Sermon – 14 January 2018
Baptism of Christ
St Peter’s Limpsfield vision 2018-2023: to be a beacon, shining as a light
Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11
May I speak in the name of Christ, the light of the world.
“Jean, I think there are parts of you that are unbaptised!”
Jean is a cousin of my mother-in-law, a wonderful and very feisty Carmelite nun. Sister Patricia, was Prioress, and her remark may strike you as a rather startling thing to say. But nuns and monks in my experience are quite good at being wise in the ways of the world, and our part in them, and this awareness is part of their focus, their centredness, their joy in God. A joy rooted in baptism, the first sacrament of the Christian life.
Yet I remember George, a Vicar in Oxfordshire where I was on a training placement 16 years ago, saying to me: “I’ve baptised far too many convicted felons for me to think that it makes any difference at all!” A world-weary but in some ways realistic observation.
So what are we to make of it on this special day when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus?
Well, we started with the first of our creation stories. In our NRSV translation: ’…Darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.’ The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ meaning wind also means Spirit; and the verb ‘swept’ is a participle, so it could be translated: ‘while the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.’ Notice the Spirit is already active at this mysterious, cosmic, formative moment. And God saw that the light was good.
The story continues, we prefer our own ways to God’s way, the light gets thoroughly messed up but never entirely extinguished. John the Baptist prepares the way with a baptism of repentance – of turning back to God – for the forgiveness of sins. Notice that this is something we usually do early on each time we celebrate the Eucharist together.
But John’s baptism with water leads us on to Jesus, who baptises us with the Holy Spirit – the wind, the breath of God that sustains and inspires us, comforts and challenges us.
Jesus receiving the Holy Spirit in his baptism by John is the climax of the introduction to Mark’s gospel, making it clear who Jesus is with a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The church has been strong on repentance over the years, for good reason, though the old fear for instance that an unbaptised child might somehow be beyond the grace of God seems sad and unnecessary to me.
Like Sisters Patricia and Jean, it is worth being realistic and robust about our need of salvation, our need of God’s mercy and grace!
But perhaps the church has been less strong on that affirming voice coming from heaven.
Certainly my dad’s perception of our Christian faith is that it is mainly negative, and about what you mustn’t do – though whether he thinks that justifies his letting off a stink bomb in the vestry of St Mary’s Plaistow in the 1940s and being expelled from the choir I’m not sure! – and even an organisation as wonderful and practical and serving as the Mothers’ Union, for instance, has a few decades back magnified vulnerable people’s suffering by judging and excluding them.
And that damage can run deep and carry on damaging others many years later. An elderly lady I know, not in our parish, was continually put down by her father (a priest), and told that she was ugly and no one would want her. And now, decades later, though she does some good things, she is often mean and spiteful to others, the kind of person you want as far away as possible from your welcoming team. It’s a sad thing, one for the psychologists, but it’s not rocket science.
We do need to be as open and honest with God and with ourselves about our sin as we can, acknowledging our need to repent, to turn back to God again and again.
But that is only one part of it. Because we also need to hear this affirming voice from heaven. We need to hear it personally. We need to speak it for each other as God’s people. And it is wonderful when we can show it to others, by what we do and say. Not least because lots of people are still stuck with my dad’s impression of a harsh, judgemental, gloomy, life-denying church and Christian faith.
So I was delighted this week, following on from our church day at the end of November, when we were working at our Standing Committee on a renewed expression of our vision as a church to hear and see that affirming voice emerging strongly.
We’ll be working with our PCC and other group leaders from that day in the coming weeks to begin to flesh out our priorities for action, and then there will be an opportunity again for us all to meet and contribute.
But we start with an expression of who we are as a church, and what we want to be; of St Peter’s Limpsfield to be a beacon, shining as a light. And illustrating that expression in a way that encompasses church, community and Christ.
To mix my metaphors between light and water, I trust that this will be a beautiful and powerful wellspring to resource and guide our future activity.
Of course water and light come together in baptism, with the cross and gift of the Spirit. In our baptism – even if, as for many of us, we can’t remember the day – we can trust and live out of the fact that we have been:
Marked by the cross; Washed by the water
Crowned by the Spirit; Given the light of Christ.
We know something of the wonder and joy and affirmation in greeting a new baby soon after their birth. Baptism is our being born again by water and the Spirit. There is wonder and joy and affirmation in it which can echo on through our lives, if we let it.
The eccentric and wonderful Archbishop Michael Ramsey, returning as a very old man in 1977 to the place of his infant baptism at Horbling Church, out in the Lincolnshire fens south of Sleaford, exclaimed: ‘Oh font, font, font…this is where my Christian life began.’
And of our places of baptism we can say the same. All other ministry of the church irradiates from baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Is it true that as human beings we’re more likely to remember and hear and feel the disapproving, harsh, judging voices of others rather than the wonderful, joyful, affirming voices? Sometimes it feels like that, doesn’t it?
So as St Peter’s, as we continue to be and seek with the help of God to grow…to be a beacon, shining as a light…, may we be refreshed and renewed regularly here by bathing in that affirming heavenly voice for each of us through our baptism:
You are my son, You are my daughter, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.
Of course, this is not new. In the midst of all the scars and darknesses, the light has been shining through this church for decades and centuries. And many of you have been recognising and sharing and shining the light for decades as well, praise the Lord!
But it is also new because that is the nature of the God we are discovering, who invites us day by day afresh to make our baptism real in our lives today, each day.
So may we recognise and respond to the light of Christ wherever we are called to be. And as we renew our discernment and expression of God’s vision for us in the coming years, may that step also renew our trust and confidence, our hope and our joy to live through the gift of being adopted children of God – even the parts of us that may sometimes seem unbaptised!
James Percival, Team Rector of Limpsfield & Tatsfield