The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
January 9, 2011
Acts 10:34-43 and Mt. 3:13-17
It was Albert Einstein who said, “Before God, we are all equally wise – and equally foolish.” It was the Apostle Peter who said, in the sermon recorded in our passage from the Book of Acts, “Before God, we are all equal.” As he put it, “God shows no partiality.” How could this not be amazing, wonderful news? Those who care for, work for, even die for human equality can only rejoice – the equality we understand to be inherent in the human being is a tenet held by none other than God Almighty. God shows no partiality – we are all of radically equal human value. The differences of type that we human beings have used to create hierarchies of value are truly foolish to God. Not every human action is acceptable to God, and neither should they be to us. Some of our words and deeds lift up other people; some of our words and deeds put down others. We can and do make value judgments about our words and deeds, but never about human beings in and of themselves. Despite our actions, and despite the prejudices that others may have, we always retain our limitless and non-derogable equality of human value, in the eyes of God and, it should be, in the eyes of other people.
Today is the Sunday each year when many churches remember the Baptism of Christ, and today we also read a gospel passage about that event. I think of baptism as one sacramental way in which human equality is manifested. Any human being from any walk of life, any nation or region or race or gender or class or sexual orientation or political perspective or anything may make a confession of faith and join the Christian family. One of the verses most often cited as a biblical imperative for human equality is Galatians 3:28, and scholars believe it to have been part of the baptismal liturgy of the very first house churches: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This baptismal formula tells us that there are no racial or ethnic distinctions, religious distinctions, economic and class distinctions, and gender distinctions within the body of Christ, and this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. The beauty of our personal identities is not wiped away – we must cherish and be proud of who we are and how God made us – but we must never create hierarchies of value among and between us. We have been made one by the power of God through Jesus Christ.
My own Reformed Protestant denomination recognizes a second sacrament, which is Holy Communion. Like the sacrament of baptism, I understand communion to be a ritual and liturgical embodiment of God’s impartiality – of our radical equality of human value. I have found it best expressed in the strophe Panis Angelicus, “bread of Angels,” in the hymn Sacris solemniis by Thomas Aquinas. I hear Cesar Franck’s version in my head right now! “O wondrous thing! The poor, the slave, and the humble man feed on their lord.” Yes, the meek of the earth come towards the altar, those who may have been excluded from so many other tables, literal and metaphorical. They approach the highest table on earth, the one that represents heaven, the one that trumps the gaudy and proud table of any society’s nobility, whether that society’s criterion for status is royalty, wealth, fame, infamy, intellect, or what have you. If I may expand upon the Thomist observation for a moment – I am moved beyond all describing not by the walking of society’s humblest toward the table of the Lord, but by the movement of all society together toward the table of the Lord. The poor, the slave, and the humble approach, as so do the noble, the rich, the professionally accomplished, the scholarly. Everyone gets on line, and if they never mingle elsewhere they do on this line – the student and the professor, the homeless and the well-to-do, those who are suffering in body, mind or spirit and those who are thriving, every level of ability makes its way toward the table and there each receives an equal portion of the same loaf and same cup, hears the same words of blessing, and returns to the same hard pew having fed on the same presence of Christ. Those who could never sit at the table together elsewhere feast together here. Here and maybe here alone, they are of absolutely equal value; in the eyes of their host, who isn’t the pastor, but even the Lord Jesus Christ. How many times in my life, and I don’t mean as a minister up front but worshiping in the pews, have I taken my seat after receiving communion only to be overwhelmed by the sight of the humanity processing past my row, down the center aisle, on their way to the plate and the cup. Old and young, foreign and native born, autistic, Olympic, grieving, thriving, in limbo, in heaven, lost, found, sober, addicted, hungry, stuffed, limping, leaping, and I’ve found myself with streaming tears thanking God for making humanity so beautiful, so different, so welcome and so fundamentally equal in value, love, respect.
A third point in the Christian faith that instructs me in just how impartially we are regarded by God is the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s the crucifixion especially – on Good Friday, I sit in this sanctuary at noon and consider the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus. “In this hour,” I tell myself. “In this hour he hangs, nails through his hands and feet, thorns piercing his head and a spear his side, and all this he endures not for me alone, but for every human being.” Now he redeems every human being. He dies for all, whether they ever believe in him or not. He dies for the princes, he dies for the street vendors, he dies for the ambassadors and professors, he dies for the shoeshine boys and nail polishing girls, he dies for the murderers and for their victims, he dies for the mean and for the kind, he dies for those who believe in him and those who never will. He dies to redeem all humanity. He has no categories, no partialities, even if we have many. In those terrible hours on the cross Christ brings together all humankind in a way that defies real description and has no parallel. The human family is a single and unified entity upon his heart. We are one to him. Without exception or parallel, we are one .
Some of you might now be thinking, “Really, the sermon of Peter, and baptism, and communion, and crucifixion and resurrection, these things bind people together and make them equal within the covenant of those who believe in Jesus.” I disagree. The entirety of Christian ethics testifies to the radical equality of human value despite one’s creed or the absence thereof, including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Even if you don’t participate, you aren’t less – you aren’t of lesser value in the eyes of God and Christ. As I’ve said, Christ’s death for all on the cross is the great equalizer – forget our deaths and taxes! I am informed, too, by the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, where even those who do not confess Christ as Lord but who ensure the welfare of the vulnerable and the suffering will be welcomed to Christ’s side in the hereafter, even as those who have perfect creedal adherence and church attendance but do not show love-in-action will find themselves left aside. The love and mercy of God and Christ are infinitely beyond our own.
I began this sermon by asking how it could not be wonderful news that God shows no partiality. Maybe that’s not a no-brainer. The first disciples may have found it very hard. They had suffered with Jesus, persevered, and now here was Peter preaching in the home of Cornelius (a Roman soldier) that God shows no partiality. Did the disciples’ own witness and suffering not count? One thinks of Christ’s parable about the laborers who all get paid the same wage no matter when, during the day, they began to work. The refrain is the same: not fair!
Is human equality not fair? Some of us may say so, if pressed to think about the accomplishments and virtues we have worked hard to achieve. What if our human value in the eyes of God is the same as those who don’t care, and have never tried a whit to love, to serve, to change, to believe, to be a disciple? The good news is yes – we are, in the eyes of God, absolutely equal to the meanest person we can think of, even if our deeds are not. The invitation of Christianity is to view all other people as entirely equal to all others - to show no partiality - and then to ask what that means for our lives. If everyone has the same human value, shouldn’t we have the same quality education to fill our minds? If we show no partiality, how can we make our peace with the fact that there is tremendous inequality in the quality of education that young people receive in our country? Tremendous inequality in the quality of health care? Two people with the same diagnosis will have very different outcomes now based on criteria like their income . Foundational to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the fact that human worth does not equal net worth. Further examples abound and are the meat of another sermon. My hope this morning is to encourage us to rejoice that God shows no partiality – if you’re as flawed as I am, that’s very good news! I hope, too, to tickle our thoughts about what it means for us , like God, to have no partiality – what this means for our personal relationships and our common lives. May God grant us the courage and the love to inhabit all the faith that is in us, living and loving well with others, showing no partiality!
William Willimon, Acts, Interpretation Series, Atlanta: John Knox Press.