The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
January 8, 2017
Everything Must Change
My life has been a whirlwind recently because Maggie and I sold our house at the end of last year. You know, the Abbotts don’t do things the easy way. We decided to put the house on the market, sell it, pack up, and move at Christmas. And you know, nothing is happening in my work at Christmas time…
As we were packing the house and signing the papers on the new house in Spring, I realized something. Nothing could be left behind in our old house. All my worldly possessions had to be picked up, wrapped, packed in a box, taped up, and labeled. Absolutely everything had to be touched and moved. Just the variety of the inventory of our things is wild. You have the valuable things – Maggie’s grandmother’s fine china and jewelry. You have the functional things – pots, pans, tupper ware, clothes. There are the sentimental things – a scorecard from my record low golf round, a cross given to my family when Lydia was born. And then there are the completely random things – my baseball glove, Maggie’s textbooks from school, the lawnmower. Whatever it is, it has to go. Everything, everything has to be touched.
Everything has to be touched. When we encounter Jesus, nothing can be left behind. Nothing can stay the same. Jesus is going to move every part of your life. We cannot say that we have met Jesus and then keep on living in the old ways. Jesus is going to touch, pick up, and change everything, absolutely everything.
Think back to the gospels, the stories about Jesus. Whenever Jesus encounters somebody, their life whole life is changed. The dead are brought back to life. The sick are healed. Everyone who accepts Jesus into their life experiences a wholesale change. Nothing stays where it is. The disciples give up their fishing career to follow him. The man born blind can see. The lepers can go back to their families. When Jesus shows up, everything changes.
This life changing, life altering work of Jesus goes straight on into the early church. And that’s where we pick up in the Acts of the Apostles from today’s reading. There are two main characters. First, you have Saint Peter. One of the first disciples of Jesus. Saint Peter is born Jewish. He has worshipped the God of the Jews his whole life. He is circumcised. He follows all of the regulations about eating and drinking from the Old Testament.
And then you have Cornelius. Cornelius was a military officer in the Roman Empire. This means he was a Gentile, a non-Jew. He wasn’t circumcised, he probably didn’t follow all of the dietary regulations. He worships the God of the Jews, but he wants more. He doesn’t want to be an outsider, he wants to move in, he wants to be part of the family.
Now, Jews and Gentiles were not allowed to worship God together. There were regulations about Jews and Gentiles eating together. The early church, at first, taught that in order to follow Jesus, you had to be Jewish. They excluded the Gentiles because they weren’t born the right way. They excluded people like Cornelius.
But Jesus changes everything. Peter meets Cornelius and begins to preach. Saint Peter begins by saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” This is dynamite. God does not play favorites. Jews and Gentiles are equal. It doesn’t matter how you were born, or what rules you follow, God does not have favorites. As long as you want to follow Jesus, you can. And this, this changes everything.
Just a few verses later, Peter baptizes Cornelius saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter used to see people like Cornelius as dirty, no-good, outsider Gentiles. But everything has changed. Cornelius and Peter are equal because God shows no partiality. Peter can’t keep Cornelius out just because he was born different. Anybody can follow Jesus as long as they want to follow Jesus. This changes everything.
And perhaps most of all, it changes the church. Now it’s not just Jews who can follow Jesus, but it’s everybody. Think about it: the early church changed its mind. The early church used to say that you had to be Jewish to follow Jesus. Then the church decided that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew, or a Gentile, a man, or a woman, a child, or an adult, you can be part of the family. Thanks be to God they changed their mind. Thanks be to God that Jesus changed their mind. Thanks be to God that Peter had the courage to baptize Cornelius, because without that, we would not be here today. Because, technically, we’re Gentiles. Jesus showed up to the early church, and everything changed.
Now the question is turned to us. We who have been baptized, we who have encountered Jesus, have we been changed? Have we permitted Jesus to touch everything in our lives? Have we allowed Jesus pack up all our boxes, or have we been keeping a few things behind? Do we still show partiality? Do we still play favorites? And when things change, are we resentful? Or do we give thanks that when Jesus shows up, everything changes? Do we see that when things change, that’s a good thing? Do we have the courage, the courage of Peter and Cornelius, do we have the courage to stop doing the old things and let God do a new thing?
Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But has Jesus really packed up our anger and moved it out? Or have we tried to hide our anger from Jesus, and keep it in the attic of our soul? Are we stuck in our old ways of anger and distrust?
Jesus says, “where our treasures are, that’s where our hearts will be.” And so we must ask ourselves – are our hearts and our money, are they with Jesus? Have we allowed Jesus to change our relationship with money? Have we figured out how to worship God instead of our bank account?
We’re okay with Jesus packing up and moving some parts of our lives, but when he says, “pick up your cross and follow me,” we get a little squeamish. Is there some back room, some closet of your life that you are trying to keep hidden from Jesus?
To live a full life with God, there is nothing that you can keep back. Because to God, all hearts are open, all desires known, and from God no secrets are hid. There’s no point in trying to hide anything.
So, since we couldn’t leave anything behind, Maggie and I emptied every closet, cabinet, and cupboard. And we made three piles. Keep. Donate. Trash. And maybe that’s how God looks at things in our lives. Some of the things we do and say, God will keep around. God will sanctify them, God will make them holy, but God will let you hold on to it. God will pack up those things and move them in your new house, your new life. And there are some things in your life that God probably wants you to give away. Your time, your love, your compassion. Give those away. And then there are the things that you just need to take out to the curb and trash. Because do you really want to spend the time, and the money, and the effort to move those things that aren’t doing you any good? Let God trash those parts of your life – your anger, your fear, your shame, your jealousy, your worry.
Jesus is going to take everything out of your closets, your cabinets, your cupboards, and lay it all out there. And get ready, because nothing will stay the same. Jesus is going to go through everything in your life, and he will change everything in your life.