Baptism of the Lord A: God Shows No Partiality

The readings for the Baptism of the Lord are

Old Testament      Isaiah 42:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Acts 10:34–43

Gospel                   Matthew 3:13–17

When the author of Luke and Acts thought of the most important implication of Jesus’ baptism, he thought of this event as the inauguration of Jesus as Lord of all, who brings in a new order of universal respect: God shows no partiality!

The gospel proclamation that this author ascribes to Peter, comes when the apostle has had a revelation. Peter’s religion said that people should stay divided. Sex and diet have always been the heart of religious boundary maintenance. But Peter sees a net full of profane animals, and the heavenly voice says, “Forget your religious scruples. Eat these things, because what God has made clean you must not call profane.”  Then comes Cornelius, a gentile, pagan, Roman centurion onto the scene. The lesson of the vision is so fresh and vivid, that Peter understands it’s not just about food, but about people. It’s about people’s religious boundaries giving way to God’s greater purpose of bringing us all together. In fact, God does not respect divisive religious boundaries. Cornelius may be of a different faith, but he fears God and has such a good reputation that even the Jews speak well of him.

So, if God breaks down the barriers, so will Peter; and so will the church, when the church is at its best. Cornelius and his family will be baptized. In fact, Peter and the church have no real choice. They are impelled by God and God’s Spirit, to baptize. God has poured out the Spirit, and the church has no option but to respect it.

It is just before that spontaneous, instantaneous mass baptism, unencumbered by rules about catechesis, etc., that Peter gives this little speech about Jesus’ own baptism. And he prefaces the whole thing by saying this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Today we must restore this idea to its rightful place as the foremost truth of both Christian theology and ethics. God’s chief attribute is that God shows no partiality. Our morality has as its foundation that we think and live the same way.

This theology and morality is something we share with biblical Judaism. The Greek word the author of Luke-Acts puts in the mouth of Peter is a particularly biblical word, seldom found elsewhere in ancient literature. It is built up of a Greek word for taking, receiving, or grasping;  along with the word for the human face, the prosopon. In other words, God isn’t moved by the way a person looks.

The Old Testament is scattered with depictions of the rules of rank. One lowers the face to their “betters,” and lifts the face to demonstrate higher rank. Face is all about the timeless display of shame and honor. In this context, Deuteronomy ties the Jewish “sacrament” of circumcision with biblical equity. Israel bows to God alone to show that ethic to the world. As in Acts 10, the one important thing in life is to bow to and fear the LORD alone and then respect all people, especially the vulnerable among you. So, chapter 10 of Deuteronomy says this:

12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

And this very Jewish theology and morality, the early church emphatically takes to heart; and it is repeated not only here in Acts, but in Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25. It is a theology and ethic urged on all the elders of the church by the early church father Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians (Pol 6:1). These leaders should show compassion and mercy to all, but especially to the least advantaged.

Why is it so important to restore this principle to the top place in theology and ethics? Because discounting people is what rots society. When we ignore, disregard and discount anyone, it hurts us all. It is the virus that attacks all of our institutions. It destroys that which keeps us alive—the support each of us needs—because each of us is weak and limited and each of us needs the other to survive and thrive. There is not a single human on earth who has not relied on the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the differently abled, the refugee, the homosexual, the trans-gender person, the person of that other race or religion, or the sinner. As the sign said on the sheltered workshop I used to support many years ago, “God doesn’t make any garbage.” That means God never made anyone I don’t need.

God doesn’t show partiality. Neither should we. God doesn’t respect even our dearest, religiously justified boundaries. Neither should we.

And the Lord Jesus, anointed at his baptism, rules this best kind of world.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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