Sermon for The Baptism of Christ – Sunday January 12th, 2014 – Year A
The Baptism of Christ, and The Church
And so the ‘House of Pain’ is all but gone. Carisbrook Stadium reduced to rubble, with a bright new shiny stadium in its place. But it isn’t the same . . . Although I never watched a game of rugby at Carisbrook, I knew something similar. Whilst still at school I managed to obtain tickets for the Calcutta Cup match at the Old Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, before it too went the way of the bulldozers. Stood on open terracing amongst thousands and thousands of others, prey to the elements – Edinburgh’s weather is often a match for its namesake, Dunedin – it was my first powerful experience of being part of something which was much bigger than myself. We shouted ourselves hoarse, as what were to me in those days legendary names in British rugby put on a grand show.
To stay with the rugby reminiscences for a moment, and indeed who wouldn’t at the memory of that great Liverpool winger Mike Sleman putting the Scots defence metaphorically to the sword, I was fortunate to have been there that day – Tickets were like Gold Dust and The Scottish Nationalists were on patrol, trying to eject from the ground English supporters with a Union flag. Fortunately for me, my school was affiliated to the Rugby Football Union and I’d ‘borrowed’ my church’s St George’s flag especially for the occasion (being head choir boy had its perks 🙂 ). [Of course at this stage I was not as powerfully aware of my Scottish heritage as I am today! :-)]
Those themes of ‘Identity’ and ‘being part of something much bigger than ourselves’ find their true home in our baptisms. However in our times, the way in which they do has changed to the point where their true meaning is in effect denied. With regard to Identity, it’s meaning has become the opposite of that which Classical Christianity taught, and as a result there is little or no sense of our baptism being about being caught up into something much larger than ourselves. And like at Murrayfield on that Saturday in 1980, Entry has become a contentious matter. Particularly as for so many, blinded by the modern World, Baptism is no longer seen as Costly Privilege, Costly Grace, but as yet one more choice.
Child of the modern world as I am, I remember for many years wastefully wrestling with the issue of Adult vs Infant Baptism, not least at theological college where some of our classes were shared with Baptists and one or two of my fellow Ordination candidates revealed themselves to be more Baptist than Anglican in their thinking! If for the sake of this sermon I pretend that modern ways of thinking are helpful [Let the reader understand!!] I might say ‘There are of course arguments to be made both ways, but there are two powerful arguments which support the baptism of infants, arguments which are of particular import in this culture.’
Firstly that we believe it to be true that the Grace of God s far bigger than anything we can imagine and is far more important than Our decision or indeed the faith we bring as individuals to Baptism. It is Not Our Choice which is Sovereign, it is the Merciful Grace of God. And a young child cannot be anything other than a Recipient – this is not a matter of their own ‘responsible Self determination’. Indeed it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Right to Choose for ourselves whether or not we are baptised is in itself willfully sinful. For God in his Mercy Welcomes us to a feast of Life and we stand there and wonder whether or not we shall Deign to oblige Him with our presence . . .
Our forerunners in faith, the faithful Root of the Jewish people from which Jesus sprung forth, did Not choose to be God’s people. They were Chosen, and that wonderful passage from Ephesians we heard last week said the same of us – that we were chosen before the foundation of the world.
But this is so very hard for us to swallow in our contemporary culture where that perverse caricature of the human, the Self determining and Self actualising Individual, who in his or her pride surveys the choices before them . . . note this is the way we’re pretty much all brought up . . . and decides out of THEIR grace to become a follower of Christ.
So, to follow secondly, that Baptism is Not Primarily about You! Or to put it more inclusively, Baptism is Not primarily about Us and Our Salvation – and the theologically alert amongst us will not doubt be wondering if I haven’t fallen right into the trap of suggesting that it is. For today, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany is the Feast of the Baptism of Christ! And here I am speaking about our baptisms . . . and I will come back to that, but it is not primary, indeed in the light of the Baptism of Christ it would seem utterly self aggrandising to think it is even secondary.
We consider the Baptism of Christ, because THAT is the only lens though which we can begin to consider what it means for us to be a baptised people . . . not the meaning of your or my baptism, no, what it means to be a baptised people . . . for I suggest that to spend time at all considering, and indeed agonising over our own individual baptisms is to attempt to undo what God has done in Jesus – to Undo Salvation, to break apart. To try and justify ourselves!
Jesus first public appearance in all four gospels – slightly nuanced in John, is at his baptism. And Matthews account contains the discussion between Jesus and his cousin at the Jordan
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
John has come preaching a Baptism of Repentance towards God – and many were being baptised Confessing their sins and being baptised. However there is something John cannot yet see in Baptism – for he has not seen the Cross – he has not known the Resurrection. The true meaning of Baptism is Only revealed in the Baptism of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen one, the One who Is the Truth. Apart from Jesus we cannot know the Truth. The True significance of Baptism is revealed in the Baptism of Jesus. And that is the self offering of faithful Israel to God, the revealing of the Servant of the Lord. Necessary to fulfil all righteousness.
