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.
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.
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.”
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.
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