Baptismal Identity

Acts 10:34-48
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert

This is the day that Presbyterians and many other Christians focus on the Sacrament of Baptism. We remember the story of Jesus’ baptism and we remember our own Baptism. I wonder how many of you can name your own baptism date. Some of you were old enough to recall the event. Others of you were baptized as babies so you don’t remember it any better than you remember your own birth. But you do celebrate your birthday, so why not your baptism day? If you consider baptism an important event (and you should) then why not celebrate it every year? Make it a special day. Light a candle. Say a prayer. Read a scripture. Be thankful for the gift of God’s grace in your life.

Jacob Jordan was baptized on this Sunday one year ago and Troy Ballou two years ago on this Baptism Sunday. I was in the church where I was baptized last Sunday. I sat so close to the baptismal font, I could view the water inside. I had this urge to reach out and touch it. Sacraments are touchable, visible, physical reminders of a spiritual reality.

Baptism is the moment of inclusion for Christians. It is moment when we say, “You belong to God.” Of course, it is not that God loves us only after baptism, but baptism is an important moment of marking us as God’s children, of celebrating how great is God’s love toward us.

When Jesus was baptized by John, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved. With him I am well pleased.” That’s what God says to you too. There’s nothing you have ever done or can ever do to separate yourself from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Our scripture lesson from Acts recounts one of the most significant stories in the early church after Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is the story of the baptism of Cornelius and his relatives and close friends. Cornelius was not a Jew. He was a God-fearing Gentile. The encounter between Peter and his fellow believers and Cornelius and his household is monumental. It is hard for those of us in the 21st Century to understand how awkward a faithful Jew, even one who loves and follows Jesus like Peter, feels when he is asks to associate with a Gentile. It was against all that Peter had been taught in the temple. It just wasn’t right.

But Peter has this vision and was told to do what his family and religious authorities had always told him was wrong. Peter thought he understood God’s love and God’s commandments, but now he was being told to break the rules he had learned and faithfully obeyed. He was being told to associate with, to include people whom he had previously considered outside the circle of God’s grace.

Hear what Peter (the insider) had to say:

Acts 10:34-48

Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality,

35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel,

preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all.

37 That message spread throughout Judea,

beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 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.

39 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;

40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,

41 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.

42 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.

43 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.

Peter had lived and served with Jesus. He knew Jesus, but he still needed to learn that God doesn’t leave anyone out. Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” He summarizes the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ from Jesus’s baptism to his ministry of healing and good works, to his death on a cross, his resurrection on the third day, and his appearance and communion meals before ascending into heaven. I love the way Peter speaks about preaching peace by Jesus Christ. That what we are called to do – to preach peace by Jesus Christ. Preaching peace happens by Jesus Christ. We do not need to leave out the truth we know in Jesus, nor do we need to ignore that the message is about peace.

Your baptismal identity is that you are named beloved, but not favorite. You are God’s Beloved, but you’re not in an exclusive club. You are Beloved, not so you can do whatever you want, but beloved so you can be all you were meant to be. Too many Christians think God has favorites. God does not love Presbyterians more than Baptists or Catholics. God does not love people in large well-developed churches with beautiful building more than God loves people in small developing churches with no building of their own.

God does not love Christians and Jews more than Muslims and Buddhists. God does not love Americans more than Iraqis or Sudanese or Haitians. God doesn’t love young people more than old people, or married people more than singles, widowed and divorced folks, straights more than gays. God doesn’t love the rich more than the poor, the hard-working more than the lazy, or the A student more than the failing student.

God doesn’t love a particular political party and would chastise both Democrats and Republicans for their (for our) ridiculous polarizing tactics. God does not love upstanding tax-paying citizens more than prisoners or drug-addicts. Preachers more than pimps, pediatricians more than pedophiles. Like a perfect parent, God loves all us children just the same. God wants the best for all of us, and asks the best of all of us. And sometimes is very disappointed by us, by the way we ignore who we really are – beloved children of God. God wants to be in close relationship with every one of us, building in us Christ-like character.

Peter’s lesson was so difficult for the early church, and the challenges of appreciating the breadth and depth of God’s love continue to our day. While we have made strides in understanding people different from us, we continue to polarize and divide ourselves into camps, failing to appreciate that God intends us to live as one human family, united by love. We, of all people, should understand that Christ came to throw open the doors, break open the covenant, to touch the whole world in such a way that it will never be the same again. That’s the message we have to pass on and it is great news, nothing exclusive, just an endless ocean of God’s impartial love for the whole world with waves rolling in, one after another, after another.

As you begin a new year, remember who you are. You are the people marked by baptism as beloved sons and daughters of God. You are the people who know about this endless ocean of God’s love, which washes over every one of us.

No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been, no matter what we’ve been doing, no matter how we’ve been thinking. God’s love surrounds us, fills us, restores and makes us clean. Come to the font today, as you come to communion table. Touch the water and remember that you belong. You have been washed clean. You can begin again. Live as a new person. Be the Christian you are called to be.

Think of your baptismal identity in this way. You are a Christian. Parse the word like this. Christ – IAN – I am new. In Christ you are new. You are a new creation. Come to the font, as you come to the table. Dip into the water, make a sign of the cross on your forehead or splash in the water with your hand. Remember your baptismal identity and be thankful. Say to yourself, “I am God’s beloved. I am a new creation, marked by Christ.”

With all our warts and our broken-ness and our terrible failures and our shameful embarrassments, we can come to the baptismal font and the communion table, and know that we are a new creation and continually being made new by a powerful and loving Lord. We’re truly beloved. We’re truly accepted. We are part of the family of God. And you know what? So are they.

Faithful God, in baptism you claimed us; and by your Spirit you are working in our lives,
empowering us to live a life worthy of our calling. Remind us today of the depth of your unconditional love for us and your high calling on us to live faithfully. Establish us in your truth,
and guide us by your Spirit, that, together with all your people, we may grow in faith, hope, and love, and be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever