Baptism of Our Lord
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who is continually doing a new thing with us. Amen
So in the story of Jesus
we’ve jumped thirty some years
between last week and this week.
Mostly because the Bible doesn’t really tell us anything
in between Jesus’ birth
and his appearance in the wilderness
by the Jordan river to be baptized by John,
the event that starts off his public ministry.
Jesus is starting something new,
and God calls him to begin with baptism,
so Jesus goes from Galilee
out into the desert to the Jordan river
where John the Baptist
is preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
calling people to turn their lives around,
to start new,
and is baptizing people as a sign of that repentance,
that commitment to new life,
John is preparing the people for Jesus
and he’s doing quite well
gathering big crowds
and now Jesus goes up to John and says,
‘I’m ready to take over, baptize me.’
And John says,
‘wait a minute, that’s not how this is supposed to happen,
you’re supposed to baptize me.’
And Matthew tells us
that “John would have prevented him”
and Jesus has to convince John
that this is what God wants,
finally John consents to baptize Jesus
and when Jesus comes up out of the water
the spirit descends and the voice of God is heard
and it’s all amazing,
but it might not have happened
if Jesus hadn’t been able to convince John
that this was the way God was working.
I don’t know about you,
but this sounds like kind of a rough start to Jesus’ ministry.
After all if John,
whose whole purpose in life
was to prepare the way for Jesus
had to be convinced,
how much more convincing is the next person going to take?
Now to be fair to John,
it wasn’t what Jesus was planning on doing that threw him
but how he wanted to start going about doing it,
Jesus just wasn’t what he expected,
but he was open enough to be convinced
and the ministry went forward.
We see this pattern replicated over and over again,
God doing something new
and since God works in the world with people,
we see God partnering with someone
who while open to the new thing
must be convinced of the how
and when they consent,
even a little bit,
the holy spirit swoops in to make the new life possible.
We see this in our story from Acts,
we only read a part of it
but it is the story of the first Gentile converts
to the way of Jesus.
Jesus has died and risen and appeared to the disciples
and before he ascends back up into heaven
he commands them to spread the news of the new thing God is doing,
and to baptize those who desire it
and with baptism will come the gift of the holy spirit
so that’s what the apostles are doing,
they’re creating a new community,
people are hearing their preaching
and believing and are being baptized
and things are going great,
until Peter has a vision from God.
God wants to do a new thing
within this new thing!
God wants to expand the ministry to the Gentiles
which is really just short hand
for everyone else,
literally it means “the nations”,
there’s the chosen people
and there’s everyone else
and up until this point
the Jesus movement has been a strictly Jewish thing
and one very strong characteristic of being part of the chosen people
is to remain separate from everyone else,
so much so that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate or to visit a Gentile
and yet that’s what God is calling Peter to do,
and Peter resists,
he protests that he’s followed the law his whole life,
why break it now?
But God is insistent
and Peter is just open enough to the idea
that when the spirit nudges Peter to go to the house of Cornelius
who is a Roman soldier but worships the God of Israel,
Cornelius has had his own vision from God
And as a result sends for Peter
and after he explains his vision
Peter begins to speak,
and this is the part of the story we had for our second reading
he starts off “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.”
and then Peter who is opening up to this new thing of God
preaches the good news of Jesus Christ to those assembled,
Cornelius and his household
and a remarkable thing happens:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
God is doing something new,
but is convinced enough
to make enough room for the Holy Spirit to sweep in
making new life possible in ways that even Peter can’t argue with,
the spirit is supposed to be a result of baptism
but the spirit descends on the gentiles
while Peter is speaking
making it hard for anyone to argue against baptism,
seeing as they’ve already received the holy spirit
God is making God’s will known
and Peter gives up his protests,
baptizes the household,
and then stays with them
breaking many of the laws he’d spent his whole life keeping
but which don’t matter anymore
because of God’s new thing.
And things are great,
until Peter goes home
and the other Apostles give Peter a hard time
for staying with gentiles
and he has to go through the whole story
before they accept
that God has given even to the Gentiles
the repentance that leads to life.
But this leads to the first major conflict in the church,
the conflict over whether the gentile converts
must be circumcised to be an official part of the community.
Even having accepted that God is doing a new thing,
there are those who disagree with the how,
and the cycle starts to repeat, again and again and again.
the resistance that comes from God doing a new thing
is rarely about God opening the community even wider,
we all theoretically get on board with that pretty quickly
the idea that God loves everyone,
that’s kind of hard to argue with
the resistance comes from the how,
how this new broader circle
changes the community,
changes our lives
and more importantly to us humans,
how we know who is in and who is out.
And that takes us back to that pesky original sin,
the desire to be God,
We want to be the ones that determine the boundaries of the community
when that is God’s job.
It’s all a bit of a mess isn’t it?
God still comes to us,
God claims us at our baptisms,
making sure that we know that we have been chosen by God,
and then God calls us to share the gift we’ve been given with others,
to expand the community,
and when we get caught up in the how,
God calls to us again,
to see the new thing God is doing,
and God works to convince us with the holy spirit,
even as God forgives us our resistance,
our desire to hold fast to the way things have been
when God is clearly doing something new.
And for this I give thanks to God,
for the grace and mercy shown to us each and every day,
for the water that reminds us of God’s claim on us
and the spirit’s movement among us.
But it also makes me wonder,
what new thing of God are we resisting?
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.