By Jacob Smith
Our Gospel reading gives us the profound epiphany of who Jesus is: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized by John, and in Matthew’s account we are told a very important piece of information: that John initially objects to this act. John tells Jesus he should be baptized by him. In John’s account, Jesus responds by saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
I want to share with you three points about this epiphany and two of my points will come from St. Peter’s epiphany in the Book of Acts. First, how does Jesus fulfill all righteousness? Second, what does St. Peter say that fulfilled righteousness accomplishes? Finally, I am going to convey how Jesus’ fulfilled righteousness is applied to you, which enables you to enjoy your forgiveness.
The context of our Acts reading is that God visits a Roman centurion named Cornelius in the city of Caesarea, and asks him to send for St. Peter, who is in Joppa, while concurrently St. Peter is having a vision of all these animals that he is forbidden by the Mosaic law to touch, let alone eat. St. Peter hears God say kill and eat, to which Peter — like John the Baptist — initially says no way.
No, God says, what I have cleansed, no longer consider unclean. Now, this isn’t so much about paving the way for Christians to eat bacon as it is preparing Peter to witness to the fact that a Gentile, not part of God’s people, a Gentile, an enemy of God, is now, even before salvation has come to all of Israel, part of God’s people.
St. Peter arrives at this centurion’s house and is perplexed, and then he gathers himself and realizes what God is doing. That God, whether they know it or not, has made peace with his enemies. For Peter it clicks as to what it means that Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness, and he flushes that out with a powerful sermon.
Essentially what Peter is saying is that Jesus is God’s sermon of peace to all, because the epiphany is that Jesus is Lord of all. Not just the Lord of the Jews or the Lord of the Gentiles. This would not work if Jesus was simply a local prophet or a moral role model. No, Jesus is Lord of all, he has fulfilled all righteousness, as Peter states, because beginning in Galilee — our reading today — God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.
This is very specific. Jesus was fully God, but he was also fully human, ordinary, like you and me, and so therefore like any human he was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power and did good and healed those oppressed by the Devil, for God was with him. The idea here is not that Jesus is not God, but rather the Lord of all humbled himself and became a servant and lived his life in the anointing and the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is my first point: How does Jesus fulfill all righteousness, as he tells John? Peter teaches the household of Cornelius and all of us: as a full-fledged human Jesus relied upon God fully, and because of that Jesus therefore walked with God his Father perfectly. When Jesus acted, the Father acted. There was perfect intimacy and synergy. And because God was with him, Jesus did what was good perfectly; he fulfilled all righteousness.
This all culminates as Peter, who claims to be a witness, demonstrating historicity here, in that they put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree (another reference to Old Testament prophetic fulfillment). Jesus’ death fulfills all righteousness, especially and specifically the righteousness demanded by the law.
This is good news because it accomplishes this: as fully human, on the cross, God intertwines himself with our human sinfulness and rebellion and defeats all of it once and for all. And the defeat is demonstrated by the vindication of Jesus in his resurrection from the dead, and resurrected not as an orb or ghost, but as once again ordinary flesh and blood, eating and drinking, setting the stage for the new heaven and earth.
And this is what Peter said he and the apostles were — not suggested to preach on evangelism Sundays — but commanded to preach all the time. Because Jesus was resurrected from the dead, this also confirms that Jesus, whether you like it or not, is the judge of the living and dead. Yet as judge, as the prophets testify, those who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins.
This is my second point: St. Peter begins and ends this sermon with Jesus as our Lord and Judge. That on its own is intimidating, but taken from abstraction to accomplishment, we hear what this Lord and Judge does, we hear that Jesus is the Lord and the Judge, who by his death and resurrection has accomplished pardon and forgiveness of all your sins. Therefore you can trust Jesus with your entire life: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And this gift of Jesus’ perfect righteousness is applied to you through the gift of baptism, which we will witness and reaffirm in just a moment. Baptism is about Jesus’ promise to you, the promise of his righteousness now applied to you. In Jesus’ baptism, we get a snapshot of our own baptism, albeit in reverse order.
In baptism, all righteousness is fulfilled in you, not because of what you do, but because of what Jesus has done for you. You are reborn a sinless saint in him. You are clothed with him. You are covered with his righteousness. Your sins in thought, in word, in deed, which all deserve God’s condemnation, are washed away.
In baptism, heaven is opened to us as it was opened to Jesus. We can’t see this, and so we’re inclined to think it doesn’t happen or it’s not real or that baptism is merely a ritual to show my commitment to Jesus. No, the waters of baptism are an application of God’s fulfilled righteousness to you.
St. Peter in his epistle states that baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because in baptism, Jesus stands in solidarity with you in the same way he stood in the water of the Jordan in solidarity with all those sinners who came to John to be baptized.
This my third point: How is Jesus’ righteousness applied to you? The water and the Word, that is what makes a baptism. Jesus in the water, there with you as your brother, bringing you to his Father and who is now your Father. Making his death yours, his life yours, his holiness yours. You are baptized into Christ. You are a child of Paradise. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit declare it to be so and it is most certainly true.
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the co-host of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.