On this day when Paisley and Blake are going to be baptized into the family of God, we have a story about baptism. It is the second recorded story of the baptism of Gentiles, in this case a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort named Cornelius, and his family. Cornelius did not practice the official Roman religion, he was a devout believer in God who was told in a vision to send for a man named Peter to enlighten him. He sent servants to fetch Peter so that he might come to their home.
Before this took place, the apostle Peter had been struggling with the idea that Jesus came not just for the Jewish people but for Gentiles as well. God sent him a vision in which he was encouraged to break from Jewish dietary laws. It took three times before he understood that God was trying to show him that not everyone has to be Jewish before they become followers of Jesus. Peter accompanied the servants of Cornelius to his house, but when he arrived he pointed out that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” Then he launched into a sermon in which he tried to show the connection between Jewish tradition and what God had revealed in Jesus. He goes on to explain the mission of Jesus’ followers. That is where our first lesson begins, “As Peter was still speaking…” It seems that neither God nor Cornelius needed to hear Peter’s entire spiel; even as he was talking the Holy Spirit came over the listeners in a similar fashion to what had taken place on Pentecost.
Suddenly Peter realized that God doesn’t play favorites either in food or people. He was discovering there are no requirements for receiving God’s favor beyond recognizing God’s greatness and acting with justice. The action of the Holy Spirit increased Peter’s perception that God acts freely, absolutely independent of the ethnicity or social status of people. Immediately he called for Cornelius and his family to be baptized, in recognition of what God had already accomplished in them.
All of our readings describe how God calls for a new community, not with the intention of wiping out differences, but to manifest the many ways in which divine love can be expressed. In First John, the author stresses that the purpose of Jesus coming into the world was not so much to establish a church, or particular traditions, but “so that we might have life through him.” The emphasis is on the nature of faith, our belief that Jesus, the Christ, has come from God.
We are the loved and loving children of God who keep God’s commandments, which is not a burden because we are loved. We are reminded of Jesus’ crucifixion, but as children of God we believe his death was not the end, he rose again so he might return to be one with the Father, which made possible the gift of the Holy Spirit. All who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Blake and Paisley will today, experience forgiveness and eternal life in his name. We are one with Jesus and so one with God.
Our gospel begins with the astounding statement, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.” That is another way of saying, “I love you as an integral, intimate part of my own identity. I could not be who I am without you.” Jesus spoke these words to his followers at the Last Supper. He invites us to “abide” in his love, which means we both receive life from him and dwell in him. This is an invitation to a relationship that is one of friendship rather than slave and master. He is willing to give his life for us. He is not exactly our equal, he retains a unique position. Yet he has brought us into a relationship of reciprocal love, creating a community of friends who are willing to sacrifice ourselves for one another.
Christian love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, but a conscious decision to put ourselves on the line and risk everything for the other. This kind of love will make sure justice is done in the world. We are to venture out from the safety of our community into the broader society to see that it is transformed by the love Jesus modeled for us. Cornel West says that “justice is the shape love takes in society.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not speak the words of institution at the Last Supper as he does in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Here he washes his disciples’ feet, a clear sign of his love for them. He was modeling true discipleship, so we would know how to give of ourselves for others.
It must have been difficult for those first followers of Jesus, many of whom set out away from the safety of community, to bring the gospel message to faraway places. They had been set apart to lead pretty strange lives, and were often separated from families, friends, and neighbors. Although filled with God’s abundant love, that life might become lonely and the disciples were vulnerable. Yet new friends will become a lifeline for them. New friends fill in when family and community are far away or lost. They become another circle of family. They shorten the distance to our hearts, they embrace what is authentic, they listen and they love.
Catherine Faith McLean is now senior minister at St. Paul’s United Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her prior call was in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The city is on the edge of a lake, which can be crossed in winter by an ice road to reach the nearest neighboring village. In midwinter, there is weak sunlight from 10 am until 2 pm. For the other 20 hours, the northern lights gleam in curtains of color across the dark sky. Caribou graze so close to town that workers can hunt on their lunch break. Life there is remote with high prices for necessities such as groceries that must be trucked in.
One January in Yellowstone, in 24-hour darkness, MacLean and her spouse brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital. It was 40 degrees below zero, the northern lights were streaming green, white and red. They walked into their house and the power went out. This was remote living, but not totally isolated. They lit a fire in the woodstove and friends came bearing food and gifts. They had been called to a place they had never dreamed of living, spent time with people they never expected to meet and learned to love the people and the land. Through joy and a commitment to loving one another, they were not isolated. The people in the community chose to love one another, even to lay down their lives for one another if necessary.
We will probably not have to lay down our lives for Paisley and Blake, but we will promise today to support and nurture them and their parents on their faith journey. David and Missy will promise to raise them in the faith, teach them scripture and the doctrines and traditions of the church. They cannot do that alone, and we cannot exist without new people joining our congregation. Just as God in Jesus needs us to abide together in love, so we need one another. Blake and Paisley have their loving biological family, they have a circle of caring friends, and now they will have this new circle of their loving family of God. We close with the words of Teilhard de Chardin, “Love is the energy of evolution, drawing all of creation forward into God’s future.” Paisley and Blake are very important participants in God’s future. Amen.