One of a series of sermons on the church's sacraments
delivered at Saint Faith's Church.
Follow the link at the foot of this page to aceess the others.
On the south coast of Cyprus, set on a cliff top high above the dazzlingly
blue-white waters of the Mediterranean ,stands the ruins of a great Christian
cathedral. To the north of the site youwill find the Baptistery, built
in the fourth century AD. Unlike the rest of the building it was used only
once a year, during the Easter Ceremonies. Candidates for Baptism, all
of course adults, would have undergone months of preparation before assembling
inside the Baptistery on Easter Eve. There they would discard their ordinary
clothes, symbolising the old life of sin, before stepping down into the
font. The font was deep, cool, and lined with white marble. Each new Christian
entering the font would become lost for a moment beneath the surface, immersed
body and soul in the waters of Baptism. And then the candidates would emerge
on the other side and, climbing out of the font, would immediately be helped
into a pure white robe. Washed free from sin they had been given new birth
and new life in Christ. Walking one at a time along a narrow corridor they
would then enter the main Cathedral where they were greeted by the Bishop.
Laying his hands on them the Bishop proclaimed their new status to the
whole congregation, praying that they would receive the gifts of the Holy
Spirit. Even now, standing among the ruins sixteen centuries later, you
can still sense the awesome power of that ceremony and perhaps
appreciate something of what has been lost from our Christian rite of initiation.
Over the years, as Christian parents increasingly brought their children to baptism, immersion in water was no longer practicable and so the full symbolism of spiritual re-birth became weakened. A long period of preparation was no longer necessary and children could therefore be baptised throughout the year. I suppose you could say that the start of the Christian pilgrimage became more accessible, but very much less momentous. And so the ceremony evolved into a two-fold process, splitting the rite of re-birth from the ceremony of commissioning and dedication. Today we are used to seeing Christians baptised as babies and then witnessing them making their Christian vows and promises later on when, as the Prayer Book puts it, they have reached the ‘years of discretion’. But we should always remember that these are two parts of the same process. Nowadays, and we should thank God for this, people are often called to be Christians as adolescents and adults and for them the two ceremonies are performed together, at the same service.
The two ceremonies are one. In baptism the emphasis is on what God in Christ does for us. By his Holy Spirit working through the Church and our families and friends we are given new life in Christ, chosen and set apart to do God’s work, given light for the journey ahead, and welcomed into the fellowship of the Church. At our Confirmation we personally endorse the promises made on our behalf at Baptism. We make a public act of repentance, turning to Christ and confirming our allegiance to Him. After declaring our Christian faith, we then receive at the hands of the Bishop the gifts of the Holy Spirit who enables us to become true followers and servants of Christ.
God’s activity, our response. A great mystery which lies at the heart of the Christian life. A mystery because we cannot see clearly where God’s activity ends and our response begins: both are united together by the fire and warmth of the Holy Spirit. But I suppose you might be forgiven for asking what has happened to the ‘response’ bit. Not so very long ago, for a Confirmation at St. Faith’s, we might have expected a dozen or more candidates: now we are often down to a mere handful. Nationally the figures are well down also.
Of course fewer people are being baptised: today less than 300 per 1000 births compared with 660 per 1000 a century ago. But Confirmations as a proportion of baptisms are also falling fast, from about 1 in 5 in 1970 to 1 in 8 in 1997. Only one in eight people baptized in our Church of England come to Confirmation, and many who are confirmed will not become regular worshippers. The statistics reflect the dwindling number of young people who go to church regularly. Half of our churches have no teenagers at all attending services, and the same proportion of churches seemto have given up trying to work with 15-18 year olds altogether. Should we be worried? Should we care? Or do we accept these depressing statistics as a sign of the times, an irreversible trend in society which it is pointless to try to remedy?
Of course, we have a dilemma. Confirmation is a serious business. It involves making a positive statement about the sort of life we want to live, and the choices we make, choices which to a large extent cut across the grain of society’s values. At our Confirmation we promise to follow Christ in love and in self-giving for the rest of our lives. A lump comes into my throat at Confirmation, as it does at weddings and ordinations: Christian commitment is literally scary. And yet if Confirmation is not to be too high a hoop to jump through, how do we make this part of Christian initiation accessible to young people? How do we help our present generation to see clearly the tremendous attractiveness of Christian commitment? How do we communicate the excitement, the challenge, and the warmth and fire of the Christian life, as well as the solemnity and the cost?
The falling numbers of confirmation candidates tell us something about the secular world and how it perceives Christian belief and Christian life-style. But could they also be saying something to us, something about our attractiveness or otherwise as ambassadors of Christ? You see, Christian commitment is not just about believing the right things, or even doing the right things. Above all commitment is about a journey,
about journeying on a pilgrimage and enjoying the company of fellow pilgrims. It is about sharing some of those gifts of the Spirit which we receive at Confirmation: love, joy peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control. St. Faith’s still has something to offer, perhaps much to offer, from the gifts which are given to us. But how do we make all this real, how can we bring alive the excitement of the Christian life for young people, in our worship, in our Sunday School, in our Confirmation classes, among our choir and servers, and in everything that we do? Please think and pray about these critically important questions, as we continue with our plans to develop our ministry to children and teenagers.
Christian commitment needs confirming and affirming. There is much we can do at St. Faith’s to nourish new Christians. Let us pray that the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit will show us the way forward.
Follow this link to read other sermons in the series.
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