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Surprises and Commitment Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-end

During last summer a number of places and a great many people in England suffered from serious flooding. You may know someone who was affected. We were made aware of the reality of it on a couple of occasions when travelling later in the year: returning from our son’s wedding in Gloucestershire, we saw the water bowsers in Cheltenham. We also saw caravans parked in peoples’ front driveways in Hull when we were there in autumn half-term. I’m sure there were people still not back in their proper homes this Christmas. The memory is fading, but for some the memories of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 may still be very real.

Today’s readings are about baptism – being covered in water. It may jar in our minds or feelings: being covered in water is not such a good thing when we think of the disaster of natural floods which destroy life, property and livelihoods. What distinguishes these things is that flooding is something that happens beyond our control – it is the helplessness that is so frightening. Whereas baptism is something we do, something very much in our control. One thing is common to both, though – that life after the event is very different.
Life after the destruction of a flood can be tragically different as the victims cope with their losses. Life after baptism may not seem different, but it is meant to mark a complete change in life.

Baptism of Christ
As part of the season of Epiphany, as we ponder the ways in which Jesus’ identity is gradually revealed, we hear about the baptism of Christ. When Jesus came up out of the water it marked both a beginning and an ending. John the Baptist’s ministry was finished because it had been fulfilled. He had prepared the way for Jesus and as Jesus entered his ministry John bade people turn to the one he had just baptized.

In the NT reading Peter is speaking to the house of Cornelius before baptizing them into the Christian faith. That occasion also marked a complete change, both for the people baptized and for the Church. Cornelius and his household became full members of God’s new community of faith – no longer were they fringe members, godfearers allowed on the edges of the synagogue life because they were Gentiles. Through baptism, first in the Holy Spirit, and then in water, they were incorporated into the body of Christ, the new people of God. This was also a significant change for the Church. Until this point the followers of Jesus had all been Jewish. Now Peter recognized and persuaded the other leaders of the Church, that Gentiles, too, could become full members of their community. This occasion was, to forgive the pun, a watershed.

Not expected
A second thing which the experience of flood has in common with the baptism described in our readings today is that they were all unexpected. Peter did not expect that gentiles could become Christians and be baptized. But he allowed the Spirit of God to lead him to a situation where he was able to respond to what was actually happening. It proved to be a major milestone in the development of the Church. Gentiles, not just Jews, could be followers of Jesus Christ.

John did not expect Jesus to come for baptism. As far as John was concerned, baptism was for sinners to show their repentance. He knew Jesus was one without sin. “It should be you who is baptizing me!” exclaimed John. Jesus was not baptized to show repentance for sin, but to show his solidarity with sinful humanity. His coming into the world was in order to be “God with us”, as we celebrated at Christmas. When Jesus showed this truth by being baptized, he received divine approval in the form of the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Going deeper into these things we see that they are about unexpected presence of God. Peter didn’t think that God was present with the gentile believers enough that they should also follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit proved Peter wrong on that score when he came down on Cornelius and his household. John didn’t think that the Son of God would humbly accept baptism at his own sinful hands, and yet the Spirit again came down to affirm the unexpected presence of God.
But the unexpected presence of God is what really changes lives. Their baptisms bring Jesus and the household of Cornelius to lead lives that would never be the same as before. Now through baptism, they were committed to serving God. Cornelius and his household were converted and committed themselves to following Christ and being members of the Church. Jesus was baptized to show his commitment to following his father’s will and entering our world to
live, suffer and die for us.

Our Commitment
At the beginning of each New Year people of Methodist tradition observe a Covenant Service. It is something we do annually at Cross and Stable. At the heart of that service lies a challenging prayer in which the congregation both as individuals and as a group re-commit themselves to following Christ and accepting whatever condition of life that may bring. It is not an easy prayer to really mean. But it is good to be reminded about being committed to serving the Lord. But what is it that helps us be committed, especially when it is not easy or “conducive to our desires” (as the prayer puts it)? I think it is partly to do with our response to the surprise of God. We are moved to respond to God because he comes to us, especially when we do not expect it.

Through my personal experiences I have learnt that anything can happen to anyone at any time. In a sense: expect the unexpected. No one expected the Indian ocean disaster and even as it began people could not believe it and were unable to respond quickly enough. There has been debate about whether an early warning system should have been in place and it is good that warning systems are now being installed.

I am continually learning and re-learning about the presence of God in my life. I go through times and experiences where I think that I have lost my grip on God. Looking back and reflecting on my experiences I discover that even when I have lost my grip on God, he has not lost his grip on me.

He is always unexpectedly present. Our natural cry, whether in despair, anger or pain, when disaster strikes is, “Where are you, God?” It is a cry that eventually finds its answers for people of faith. The answers do not come immediately, and can come as we persist in doing practical things, and not avoiding difficult questions.

It was because of God’s commitment to the earth and its creatures that he sent his only Son in human form. His commitment to fulfilling his mission took him through suffering and death. Our faith is one that has the presence of God at the very heart of what makes us Christian. The cross is both the worst that could happen and also the best. It shows us a God who is with us in our sufferings and struggles, who hurts, agonizes and grieves alongside us. Each one who suffers is beloved of God.

So as we ask questions of our faith, as we question God, we also put the question to ourselves: will I re-commit myself to following Christ and being a member of the Church? The way is not easy, as the Methodist Covenant prayer makes clear, but it is the way in which we are called. It is the way that gives us strength to live and hope and through that to make a difference in our world whatever happens.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.