And that self offering is Answered! In the Baptism of Jesus there is a dual move – down into the waters of Baptism as self offering to God, and God the Father’s response, the annointing of the Holy Spirit, God’s self offering to Man.
So too the Cross and Resurrection, down into the waters of death, and raised to new life.
And that is necessary for Us – for in our baptism we are included in Christ’s work upon the Cross – we die and are raised to new life – His Life. We die, We are Raised – We are included in HIs Baptism. The Baptism of Jesus is the Baptism of faithful Israel both those who have gone before and those who will follow . . . Follow Me says the annointed one – come after Me. Jesus Is faithful Israel, and We are His Body also. And this is why this isn’t about you! Or I 🙂 It is about Christ, and it is about Us.
When we are baptised we are included in Christ’s baptism – indeed at a Baptism in the Orthodox Church the priest prays “That the Lord our God will send down the blessing of the Jordan and sanctify these waters . . .” That the waters of the Baptism of every new Christian Are at once the waters of the Jordan – for there is only One Baptism. When we think of second baptisms we tend to think of rebaptism – not our own!!!
So We are included in Christ’s Baptism, HIs Righteousness, His Life His Death, His Resurrection. And so we are made One with the children of God. This is Our identity. As we cannot understand our Baptism Apart from that of Christ, so also we cannot understand it apart from the other members of the church. We become through baptism as St Paul says, ‘Members one of another’ – to be a child of God can only be understood in terms of our paricipation in the life of the body of Christ. That our Identity, who we now are is known only in our shared life in Christ. That who I am, and who you are is now a secondary characteristic as our primary identity as members together of Christ. Just a moments reflection reveals how radically we have reversed this and indeed how our sense of self is assaulted at the thought that this might possibly be true, but it is.
Our shared life is primary, and that our ‘individual’ life of faith is derivative of this. Put another way, one might say “ I am a Christian by virtue of being baptised into the Body of Christ. Here I think that the parallels with God’s ancient people the Jews are significant. Identity was GIft, and resided in being part of the whole. So one might say I am Jewish because I am part of the Chosen people. And we might say, I am Christian because I am made part of the Church through Baptism. To use Paul’s analogy of the body – you may be a part of the body, a finger or a knee, but that means nothing apart from the body.
This it must be said is the complete opposite to what in effect our Individualistic culture has taught us about what it means to be a Christian, in which belonging to the body is secondary to our identities as Christian. And it is for the Church a fatal error. In a sense because in our arguments over baptism and in many other ways we have tried to be gatekeepers for the grace of God, we have sidelined the significance of the Church – the centrality of the body of Christ, and thus unwittingly have displaced Christ, who we are foolish to believe we can comprehend in isolation from the church, from the centre of our faith, replacing him with a weak reflection of ourselves, as many critics of Christians see only too clearly.
This is very hard for us to accept because of the hyper individualism of the age, with is the air we breathe and of which we have only the merest grasp of how it has infected our Lives. It is also why in many regards the future of the church looks uncertain humanly speaking for more than ever it is composed of ‘Individuals’, that is who understand their own life and faith as primary and ‘membership’ of the church and its life and worship as in a sense subservient to it.
So we might ask whether Church ‘serves my needs’. We may look for a church to my liking – thus we remain at the centre. ‘Is my participation in the body of Christ helpful to my personal faith?’ is not only a modern question which our forebears of the Classical era would not have understood, it is also a blasphemous question for it denies that we are joined one to another In Christ. In truth it is the question of one who is outside of Christ.
As we consider further our life together here at St John’s, and that is on my mind and heart my every waking moment – it is this aspect which is the most challenging, for it is this that the World would have us deny under the guise of ‘faith’: that it is in our Life together that Christ is known; in shared worship that we are most truthfully ourselves; in praying together that we truly pray – for then the body of Christ prays, for then the body worships – that our Common life is our Christian life and that wherever we are, we are in our essence and by virtue of our baptism part of the body.
As I said, being part of the rugby crowd was this experience of being part of something much bigger than myself. An Experience in which I was present, but at the same time lost. I was a necessary part of it – but it was only because we were joined together that I experienced what I did. My ‘I’ was only known in the context of the greater whole. I could not have known that ‘something greater than me of which I was part’ in isolation. In a sense this is precisely how church Is. It is just that we are trained from the moment of our birth in the modern world to seeing things so much on our own terms we miss this. We are too ready I think to be as it were standing apart – judging the body of which through baptism we are an integral part.
Of course the other big debate about baptism was about the method – immersion or sprinkling – well again I don’t offer a conclusive answer – but we DO need to be immersed in our common life, and an occasional sprinkle does not do justice to who we are and our inclusion in something far greater than ourselves – that in Christ, as part of His body we are part of something Far bigger than ourselves. Indeed we become participants in God’s Salvation of the World in and through Christ. We were taught that Baptism was all about us – it’s not, it is about Something far far greater, in which our lived find their true meaning and purpose, caught up as members together of Christ in the Life of Christ, to the Glory of God the Father.