Baptism of Christ/First Sunday after Epiphany – January 9, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 42:1-8Psalm 29Acts 10:(1-20)34-43Matthew 3:13-17

By Bruce G. Epperly

The Baptism of Jesus, or “the Baptism of our Lord,” could be renamed “God’s Love is for Us All.” In the spirit of Epiphany, the readings join intimacy with universality. God’s love is universal; all are chosen, personally as concrete human beings. There is no room here for theologies of exclusion, dividing the world from eternity into elect and reprobate, or saved and damned. While baptism is not necessary for salvation, the sacrament of baptism pronounces a blessing on all humankind and, as Psalm 29 portrays, on all creation, not just those who are baptized as infants, children, or adults.

Isaiah points to Israel as God’s chosen people and to the uniqueness of God’s chosen servant or embodiment of God’s vision. Yet, being chosen is not an individual possession but a gift to the world. Our gifts and our unique relationship to God, is intended for our fulfillment and delight, but also to bring light and justice to the world. God’s glory radiates forth to all creation. Our spiritual growth is intended to bless others. Like the radiant sun, God doesn’t keep beauty as a private possession – God does not horde God’s glory – but gives life, light, and breath to all. God’s vision inspires us to embody the same vision, to bring justice to the nations. God delights when creation fulfills its vocation and, on the human plane, this can only happen through a commitment to the liberation of all creation. This is the call of tikkun ‘olam, to heal the earth, and this call goes forth to everyone as giver and receiver of divine blessings.

Psalm 29 speaks of the world as it is and as it is intended to be. God is not a curmudgeon, reserving joy and salvation to but a few; God wants all things, human and non human, to experience beauty, companionship, and delight. This is the world we are intended to see if, as Aldous Huxley, asserts the “doors of perception” were opened. This is a god-filled world, alive with wonder and beauty. Perhaps, our violence, greed, and fear, is partly the result of ecstasy deprivation. It is not enough to balance the budget or secure the borders; these are means to a greater good – the creation of a peaceable realm in which small children and their parents can feast their eyes on beauty – their own and the world’s. Our national well-being is intended to bless the people within our borders and throughout the earth.

The reading from Acts needs to be expanded to include Acts 10:1-20, Peter’s dream, perhaps through a readers’ theatre. The story of the dreams of Peter and Cornelius not only adds context; it invites the congregation to explore possibilities toward which God is calling us as people through dreams, mystical experiences, intuitions, and encounters. Peter’s universalism did not come automatically: he had to come to terms with the fact that God was calling him beyond his tradition’s values, not by negating the dietary rules, but seeing them from a larger perspective. Nothing is unclean – all things are blessed; no one is off limits, all are welcomed to God’s table. This is both a matter of diet and salvation. God shows no partiality but seeks the salvation of all people; all are chosen and all are loved. While I am not a heresy hunter, and believe that a lively faith affirms a variety of theological positions, these passages suggest that those who hold what they presume to be the “orthodox” visions of elect and damned, saved and unsaved, may, ironically, be the “heterodox” in their placing power above love in defining God’s character.

Jesus’ baptism points to his uniqueness as God’s beloved child. But, more importantly, it points to our uniqueness as God’s beloved children. The most important affirmation any child can receive in church, home, or school is that she or he is loved, without having to achieve or prove anything. No parent – and no God – loves us in spite of ourselves; good parenting, whether divine or human, is unconditional. As theologian Thomas Jay Oord points out, love should be at the center of Christian theology and our vision of God, not power or sovereignty. Sovereignty without love is narcissistic; power without love is diabolical. Sadly, much theology has been more demonic than divine, inspiring exclusion, domination, destruction, and oppression.

I believe that God’s words to Jesus are pronounced on every child, not just at baptism but throughout her or his life. And, this is what we should be saying in everything we do in church: this is the most effective antidote to shame and low self-esteem and this is the most effective way to promote personal and communal well-being. This was surely what Paul had in mind in his vision of the body of Christ, in which every part is important and valuable, and flourishes through an environment of affirmation and support.

This morning, my wife and I have been up since 4:00 a.m. with our first grandchild. We have played, sung, and rocked with this twelve-week-old, allowing his parents to sleep a few hours longer. We have also taught him some good theology this morning; theology in his cells, bones, and senses – the theology of love, protection, and care; a theology that proclaims that you are loved before – and even if – you can do nothing to earn it. Like all children and adults, he needs to hear God’s words speaking through us, “You are my beloved; I am well pleased; I will create a world in which you can learn to love and serve.”

If baptism means anything today, it is as a revelation of divine love; a visible sign of an unending, non-negotiable, universal love – a love that embraces “unclean” Gentiles and all who perceive themselves as “unclean,” a love that calls us to bless the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.