Acts 10:1-23, 34-35, 44-48
One of my teachers, Ernie Campbell, preaching professor and pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, noted that there are only two kinds of people in the world – “those who are God’s hands and know it and those who are God’s hands and don’t.” The famed preacher asserted that each us belongs to God, even if when we don’t know it.
Epiphany is about knowing who we are, knowing what’s going on, knowing that God loves us forever and there’s nothing we can do to lose that love. Epiphany, the season of revealing, awakens us to the beauty of life and it is also about revealing evil and calling people to repentance, and we have seen evil in our nation this week. We can’t unsee it, excuse it, or forgive it, and we are all called to repentance. Though we may find it difficult to see a glimmer of God’s light in domestic terrorists and those who provoked them. This is not politics, this is spirituality and faithfulness to God’s realm of Shalom, the Beloved Community.
Baptism is about belonging, about recognizing you belong to God, and are part of a larger story, God’s story of love embodied in faithful communities throughout the ages. Today, we will reflect on what baptism means and how it can shape your life. How baptism calls us to accept grace, and challenge injustice and evil.
We must begin with a few flexible definitions: first, baptism is a visible sign of God’s grace. Grace is always concrete: the word becomes flesh in Jesus in baptism and communion, and in daily events of loving kindness. Tragically, like Jesus, we live out our baptism is the world of rulers hellbent on destruction and we seek grace when we see carnage all around.
Second, baptism can occur at any time of life. Asinfants, experiencing God’s grace without prior conditions. As teens or adults as a sign of our willingness to accept God’s grace and become pilgrims on the pathway of discipleship.
Finally, God loves you even if you haven’t been baptized. God’s grace does not depend on what we do , including our participation in the sacraments: like the most loving Parent or Grandparent, God’s love is unconditional. There are no outsiders to grace: even those who did evil on January 6 are loved by God.
There is salvation and healing beyond the church and its sacraments. God loves us, even if we’ve never been touched by holy water and there’s nothing we can do about that.
We belong to God even when we run away from God. We are loved even when we are unloving. The father – and dare we say the mother – runs to greet a prodigal child. A woman looks for a lost coin until it’s found. A shepherd scours the countryside until the lost sheep is found and brought back to the flock. This doesn’t mean God – or we – excuse those who perpetrate or encourage violence, but we recognize that as evil as their deeds are, we are not separate from them. We too need grace and forgiveness, perhaps now more than ever because we have condoned evil – the evils of racism, ecological destruction, and poverty in the wealthiest nation on earth. Even when we are lost, we still belong to God’s realm! We are still loved!
Today, we remember the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River. Jesus comes to the Jordan River seeking baptism from his longtime spiritual friend, John. John is hesitant at first, but Jesus insists and when Jesus is baptized, a voice from heaven bursts forth, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
Can you imagine God saying that to you, “you are my beloved child, and I love you?” That’s what God says to every child – you are loved, without condition; you don’t have to prove anything to be loved; just say “yes” to my love, open your heart, and let me love you and then let my love flow through you to others.
God says to Jesus, “you belong to me, and you are mine – forever.” God says to you, “you belong to me and you are mine – forever.”
This is not “cheap grace,” that allows us to destroy, hate, and assume God favors us over others. This isgrace that calls us to be on the side of the angels, to challenge injustice, to call out racism, and to still find a way to see holiness in those whom who perpetuate the evils we deplore.
If our children only learn this – God loves them, we love them, and they can love in return – their lives will be joyful and loving. If we do nothing else in church, we must love our children, the children of our community, and the children of the world. This is the greatest antidote to what we viewed on Wednesday.
The story of Cornelius is a radical witness to God’s unhindered grace. The story is spellbinding – it involves visions and mystical experiences and crossing boundaries of belief and ethnicity. As righteous as Cornelius was – he was a god-fearing Roman who most likely had high moral standards and believed in the one God of Israel – he didn’t belong to the community of faith and, worse yet, he was a military representative of an oppressive nation.
Cornelius was unclean to faithful Jews. That’s why Peter puts up such a fight when God shows him avision of a smorgasbord filled with tasty delights and then invites him to have all those delicious but spiritually unclean foods we love so much – lobster, crabs, shrimp, oysters, ham, and bacon. Nothing is unclean, no one is unclean, and everyone belongs, God admonishes Peter.
When Peter shows up at Cornelius’ house, all heaven breaks lose! The Holy Spirit descends and people start singing and dancing, revealing God’s spirit that breaks down every barrier of race, ethnicity, and gender. All Peter can do is baptize Cornelius and his household, recognizing their full humanity and equality in Jesus Christ. God’s grace is unhindered: it shows up in the most unexpected places and transforms the most unexpected persons, even us, even the domestic terrorists and those who provoke them.
Grace can transform us: it can transform the riotersin the Capitol and those who encourage them, those who betray their commitments, those choose self-interest over the community and planet.
So today, remember your baptism! And, if you haven’t been baptized, know that God loves you, and can say “yes” to God’s path of salvation. You belong! You can be forgiven and begin again. You are God’s beloved child!
One more thing about baptism: it is a gift; a gift that calls us to become givers. Loved beyond belief, we make our lives a gift to the world. We let the waters of baptism flow through us, giving life and nurture to others. We can love more, we can simplify our lives so others live, we can challenge injustice and root out our own injustice, and we can work for a world where everyone is treated as Gods’ beloved child.
Loved much, we love others, even those we identify as despicable. Remember your baptism! Remember you belong! Remember the grace that guides your path and opens your heart to give and forgive!