The Weightiness of Baptism (1st Epiphany A)
The Weightiness of Baptism: Identity and Mission
1st Sunday After Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
January 12, 2020
Peter began to speak to them: “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. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as 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.” 44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This Thursday, we had a funeral here at the church. As you know, the aisle down the middle of our nave is pretty wide and easy to access, but it is often a very tight fit for pallbearers to get through the doors of our narthex into the nave and around the baptismal font. So after talking with the funeral director this week, I decided that we needed to temporarily move the baptismal font to accommodate the funeral home.
On Wednesday, while the Altar Guild was setting up the church for that service, I went ahead and started trying to move the font. I say trying because I underestimated just how heavy it was. It’s made of pure marble so it’s very heavy. And I tried a few different ways of tipping it over and getting it to move from the spot where it was planted on our rug. Each time I tried, the top-heavy weight of the font pulled me back down. [Some of the ladies on the Altar Guild can attest that it was not easy at first; they were legitimately concerned that I was going to hurt myself.] Eventually I sort of spun the font like a top and moved it inch by inch until it got to a spot about four feet away that would no longer obstruct anyone for Thursday’s funeral.
This funny story got me thinking about the weightiness of baptism. Baptismal fonts are built to be heavy, permanent fixtures in churches that are hard to move. And that’s because baptism is so important to the life of a Christian. Baptism is at the core of who we are (identity) and at the core of what we do (mission). Identity and mission are two of the primary purposes of Baptism.
In Baptism, God gives us the Holy Spirit and assures us that our sins are forgiven. Baptism helps us become members of the Body of Christ. Baptism forms our common identity. This identity is weighty; it’s important. It needs to ground us and serve as the foundation for everything we do.
And Baptism also is how we grow the Church. When we welcome new members to the church, whether as children or as adults, we baptize them. And if they are already baptized, we call up the church that baptized them to get a record of it and make sure that they were baptized. (We don’t repeat baptism because we believe God is working in any baptism performed with water and in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; God is bigger than our denominations and differences.) So this mission to baptize others is also weighty. It’s at the center of what we do, and it’s too heavy to move away from the center to the edge. We can’t relegate it to secondary status. It must remain our top priority.
We get a pretty clear picture of these two purposes in the lesson we heard from Acts 10, though you might not know it from just reading the verses provided in your bulletin. The Book of Acts takes place in the years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It contains stories about how the apostles spread the Good News of Jesus across the whole Roman Empire and beyond.
This passage is a short speech by St. Peter when he was summoned to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, an officer in the Roman army. Cornelius was a God-fearing man and a generous man, but a Gentile, a non-Jew, who was not part of the chosen people of Israel. This is the first time that one of the apostles shares the Gospel of Jesus with somebody who isn’t Jewish. Remember that Jesus was Jewish and the apostles were all Jewish, so in those early days they assumed that Christianity was just a movement within Judaism. To be a follower of Jesus, they thought, you needed to become Jewish and just follow this more faithful Rabbi named Jesus.
But that wasn’t God’s plan. God wanted to see the Good News of Jesus, the message of salvation and forgiveness, spread throughout the entire world. God wanted people of every tribe and nation to know God’s love and grace in Jesus. Therefore, the Gospel needed to become cross-cultural. It had to transcend the boundaries of Israel’s culture, Jewish culture, the dominant culture featured in the Old Testament and the Gospels. The message of God was so big, that one culture could not contain it. So Peter had to learn a lesson.
God spoke to Cornelius, the Gentile soldier, in a vision and told him to find Simon Peter. Then, God spoke to Peter in a vision and showed him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Peter goes to Cornelius’ house and he asks Peter to tell him “everything the Lord has directed you to say” (Acts 10:33). That’s where our passage starts. It’s why Peter’s first words are, “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” (10:34-35). So in this moment, God expanded Peter’s mind and showed him a new way of seeing the world. He overcame his prejudices and assumptions and began to see God’s hand at work in people of all colors and nationalities and cultures.
So Peter shares with Cornelius the Good News that God sent Jesus Christ to be the Lord of all and proclaim a message of salvation throughout Israel. He was baptized by John the Baptist and anointed with the Holy Spirit and power. He did good works and healed people who were sick and oppressed, but he was rejected and killed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Then God raised him from the dead and sent the apostles as witnesses of his resurrection to share this Good News with the world.
And in the lectionary, the passage ends right there. But if you open a Bible to Acts 10, you’ll see that the story isn’t over:
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
So Peter, empowered by his baptism, listens to God’s voice and shares the Good News with an unexpected person. And through his preaching of the Good News, Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit and they were baptized. Peter’s baptism and his relationship with God led to more baptisms and more relationship with God.
God’s Good News was so heavy, so powerful, so important that it changed Peter in more ways than he could imagine. Peter was transformed by the Holy Spirit, forgiven of his prejudices, and propelled to change the lives of others.
Now it’s time for the Good News of the Week!: Jesus forgives our sins and empowers us with the Holy Spirit through baptism. Jesus can forgive us of our deepest, darkest sins, and even our worst prejudices. The Holy Spirit can surprise us when we least expect it and change our world for us. Just as the Holy Spirit fell down on Jesus when he was baptized and on Cornelius’ family when they were baptized, the same Holy Spirit falls on us when we are baptized and every time we gather together in worship. And God always forgives us in order to empower us to do good works. Peter took his forgiveness and learned to share the Good News with Gentiles. God the Holy Spirit also called and empowers us to share the Good News with our friends, family, and neighbors. Jesus’ forgiveness and empowerment are available to everyone.
And if you aren’t baptized and want to be, we can change that! Jesus is still changing lives today by the power of the Holy Spirit! Receive his forgiveness and receive Godly power through the Holy Spirit. And share the Good News of God’s forgiveness and power so that the world becomes a better place for all. Amen.