When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples in both Luke’s Gospel and in John’s, what are his first words? “Peace be with you.”
What are the significance of these words? Well, let’s come at it this way. What did he not say? He did not say, “Where were you?” He did not say, “Repent of your betrayal!” He did not say, “You do not deserve my love, but if you follow me you may be able to earn it back.”
He said, “Peace be with you.” In that act lies everything we mean when we talk about inclusivity and diversity in the contemporary church.
This morning three persons are presented to us—an adult, Twyla, and her two daughters, Braytaysha and Safairrah. They are known to some of us, but to others they are strangers. They were first among us—at least their parents were—as RAIHN guests several years ago. The question before us as a community of faith is not whether or not we will baptize them. Of course, we will do that.
The question before us is, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
We have been asking that question of ourselves at every Baptism for almost 40 years now. It was new to our current Book of Common Prayer. No such question was asked before, and, in fact, congregations were, by and large, not present for Baptisms before then, only family and friends were.
Many profound changes were made to the Baptismal Rite by our current Prayer Book, and they have deeply affected our common life, none more so than the Baptismal Covenant.
But this question—Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?—should have changed us equally as deeply. I’m not sure it has, or, perhaps I should say, I think we have a long way to go living into it.
What do you think when I ask you this question?
What do you think when I ask you this question, and the person being baptized is someone you know?
What do you think when I ask you this question, and the person being baptized is a stranger?
In both cases, I suspect we have a tendency to think a couple of things. One is that it is somebody else’s job—mostly the clergy’s, but also other volunteers such as those who organize and lead our children’s program or our adult formation program. We are not wrong when we think that. These people do have a responsibility.
I also think we have a tendency to think that it is their responsibility—the ones being baptized and/or their parents and godparents to initiate our support. And again, that is right. They, in fact, make these promises.
But there is a very important piece that is your responsibility, each and every one of you, as a part of this community, and that is to be active in your inclusion, to do everything you can to send direct and unambiguous signals that “you are part of us no matter who you are.” The water makes us equal. This is to be like Jesus, saying, “Peace be with you,” not “We welcome you to earn your place in this community.”
The apostle Peter’s sermons in the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, such as we have this morning, are not altogether helpful. He seems to be doing the exact opposite of what Jesus did to him. Jesus was forgiving and gentle, even playful. Peter is accusatory and arrogant. “You killed the Author of Life.” Jesus could very easily have said as much to Peter when he returned from the dead.
In trying to understand what Peter is about here in the beginning of Acts, we need to remember that this is a story and we should not treat the middle of the story as if it were the end of the story. By chapter 10 of Acts more of the story happens and Peter has a life-changing experience, a part of which we heard on Easter Day. That experience leads him to say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
It is the “no partiality God” that we believe makes this community. It puts us in solidarity with all sorts and conditions of people, many of whom, left to our own devices, we would not be in solidarity with. But the solidarity is forged in the water, which means it is not forged by us. God makes the solidarity; God makes the community.
Or should I say, God offers us the community and asks us to join the Holy Spirit in making it and sustaining it.
What is really being asked of us?
We are being asked to be “no partiality” people who witness to and serve a “no partiality” God.
In practical terms that means it is your responsibility to acknowledge your relationship with the stranger in our midst, whether they are candidates for Baptism or not. A strong greeting at the Peace, not different from what you would give others you know well (unfortunately it is during the Peace when we unintentionally send the strongest signals as to whom we are partial—which is the exact opposite of its intention).
Sharing a bit of story at coffee hour, learning names, finding out their number or e-mail and giving them a call or sending them a message of greeting. As I keep saying lately, it is all about relationships.
Does this work with everyone? No, it does not. And in one sense that does not matter at all.
“Hospitality is Job One” is not a slogan for church growth; it is a primary way of being faithful to the “no partiality,” “Peace be with you,” God.
Let us prove that there are no strangers in the kingdom of God. Peace be with you.