We read about Peter in our second reading. Word comes to him that a Centurion of the Roman guard named Cornelius, a Gentile and therefore in the eyes of the Jews an unclean man, wished to be baptized.
Peter hesitated at first. After all, this man was defective in so many ways. He was a foreigner, a Gentile, a soldier of the occupying force, there was no way God could be calling him. Peter has a change of heart and says, I truly understand now that God shows no partiality. And so he takes this unclean Gentile, this sinner, into the faith community through baptism.
Many of us at times can identify with Cornelius. There are times we feel like unclean sinners, defective in one way or another, and unlikely candidates for holiness. A pagan once asked the rabbi, why did God choose the humble thorbush as the place to speak to Moses? Could He not have chosen a grander tree, or a mighty mountain? The rabbi said, God chose the humble thorbush to teach us that there is not place on earth bereft of the divine presence. Not even a thorbush.
That little parable tells us that we are all candidates for holiness. The divine presence wants to settle in our sometimes miserable thorbush lives. As Jesus himself said, I come to call the sick, not the well. We are all candidates for holiness, no matter who or what we are. Who else but Jesus would have called Peter, the one who denied Him, and made Him the head of the Apostles? Who else but Jesus would have called St. Paul, the persecutor of the Church, to spread the Gospel? Or St. Augustine, the Libertine, to teach the masses? Or Thomas Merton, the playboy, to popularize the contemplative life? And Dorothy Day, the Communist, to care for Christ’s poor?
All these people were flawed, and so are we but our imperfections, our sins, cannot be used to duck God’s call to grace, to holiness, to conversion; the call we received at our baptism. On this feast of the baptism of Jesus, it might be well to remember that baptism, like membership in any organization or group, carries with it privileges, obligations, and expectations.
Let me tell you a true story. A Franciscan priest who I knew, Fr. Brennan Manning, grew up during the depression and told the story of some salesmen from that era who had a few drinks while waiting for a train. They realized they were late for the train as they rushed across the street to Grand Central Station. As they barged into the terminal, one man inadvertently bumped into a ten-year old blind boy who was selling apples. The men just kept going, all except one who stopped. He gathered up the apples, and noticed that several of them were bruised. He reached into his wallet, took out five dollars, put it into the blind boy’s hand and said, I’m sorry, we did some damage, this is five dollars. I have put the good apples back in the basket, I hope you are okay. As he started to walk away, the bewildered boy called after him, Sir, sir, are you Jesus?
We could all ask ourselves the question, when was the last time I did something Christ-like? What would Jesus do? At our baptism through symbol and ritual, we are welcomed into a community, a community of contradictions. We are not perfect. It is a sinful community, always in need of God’s grace and favor, but, it is made up of people striving to make it a community of love. In an age that can be inhuman, there is compassion. In the midst of death, there is a stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God in the world, we Christians can joy in the presence of Christ. In spite of our weaknesses, Christ is our hope and our strength.
Perhaps St. Paul puts it best when he sums it all up by saying: “For in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God. For as many of you as were baptized, there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
Baptism is not just something we do when a child is born. Baptism reveals your identity, and tells the world who you are. You are baptized into Christ. You are to strive to be Christ-like, try to act Christ-like, and when you do that, then the heavens will open again. And the Father will declare with pride, you are My son, My daughter, whom I love. With you, I am well pleased.