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Sermon: Acts 10:34-38
Epiphany 1 – January 12, 2020 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

In our gospel reading today we hear that Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was baptizing in order to be baptized by him. We know that there were large crowds of people coming to be baptized by John. But imagine for a moment that you’re traveling through the area and saw the crowds of people at the Jordan. Would you have been surprised by the large crowds who came to be baptized? Probably. Would you have been surprised or even confused by the ritual of baptism as John poured water over people or immersed them in the water of the Jordan River. Probably not. Ritual washing with water had been a Jewish practice for a long time before John the Baptist.

Still today when a person, adult or child, is going to be brought into the Jewish faith they are immersed in water in a large container called a mikveh. This immersion in water symbolizes spiritual purification from the past and rising up into a new life in Jewish fellowship. As a matter of fact if we were to listen to the words spoken by the rabbi and the convert at this Jewish ritual and see a person immersed in a mikveh, we would be surprised by the similarity to Christian baptism.

There are of course differences between immersion in a mikveh and Christian baptism, but they both mark the beginning of something very important. Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry. Our baptisms marked the beginning of faith and a new life in Christ.

On this 1st Sunday of Epiphany as we consider the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we remember that

IT ALL STARTED WITH BAPTISM – FOR JESUS AND FOR US

When you listen to this text today from the book of Acts you might wonder what it has to do with Jesus’ baptism or baptism at all. The Apostle Peter is speaking the words of this text. He’s preaching a sermon in which he makes reference to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ baptism even though he doesn’t actually use the word baptism.

Peter was speaking in a very surprising and unusual situation. It was maybe about five years after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The apostles had begun to carry the gospel message of salvation in Jesus’ name well outside of Jerusalem. On this occasion the Lord had brought Peter to the Mediterranean coastal city and military outpost of Caesarea. There Peter entered the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Cornelius and his family of course were Gentiles. They were not Jews. But they had become believers in God, that is, the God of the Old Testament. Gentiles like Cornelius were sometimes referred to as God-fearers, although they had not yet fully converted to Judaism. It’s highly unlikely that Cornelius and his family members had been immersed in the waters of a mikveh.

But God had big plans for Cornelius and his family, and those plans involved the Apostle Peter. To make a somewhat long and complex story short and simple the Lord brought Peter the Jew to the home of Cornelius the Gentile. This was indeed a surprising and unusual, and probably a bit uncomfortable, situation for Peter. Jews were not supposed to enter the homes of Gentiles. But God made it clear to Peter that he had put him in Cornelius’ home for the purpose of proclaiming forgiveness and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ to this Gentile man and his family.

Peter suddenly had a new realization or understanding. We could say he had an epiphany. He said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Even this long after Jesus’ ascension into heaven a Jewish man like Peter, a disciple of Jesus, was just slowly beginning to understand that Jesus was the Messiah not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well. Jesus was not just the Savior for Jews, he was the Savior for Gentiles, for the whole world.

So Peter did in this Gentile home what the Lord had brought him there to do. He preached the name of Jesus Christ. He told Cornelius and his family who Jesus was and what he had done to save them from their sins. Peter gave his listeners a summary of Jesus’ ministry. And he made sure to tell Cornelius this truth about Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” . . . and “God was with him.” It was essential that Cornelius and his family understand that Jesus was not just another one of the prophets or another religious man who came preaching. Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God chosen and empowered by God himself to be the Savior of the world.

But when did God anoint Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power? It was at his baptism. We read about it in our gospel on this 1st Sunday of Epiphany. “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” In the form of a dove the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus and empowered him for the ministry and mission that lay ahead of him.

It all started with baptism. What started with baptism? Jesus’ public ministry. John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing preparing the hearts and minds of people for the coming of Jesus. Now Jesus was here and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to begin the work of proclaiming God’s forgiveness and salvation. It was the end of John’s ministry. It was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It all started with his baptism.

You know how Jesus’ ministry went. He preached God’s word. Many people listened to him and believed. Many didn’t believe. Eventually he was rejected and crucified. But three days later he rose from the dead. Before he ascended into heaven he commanded his disciples and all who would believe in him to preach the gospel to the whole world.

Peter found himself in the home of a Gentile preaching about Jesus. And Peter faithfully preached as Jesus had commanded him. He told Cornelius and his family: “All the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Cornelius and his family no longer just believed in the God of the Old Testament, they now believed in Jesus their Savior. They had not been immersed in the water of a mikveh, but now they would be baptized in the water of Christian baptism. Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So [Peter] ordered that they baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

It all started with baptism. What started with baptism? Cornelius’ new life as a believer in Jesus Christ and the new lives of his believing family members.

Something else started with this baptism. In a way this baptism of Cornelius marked the beginning of the gospel ministry to Gentiles. Peter certainly learned from this experience that the gospel was intended for people from every nation on earth. When Jesus commanded the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations he really meant it. Not long after this the Apostle Paul would begin missionary journeys that would take the gospel message far into Gentile territory laying the groundwork for taking the gospel to every nation on earth.

It all began with baptism. The proclamation of the New Testament gospel began with Jesus’ baptism and then continued with Cornelius’ baptism and finally the baptism of every new Christian believer including you and me.

It all began with baptism – and still does. New life in Jesus Christ begins for any believer with baptism. New life in Jesus Christ began for you and me in baptism. And how we all need to remember the importance of our baptism!

Christian baptism from the days of John the Baptist had a connection to the ritual washings with water so common among Jews in Jesus’ day. Converts to Judaism were immersed in the water of a mikveh long before John the Baptist came baptizing. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised by the similarities between the two – cleansing in the water of a mikveh and cleansing in the water of baptism. Both mean leaving behind the past life, cleansed in the water, and coming out of the water to a new life.

But be sure to note the difference. Christian baptism means cleansed by the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. We commonly say that baptism washes away our sins. And it does. This is what the Bible says about baptism: Peter told the people in Jerusalem in his Pentecost sermon, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In his first letter Peter writes, “Baptism . . . now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

In our new lives as Christians it all began with baptism. But it’s important for us to remember that baptism is only the beginning of our new life. We rise up from the waters of baptism to live a whole new life. Let me say it again: How we all need to remember the importance of our baptism. Yes, baptism washes away our sins and saves us, but it also means we are to live a new life every day. The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Romans: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? . . . We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

It all began with baptism. Jesus’ ministry. Cornelius’ new life. The new life of every true Christian. It all began with baptism – for Jesus and for us. Amen.