The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s034g14  Sunday 1 the Baptism of Jesus  12/1/2014

'the heavens were opened to him’  Matthew 3.16

It is a curious phrase.   It conjures up visions of the sky being riven apart and the person actually seeing what is above the sky.   Of course this is predicated on a view of the world where the earth is a flat disk supported by pillars (1), with the firmament above like an upside down mixing bowl the inside of which is a sky blue colour (2).   The flat disk has waters below and the firmament keeps the waters above from falling down and swamping us completely.   The sun and the moon travel along the inside of the mixing bowl, giving us light.   So it we are to take this literally, if the heavens were open at Jesus' baptism, the mixing bowl split, the earth would be inundated with water.   Not a promising prospect!   I am grateful for a diagram of the ancient view of the world reflected in the Bible by Dr James F. McGrath (3)

So if we put this aside, perhaps Jesus received an image of the universe as seen by the Hubble telescope, a vision of indescribable beauty as the vastness of the universe became apparent to Jesus.   This at least is closer to the picture of what we now think the universe looks like.   But I suppose that equally Jesus could have received a vision of the microscopic world, the indescribable beauty of the atomic nature of the universe, well before it was actually discovered by humanity.

But perhaps Jesus had a vision of the interconnectedness of all humanity, of what might be possible, indeed what actually is necessary for all to live in peace, where all people are accorded dignity as well as the necessities of life.   Perhaps Jesus had a vision of what the words: 'Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (4) actually mean.   Readers will not be surprised when I say that this is what I think Jesus saw.

At the beginning of any strategic review it is necessary to define the aim of the organisation.   If the members of an organisation have different objectives it is going to be difficult to work together to achieve the actual aim.   Sometimes I think that the aim of the church is to continue to exist.   Our idea of heaven is for our church to continue - ‘as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen’ ending the ‘Gloria Patri’, the doxology (5).   We make our liturgy imitate that described in the book of the Revelation to St John the Divine (6) thinking that this will fulfil the petition in the Lord’s Prayer.   But we should not miss the words: 'Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’’ (7)   If 'every creature in heaven and earth’ worship in this way, obviously they have been given reason to worship, they, each and every one of them, has been affirmed and included.   This is again a vision of the interconnectedness of all humanity.

God gives Jesus this vision of what he is sent for, the aim of incarnation, the aim of mission, the aim of resurrection.  So his baptism is less about the special relationship Jesus enjoyed with God, but the task ahead of Jesus and the way he was to engage in that task.  

It is not often that I prefer the King James Version of a text but I do with these words from Proverbs: 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.’  (8)   A vision is not just for the one seeing it, if it does not give life to all others it is deceptive or (more usually) misappropriated.    Jesus says: 'From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’ (9)   It is demanded because what is given is to be shared with others.

At the inauguration of his ministry, the vision of the opening of the heavens is the promise of life for all people.   At the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, he is given a vision of what God is all about, the interconnectedness of all people, the affirmation and inclusion of everyone.   And I want to ask, is not this a worthy vision?  Or to put it the other way, is anything else actually worth dying for?   Is this not a vision for which all people actually yearn and which many find the church an obstacle and a distraction?   I am reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah as I read the evening office (10)  'But upon you the \ Lord shall \ rise: and the glory of the \ Lord • will ap\pear up\on you.  Nations will \ come • to your \ light: and kings to the \ brightness \ of your \ rising.   No longer will violence be \ heard • in your \ land: nor ruin or de\struction • with\in your \ borders.’  (11)   The vision which attracts nations and kings is precisely the absence of violence, the promise, prospect and the actuality of inclusion and affirmation of all.   Otherwise they would not come, no matter what extravagant and arrogant claims are made by the founder or the disciples.

And if this is so, then the vision of the interconnectedness of all people, of the affirmation and inclusion of all, is to put real meaning to the words ‘to fulfil all righteousness’.    This does not mean liturgical correctness, moral purity, or adherence to ethical demands, all of which implicitly imply the exclusion of some.

I believe what prompted this vision of the kingdom of heaven being opened was the scene before Jesus' eyes: 'the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to (John), and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.    But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers!   Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ (12)   Jesus saw ordinary people coming together and being welcomed and it was this coming together that was the important thing.   The author of the letter 1 Peter expresses it well when he says: 'maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.’ (13)   Our welcome of others is the foundation of our faith, it is the heavens opened, it is this that God wants, not eternal self-berating over minor misdemeanours - things that the orthodox and the devout can so often occupy their time.

We who count ourselves as religious have to recognise that Jesus’ vision of heaven is where everyone else is welcomed - where the only people excluded are not the gays and lesbians but those who bring their religion with them - their religion of entitlement and superiority.   If we have made our ‘christianity’ a badge of personal superiority and entitlement for divine acceptance, then we are going to have to put that aside.

So the heavens are opened to us as we religiously welcome others, when we put aside our religious differences and make our faith into valuing the interconnectedness of all people.  Sadly there are always those who want to micro-manage religion to enhance their own status, and it is these that earn John’s rebuke: ‘You brood of vipers!’ and who eventually will have Jesus killed.   Jesus was killed not because he taught that individuals should love others, he was killed because he taught that the ancient faith of Israel was to accept others who didn’t share their faith and heritage..

Which makes me ask the question: ‘How does a corporation like the church love her neighbours, if not by affirmation and inclusion?’

And we read in our first lesson for today the conclusion of Peter’s conversion: Peter who was brought, step by painful step, out of his exclusive religion into the gentile household of Cornelius to come to this same realisation: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.   You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ -- he is Lord of all.’ (14)  And in the context, doing what is right is about being affirming and inclusive of others, not being 'religious'.   Despite being the chosen disciple and chief apostle, witnessing the death and resurrection of Jesus - he still has to learn that faith is not actually about him at all, but about how he treats all others.

Do we catch this vision given to Jesus, shared with us, for us to share with all?   A vision of people responding to a God of affirmation and inclusion!

(1) 1 Samuel 2.8
(2) Genesis 1.6
(4) Matthew 6.10
(6) Revelation 4,5
(7) Revelation 5.13
(8) Proverbs 29.18
(9) Luke 12.48
(10) NZPB p 61
(11) Isaiah 60.3,18
(12) Matthew 3.5-7
(13) 1 Peter 4.8
(14) Acts 10.34