Lectionary Reflections on The Baptism of Jesus for January 12, 2014
Acts 10:34-43 (preferred reading Acts 10:1-23, 34-35, 44-48)
This Sunday we celebrate the life-transforming power of baptism. While baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is a sign of God’s grace and opens the door for experiencing a greater impact of God’s energy of love in our lives and communities. In like manner, just as a couple do not have to share rings as a sign of their marriage, the exchange and wearing of rings gives tangible witness to a couple’s commitment and transforms the couple in the wearing. Baptism is a type of spiritual vortex, an axis of graceful energy that attracts other graceful energies into our lives and expands our ability to share grace with others. The promise of God in baptism serves to remind us body, mind, and spirit that we are always recipients of grace: grace does not depend on our perfection, although turning away from God may impede its flow into our lives; grace is a constant, dependable, and faithful act of God that comes to us personally and corporately in all the seasons of life.
My approach to grace is relational in nature. While unconditional, grace is not unilateral, coercive, or uniform. It comes to as just as we are in our unique environmental and personal matrix. Later in life, we may also be baptized – or confirmed – as a sign of our “yes” to God’s grace. Our “yes” opens up the door for new and creative possibilities in our unique personal and communal embodiments of grace.
Isaiah speaks of God’s choice of a person or persons to be God’s messengers to the world. God is doing something new to transform the world, and we can be part of it. Isaiah should not be read in an exclusionary manner: the divine decision to call some persons to unique vocations does not eliminate the universality of vocation. For example, Jesus is unique as God’s chosen messenger and savior; but God’s baptismal pronouncement on Jesus as God’s beloved child applies to everyone. Christ’s salvific word has as one of its aims the awakening of everyone to God’s call in their lives.
Psalm 29 exalts divine majesty and beauty as it is reflected in earthly life. God is self-giving: divine majesty energizes and enlivens the whole earth. Divine power empowers us to do justice. God’s sovereignty brings peace to the earth. Majesty is a moral and relational quality. The center of all things, God also gives life and purpose to all things.
In taking the reading from Acts 10 out of context, as is the case in the appointed lectionary reading, the reading loses much of its power. The story of Peter and Cornelius integrates grace, mysticism, and baptism. Accordingly, my lectionary advice is to focus on Acts 10:1-23, 34-35, 44-48 to get a more holistic view of the passage. Inspired by a vision, Cornelius sends his servants to Peter. Peter also has a vision, challenging his narrow understanding of grace and salvation. Transformed by his vision, Peter travels to the powerful but unclean Cornelius (he was a Gentile), preaches good news, which elicits another mystical experience, the coming of God’s Spirit in dramatic emotional and verbal experience. The touch of God’s Spirit testifies to the grace that transcends any human-made barriers and thus opens the door to the baptism of Cornelius’ household and their full inclusion as members of the body of Christ.
Acts 10 testifies to the universality of grace. God shows no partiality among ethnic and religious groups. Anyone who opens to God’s grace receives God’s Spirit. There are no hindrances to God’s saving word; it encompasses us all. Accordingly, we must witness to the reality that there is much salvation outside the church and its rituals and doctrines. God breaks down every theological and sociological barrier to save the lost and vulnerable.
Jesus’ baptism, described in Matthew’s Gospel, ushers in a new level of vocational consciousness for God’s beloved child. No doubt, Jesus had known of his unique calling as God’s messenger, healer, and savior of the world. I suspect Jesus’ awareness of God’s special presence in his life emerged and evolved over the course of years. A greater light burned in him, and it was now time to acknowledge through a rite of passage his identity as global spiritual teacher, indeed, the hoped for Messiah of the Jewish people. Jesus must now fully claim his vocation, and baptism opens him to the divine affirmation that will strengthen his resolve and focus his energies from now on. “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today, we remember the continuity of our baptisms with Jesus’ baptism and the baptism of Cornelius and his household. We are God’s beloved, who often feel ourselves to be outsiders. Baptism proclaims that we are all insiders in the circle of God’s grace. No act of ours can nullify the grace of God. Yet, in saying “yes” to God’s baptism each day of our lives, perhaps, with our own acts of refreshment and cleansing, we become conformed to God’s vision for us in new and wondrous ways. We may discover with Cornelius’ household new gifts of God’s Spirit, enlivening and energizing us. We may discover with Peter that the baptism we experienced is a call to welcome all people in their wondrous diversity. We may with Jesus live joyfully and actively, sharing the grace we’ve received, out of the abundance of knowing we are God’s beloved children.