Sunday January 12th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
How many of you think that you were the favorite child in your family when you were growing up?
How many of you think that perhaps one of your siblings was the favorite child?
The reality is that probably none of us can know for sure if we were our parents’ or grandparents’ favorite child, unless you happened to be the only child! 🙂
When I was growing up, my parents tried very hard to show my older brother and me that we were equally loved and equally favored. They always made sure that we received the exact same number of Christmas presents every year, and they tried to spend an equal amount on both of us. When my brother turned 9 years he had a birthday party where he was allowed to invite all of his friends, so of course the only time I was allowed to have a birthday party when I was growing up was when I too turned 9 years old.
My parents were so consistent in their attempt to treat us completely equally that when we as a family shared a bag of candy M&M’s, my father would count out the exact number of pieces of candy in the bag and equally subdivide them between us!
Now, all of this may have had something to do with the fact that my father spent his career as a Civil Rights Investigator for our state government, investigating instances of discrimination in housing, workplaces, and other institutions. He lived every day with the reality that people are not treated equally in our society, so perhaps his fixation with treating me and my brother with absolute equality was part of his attempt to ensure that there was equity and justice in at least one small corner of the world!
Peter Learns that God does not Play Favorites
In the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Peter says, “‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’” (Acts 10:34-35).
God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fears him and does what is right.
For the Apostle Peter, this was a significant statement, because up until this point, Peter, as a Jewish male, would definitely have thought of himself and other Israelites as the “favorite child” of God. The Israelites, after all, were God’s chosen people, although they often forgot the reality that they had been chosen for a particular purpose, to be a blessing to all of the nations (Gen. 12:3) and to share the light of God’s love with the whole world (see Is. 42:6)! But it was so easy for Peter and others to forget this, so easy for them to think that they had a monopoly on God’s love and affection.
All of this changed for Peter in the story that we find in Acts chapter 10, however, which is why Peter says, “I now realize that God does not show favoritism.”
In the beginning of Acts 10, Peter had a vision where he saw a blanket coming down out of the sky, containing a large number of animals that were not Kosher — animals that no religiously Jewish person would have ever eaten — animals that only Gentiles would have consumed.
While Peter was wondering what this vision could possibly mean, he received an invitation to go to the house of a Gentile — a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius. Cornelius was a worshiper of the one true God, and God had instructed him to call for Peter so that Peter could tell him the Good News about Jesus. It was when Peter saw Cornelius’ openness and desire to hear about Jesus that he realized that God does not show favoritism, but “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Soon after that, Cornelius and his whole household received the Holy Spirit, and immediately after that they were baptized with water as a symbol of God’s love and acceptance of them, despite the fact that they were Gentiles and not Jewish.
This was a pivotal moment in Peter’s life, in which his whole worldview was rearranged. He realized that, yes, he and his fellow Jews were special and uniquely loved by God, but that God also loved the Gentiles! He learned that God loves each and every person, from every nation under the sun. God’s acceptance of the Gentiles did not mean that God’s love for Peter and his fellow Jews was any less special or unique. God’s love is so large and all-encompassing that each and every one of us is a favorite child of God!
Equally loved, Equally in need of God’s forgiveness
The truth that we are all equally loved by God is also paired with the reality that we are all equally in need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. This is a truth that Peter would have learned and seen displayed in the ministry of John the Baptist, who baptized people in the Jordan River, preparing the way for the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.
Prior to this time, water baptism was a rite of purification that was typically reserved for certain groups of people at certain times. Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism would have undergone a ritual cleansing ceremony that involved water, as would priests who were preparing to enter into the temple, and those who had been considered ritually unclean for various reasons such as leprosy.
But John the Baptist issued an invitation for anyone and everyone to be baptized — no matter their station in life, no matter their circumstances, no matter how many good deeds they had done, or no matter how far away from God they have strayed.
The Baptism of the Lord
And although John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, even Jesus himself joined in – even though he was perfect and without sin — as a way of showing solidarity with us as humans. Jesus – the Messiah, the Savior of the world, humbled himself and went down into the water and was baptized just like us, as our Gospel Lesson in Matthew says, so that all righteousness might be fulfilled (Matt. 3:15).
When Jesus went down into the water and was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, saying “‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:17).
But the Holy Spirit is not just a gift given to God’s one and only begotten son! The gift of the Holy Spirit is available to anyone and everyone who repents and turns to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. Truly God does not show favoritism!
God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are available to anyone and everyone, irrespective of our cultural background, irrespective of how wealthy or poor we are, irrespective of our academic or scholastic achievements, or what we’ve done or haven’t done. God’s grace is freely available to all who will receive.
The baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ shows us that Jesus was willing to become one with us, so that we can become one with him. And just as in Christ’s baptism God the Father spoke words of affirmation over Jesus the Beloved Son, so too our baptisms are a reminder of God’s love for each and every one of us.
I don’t know about you, but this morning I’m so glad to know that God does not play favorites. I’m glad to know that we don’t have to wonder whether we’ve done enough good things to get onto God’s good side. I’m glad that we don’t have to wonder if God loves us more or less than our brothers and sisters in Christ. God loves us individually and specifically, and as it has often been said, even if you or I were the only person on Earth, Jesus would still would have come down to this earth and died on the cross to save us from our sins. What an amazing thought! What an amazing picture of God’s unconditional and never-ending love for us.
But as Peter learned, the special and unique love that God has for us individually does not give us a license to look down on or think that we are better than our brothers and sisters. If “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34b-35), then so should we! If we have been cleansed and transformed by the waters of baptism, if we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, then who are we to look down a fellow believer who might believe something a little different than us, or who might have a different ethnic or cultural background than us, or sexual orientation or political view or perspective than us.
God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness is available to each and every one of us. All of us are equally loved by God, and God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness is available to all. So let us share God’s love with others! Let’s not play favorites, let’s not discriminate or differentiate in sharing God’s love with those around us. Let’s ask for more of God’s Holy Spirit to refresh and renew and restore us, and let’s freely share God’s love with anyone and everyone!