Sermons from St Faith's

The Baptism of Christ
Fr Mark Waters: 13th January 2008 2007

When I was a couple of weeks from the end of theological college, just before we got sent back to our dioceses to be ordained, one of the older students had a problem with his baptism. He’d been born in London at the end of the second world war, and the family home had been bombed and everything destroyed. So he had no baptism certificate, no proof that he had been baptised. And he could not be ordained without it.

So the college principal did what was allowed by canon law. He performed a conditional baptism. He called the student out in front of everyone at the end of the college eucharist, explained the situation to us and said, ‘Robert, if you have not been baptised’ then he promptly picked up a bucket of water he had hidden behind the altar, threw the whole lot over Robert, and said, ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

I think it was one of the best baptisms I’ve been to.

Well I didn’t have that problem. I had the proof. And here it is. My baptism certificate. Baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Maidstone in Kent. On a Sunday in June, many more years ago than I care to remember.

I had never really looked at this certificate until a few months ago. And when I did look I discovered that the date of my baptism was just a month after my younger brother was born. So it is clear that I was ‘done’ as part of a job lot. As many infant baptisms are. A good economy of scale. Get ‘em done together. Two for the price of one.

I don’t know what my parents thought when they took me to that church with my baby brother and handed us both over to the priest to be dipped, or immersed (that’s what the word baptism literally means). But I am sure that we were neither dipped nor immersed – nothing so bold - but much more likely trickled with enough water to do the job but with not too much wetness to be considered unseemly.

I have tried to imagine what my parents were thinking at this auspicious occasion of my baptism. I can picture them in my mind’s eye, younger, much younger than I can ever remember seeing them. Probably nervous of the big, old church building. But proud, very proud of their two little baby boys. Doing the right thing. Getting the babies done.

I wonder what their hopes were for me on that day. (I can’t ask them anymore). I wonder what they hoped for my life. What they thought I would do. Who they hoped I would become as a person. I wonder if I’ve fulfilled those hopes. I do know one thing for sure - that their  hopes had little to do with the church. After the baptism they hardly set foot in a church building, and my dad was resolutely opposed to anything to do with church.

I guess like most parents their hopes would have been general. A healthy life. A good education. Getting a good job. Finding the right person to be with. Being as happy as it is possible to be as a human being. And as I’ve talked to other parents over the years, as they’ve had their children baptised by me, I guess that for most of them its been the same. Genuinely wanting the best for their children – but in a very general way. 

And maybe that’s all that parents can hope. For most people baptism is about family. Its about marking one of the most significant moments that anyone can every have – the birth of their child – and, with everyone else there, wishing the best for this tiny new little life. And possible also that somehow this baptism service will act like a little insurance policy with the almighty, so that nothing bad ever happens to my child. And not forgetting of course that no one can possibly get into heaven unless they’ve been baptised.

But today, on this celebration of the Baptism of Christ, we are invited to see – through his grown up baptism – something deeper about the meaning of this sacrament, not just for him all those centuries ago, but for us today as well.
The first thing we need to notice is that the baptism of Christ is painted on a very large canvas.This baptism is not about family. In Matthew’s gospel we hear a disembodied voice from a heavenly father, saying, ‘this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

But these are much, much more than the words of a proud parent. Matthew’s words are quotes from the scriptures spoken much earlier in the Jewish tradition. Specifically they are echoes of similar words in Psalm 2, and from the prophet Isaiah chapter 42, our first reading today. Matthew’s audience would have been very aware of these references. They would have immediately picked them up. They are phrased slightly differently when translated from the Hebrew – here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. Already we are on very different ground than the occasion of a family baptism. These are words which speak about what has come to be known as the Suffering Servant. Words about the most daunting of human challenges in how to live a good life.

The reason for the delight, for the pleasure of God, is not because of a recent birth. Its not a thank you for a safe delivery. Its not a vague hope for a good life. Its about something much deeper, and something much more public.

The passage in Isaiah goes on - ‘I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations, he will faithfully bring forth justice’. Jesus’ willingness to be baptised by John in the Jordan was his acceptance of a public ministry.
It is no different for us. Whenever we first made an adult declaration about our faith, for most of us on the day of our confirmation, we made that declaration publicly – to the church at large, and hopefully to the world. Being dipped, immersed, drowned in the love of God through his Spirit is being prepared to take on a public ministry. Making a commitment to making a difference in the real world – bearing fruit –  ‘I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; ‘I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.’ These words are about us just as much as they are about Jesus. Baptism is about a public life.

The second thing we need to recognise about baptism, through the lens of Christ’s baptism, is that this sacrament is not a take-it-or-leave-it- affair – it is a matter – literally - of life and death. In the baptism service itself we hear talk of Christ going through the deep waters of death to bring us to life in triumph. And the imagery of baptism is also used for Christ’s death, his crucifixion.  A baptism to the end -  even if it means giving our lives for what we believe.

The third thing to notice about Christ’s baptism is that it is so very un-churchy. Out in the wilderness, with this eccentric man on the edge – John the Baptist. No complicated service booklets. No fancy vestments. No family members in their best clobber. Not even part of mainstream Judaism – but Jesus giving himself to God through John’s ministry. Allowing this politically brave and dangerous fellow to take him out into the flowing river and plunge him underneath the water as a sign of his obedience to what he believed about life, and love, and God.

Every so often we need to repeat our vows, remind ourselves of what this relationship with God is about. It is the same with any relationship. Sometimes we get so used to our images of God, and the words of the liturgy which get to fit us like a pair of old slippers, that it is important to spell out our relationship once more. To get a fresh take on it. To recommit ourselves to what it all really means.

So, later on in this service we will have a chance to do that once again. To remake our vows of baptism. To allow ourselves to turn again to the source of life, to recognise how we so often lose our direction, and once again to be clear about the reality of evil in this world and our responsibility to fight it both for ourselves, and for all our sisters and brothers in this world.

But beware! This is no cosy, personal, family thing. We make these vows publicly to each other, and by extension to the whole world. Like Christ, our pledge commits us to faithfully bring forth justice. This is God’s call to all his children. This is the defining characteristic of the Kingdom which Jesus tells us is very near. It is a kingdom of justice.

So don’t take these words lightly. Only say those words if you can say them with conviction. Only say them if you are sure that you are prepared for where they might take you, only say them if you are happy with a faith that is something public, something very much connected to all the things going on in our world.

Then we  might hear for ourselves those words: You are my son, you are my daughter. With you I am well pleased. In you my soul delights.

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