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Epiphany 1, The Baptism of Christ, January 9, 2011

Epiphany 1A RCL The Baptism of Christ January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

This morning, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ and we celebrate and recall our own baptisms.

We begin with the lesson from Isaiah, which describes the Servant, with whom we as Christians identify Christ. This passage can also describe the ideal servant community. Isaiah says of the Servant, “A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” The servant is infinitely gentle. Yet, says Isaiah, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth. The servant, or the servant community, is quiet, unobtrusive, does not force, yet has great endurance and doesn’t give up until justice is established. Isaiah continues, speaking to the people in exile, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoner from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”

A new creation is beginning. A new order of justice. The Servant will establish his reign of justice, but he will do so by protecting the weak plant until it can grow and by cupping his hands around the flickering flame until it can grow strong.

Our passage from the Book of Acts is the central sermon by Peter, which is found in the middle of a great story. This story begins with Cornelius, a centurion on the Roman army. This means that he commands a company of 100 soldiers. Cornelius believes in the God of the Jews, but he does not follow the law. He is a devout man.

One afternoon, at about three o’clock, Cornelius is praying, and an angel of the Lord comes to him and tells him to send messengers to Joppa so that they can find a man named Simon Peter and tell Peter to come and see Cornelius so that Cornelius can hear what Peter has to say.

While those messengers are on their way to find Peter, Peter has gone up on the roof to pray, and there he has his vision of all kinds of food coming down on a sheet, and the voice of God saying, “Kill and eat.”

Peter tells God that he has always followed the law; he has never eaten anything unclean, and God tells him that nothing is unclean. In other words, Peter, who has always felt that the new faith is only for Jews, now realizes that the faith is for everyone. Peter has thought that converts would have to follow the Jewish law. God tells him this is not the case. Something new is being created.

Just as Peter is puzzling over this vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive and tell Peter that they have been sent by Cornelius, an upright and good man, to take Peter back to see Cornelius to see what Peter has to say.

So, bright and early the next morning, Peter and some other believers from Joppa set out for Caesarea to see Cornelius. When they get there, Cornelius has gathered a group of his family and friends, all Gentiles. As Peter is preaching the good news to them, the Holy Spirit falls on the entire group of Gentiles, who begin to speak in tongues and praise God. Peter then realizes that, since these people have already received the Holy Spirit, they should be baptized. This happens, and then the whole group spends several days together. In other words, a new community of faith is being born.

Jesus is baptized, and his true identity is revealed. Our baptism tells us who we truly are—children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

We can clearly see how Jesus embodies the characteristics of the Servant described by Isaiah. These are the qualities which are needed for ministers and ministering communities. We are all ministers by virtue of our baptism. Everyone here at Grace carries out an amazing ministry out on the world. Each of you nurtures those who are weak until they can become strong. Each of you treats those who are hurting with healing tenderness. Each of you and all of you minister God’s care for each person as an infinitely precious child of God. I believe, and I think we all believe, that God has called us together to be a ministering community following the model of our Lord.

Peter very firmly believed that the mission of the apostles was only to the Jewish people and that new converts would have to follow the law. What a quantum leap it was for Peter to realize that, in his own words, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God,”

Both Cornelius and Peter were listening very carefully to God and following God’s guidance. If they had not been faithful, this amazing encounter, the showering of gifts of the Holy Spirit and the subsequent baptisms would never have happened.

What are these lessons saying to us? One thing is that we need to ground ourselves in the Servant songs of Isaiah. Most scholars think that Jesus’ vision of his ministry was rooted and grounded in the model of the Servant. Like Jesus, we are called to base our ministry on that model–gentleness, especially toward those who are most vulnerable, and yet perseverance, hanging in there until God’s shalom covers the whole wide earth.

Secondly, we are called, I believe, always to be open to God, always to be listening for God’s direction. If Peter hadn’t listened; if Cornelius hadn’t listened, we would have lost that outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If Peter had not listened, the nascent faith would have been a tiny sect of Judaism.

May we be a servant community of compassionate gentleness and stalwart endurance. May we always be listening for the guidance of God. May we be always open to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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