet the consequence that Peter draws from this reminder is what I want to focus on. And that crucial consequence appears at the very beginning of his sermon: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.”
Why does he say this? The context of this sermon from Acts chapter 10 never appears in our lectionary and yet is vital to our understanding, so I want to talk about it now.
The context is that Peter is in Jaffa, a seaside village close to modern-day Tel Aviv. He has been staying at the home of a friend called Simon who is a tanner.
Now a tanner works with leather and animal hide, and that means a tanner works with dead bodies, and this is unclean. That Peter is staying in the home of a man whose work makes him continually unclean by ceremonial law is proof that Peter is already loosening his attachment to the particular laws that govern ceremonial cleanliness.
But Peter’s attachment to these particulars is broken entirely when Peter has a vision in which God invites him to eat animals that are ceremonially unclean. When he resists, God tells Peter that what was formerly unclean God now declares clean.
This is a revolutionary change. And another one follows: Another man, in Caesarea, about 40 miles up the coast from Jaffa, has a vision at around the same time as Peter. In his vision an angel tells him to summon Peter from Jaffa and listen to what he has to say. That man is named Cornelius, and there are two strikes against him. He is a Roman centurion and a Gentile.
As Peter is pondering what to make of this new revelation from God, Cornelius’s men arrive at the house of Simon the tanner and invite Peter to Caesarea to meet Cornelius. And so he goes.
Finding Cornelius surrounded by family and friends at his home after the journey, Peter speaks these words: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
Now strictly speaking, in the vision that God showed Peter in Jaffa, he learns that he should not call any animal unclean. But the further implication is apparently immediately clear to Peter. It’s not just the case that no animal is unclean. Much more is it the case that no person is unclean.
And that is why he says, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.” This is the radical message of Epiphany, that Christ and his salvation is revealed to the Gentiles, and it is the radical message of baptism, that salvation through Christ is available to everyone today because God shows no partiality.
I have actually been to Jaffa.
Last year when I was in Israel I went to church at the Immanuel Church, which was founded by Lutherans in 1904 but because the Christian community there is so small, today the church serves basically all liturgical Protestants. Parts of the service were taken right out of the Book of Common Prayer, so it felt somewhat familiar.
Other parts were not so familiar.
For instance, they had a stained glass window that depicted a scene from Scripture that you hardly ever see: The baptism of Cornelius the Roman centurion. Here was a rare and remarkable image—the acceptance into the family of God the first Gentile. [See https://www.flickr.com/photos/39631091@N03/6035478353/]
Seeing that image made me think about where I was and the experience of these Christian people, who had been here for barely over a hundred years in a village that was already almost two thousand years old when Peter stayed at Simon the tanner’s house.
I thought about how few churches there were, how far I had to walk to get to this one, and how nobody took Sunday off from work.
And I realized that for once in my life I was in church in a country that was not organized around the Christian faith.
For once, I was the outsider. For once, I was the one who did not belong.
Now I did not get my feelings hurt by this recognition. Quite the opposite. I was grateful. And I think the people at the church in Jaffa were grateful. They remember Cornelius in their stained glass window because they and we are the children of Cornelius, who by baptism join in the great family of God wherever it may be found.
Epiphany is about gratitude for Christ’s revelation to those who are outsiders. And that’s us.
In a place where Christianity is everywhere, with a church on every corner, like where I grew up in Texas, it’s pretty easy to feel like God’s favor must amount to God’s favoritism. But just the opposite is true. In the words of the great Presbyterian preacher James Montgomery Boice, “God has shown favor to us precisely because he does not show favoritism.”
The lesson of the baptism of Christ that Peter understood right away is that baptism is the way to a salvation that lies open to all. Jesus comes into our world to identify with us. All of us. From Christ himself to Peter and throughout the chosen people of Israel and then, through the first Gentile, Cornelius the centurion, and from him to the rest of us down to little Keza. God does not show favoritism. Not even to Anglo-Catholics. And thank God for that. Because God does not play favorites, God shows favor to everyone. Amen.