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Epiphany 2: A Gathering of Witnesses

January 14, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13, 2013

Acts 8:14-17     Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Last week we began our celebration of Epiphany.  Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. And we recall that Epiphany is both a day and a season.  It is celebrated as the day when the magi finally arrive to worship the Christ child.  And it if observed as a season during which we explore God’s self revealing in Jesus Christ, and how the circle of witnesses to God’s revelation in Jesus begins to grow, wider and wider.

A central theme of Epiphany is God’s sovereignty.  God chooses to reveal God’s self.  We become witnesses to what God shows us.  We cannot manufacture or control or squelch God’s desire to show God’s self.  God simply does what God always does: shares the goodness-that-is-God’s-self with that which is not-God. This is good news, but it is also deeply unsettling because, honestly, we like to be in control.  We like things to happen on our terms and in our time frame, even our spiritual lives.  But God’s Spirit pushes us into uncharted territory, nudging us where we might not go on our own.

We like God’s blessing, of course, on what we are doing.  We ask for that blessing regularly in the church.  And it’s certainly not wrong to ask for God’s blessing.  But the important thing about God’s revelation or “showing” is that we cannot control it.  And while asking for blessing on our work is fine, what Epiphany really would move us toward is not trying to bless what already is, but to look and see and move toward the new thing that God is doing.

In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, God is doing something new.  God declares very specifically, very intimately, that Jesus is God’s very own Son, God’s Beloved, and that God is well pleased with him.  We don’t know who saw the dove or heard the voice.  It may have just been Jesus.  But the new thing that God is doing – and that John and the people who have come to him for baptism are invited to move toward – is a recognition that Jesus will play a decisive role in their understanding of who God is and how to live as God’s people.

Now Jesus himself, but a few paragraphs later, is led by this Spirit not to some public proclamation or to some miraculous act, but out into the wilderness.  There he will struggle with who he is and who he is to become.

For us, the baptism of Jesus not only directs us to this new thing that God is doing, it reaffirms the importance of the baptism that John is offering. God is affirming the baptism that John has been offering to the people as important and needful.  So needful that Jesus himself undergoes baptism by John.  This is where it gets very interesting because you will recall that John baptized people for repentance.  But of what does Jesus need to repent?  Well, that depends on (a) what you understand to be sin and (b) what repentance is.

Let’s start with sin first. No one is baptized by John because of personal sin.  They are baptized by John as a way to signal their recognition that they are a part of a structurally sinful world.  According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, “We in the West tend to think of people as primary and social institutions as secondary. But though people establish institutions, they are in turn themselves molded by the institutions they established.”[1]  This is the sin which the Hebrew prophets rail against, and which the early church understood as original: we come into a world already institutionally organized for injustice. Throughout Advent we described this using the expression “a world thrown out of joint.”[2] This is social sin; institutional sin; sin that is larger than any one of us, and which, in the words of another theologian, ‘bends us willy-nilly against [all forms of] inclusive good.’  This is the sin in the face of which we continue to try to live faithfully.

And now to repentance.  Repentance means literally turning around.  Repentance is not a formula of belief so much as it is a concrete action of resistance to sin.  I say resistance because we cannot fully live a pure life apart from sin.  But we can choose whether to resist it or to be borne comfortably along on in its powerful tide.  To repent means to choose to live in resistance to sin.  What does this look like?  Well the beginning of this chapter from Luke tells us that as John baptizes he urges the crowd, “Those with two cloaks should give one away, not because they stole the second cloak or it was wrong to have one but because giving it away helps restore the justice (just-ness) of the world.  That’s what repentance looks like.

This is the baptism to which Jesus submits: to recognize one’s place in a structurally sinful world and to repent by joining a movement of people who have been baptized by John who are endeavoring to live into God’s new way.

In our passage from Acts we get a glimpse of what that new way will involve.  It will involve being willing to accept as a part of this movement of faithful people, those who have been previously considered outsiders, enemies or heretics.  Specifically this morning it means the Samaritans. There was an historic animosity between Jews toward Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered half-breeds who had compromised the purity of their former Jewish faith and culture through intermarriage with foreign invaders.  Over time the Samaritans developed their own religious practice and even set up their own temple.  Given this long-standing animosity between Jews and Samaritans, it isn’t difficult to imagine that when Samaritans responded to a preaching mission by Philip and began converting to the Way of Jesus, there could have been an underlying prejudice on the part of the (still Jewish) church leadership in Jerusalem.[3]

A man named Philip proclaimed the good news and baptized Samaritans.  You can imagine what some folks thought about that.  These Samaritan converts would not likely have been welcomed with open arms by everyone.  But what is key in this passage is NOT that God has been doing something new together with Philip, welcoming Samaritans into the good news movement.  What is new here is that key leaders of the Jesus movement AFFIRM what God is ALREADY doing through Phillip.  In other words, by blessing these baptisms, Peter and John bear witness to what God is doing, move toward what God is doing themselves, and, most importantly, move the entire movement of Jesus’ followers in this new direction.  And the circle of witnesses to what God is doing grows dramatically.

Now it would be quite easy to get all romantic about this and think that, well of course, we would be quite comfortable with the expansion of the church to include Samaritans.  But of course that’s because the inclusion of Samaritans doesn’t really sound all that dangerous to us.  Nobody here would leave if a Samaritan came to church, right?  But there are always contemporary versions of the Samaritan, those deemed outside the circle of God’s action, those whose inclusion by God makes many in the church uncomfortable.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been fighting amongst itself quite bitterly for many years about the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer persons.  In 2010 the General Assembly voted to allow presbyteries to ordain GLBTQ persons as elders, deacons and pastors.  Since that time a small number of Presbyterian congregations have chosen to leave the denomination rather than affirm that God has already been enlarging the circle of witnesses.  Some other Presbyterian congregations have cautiously avoided talking about this decision; allowing GLBTQ folks who have been worshiping for years in their midst to wonder, am I really welcome?  Still other Presbyterian congregations have affirmed God’s love for all people and welcomed people who are GLBTQ into both ordained and congregational leadership.  Here at White Plains Presbyterian, we’ve welcomed everyone in general.  But given the church’s longstanding history of uncertainty and even hostility toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, it’s worth my saying this explicitly:  if you are GLBTQ you are welcome here as one of us, and God loves you.

Even as I say this, it would be fair to say that as a church we’re uneven in our witness: stretching, embracing, retreating and stretching again toward where God is leading.  Because moving in God’s new way is not an easy matter. It requires us, like it did our ancestors in the faith, to see the structural sin in which we’re embedded and to decide together to live in resistance to it.

But in every baptism in this congregation we reaffirm our own baptismal vows and pledge to move in God’s new way, bearing witness to what God is doing.  For the church, as the famed children’s song goes, is not a building, the church is a movement of the good news comprised of you and me – “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.  All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes we’re the church together.”  This Epiphany, God invites us to join or to reaffirm our commitment to being a part of that gathering witness to what God is doing in Jesus Christ and to move together toward the new thing that God is doing. 


[1] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press. (Winner of three Book-of-the-year Awards in 1992).

[2] “A world thrown out of joint”: this phrase, used each week during Advent in the liturgy and sermons, comes from Bishop N. T. Wright. Bob Dylan has simply called it a “World Gone Wrong.”

[3] Bartlett and Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.

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