Fr David's Sermon
12th April 2009
Imagine being in a dark, cold, secret place with a group of people, being stripped naked and plunged into freezing water three times; all this after several weeks of prayer and fasting & much learning.
What you are doing if discovered could lead to arrest, torture, imprisonment and public execution at the mouths of wild beasts.
Then you come out of the water and are given a new white robe. Fire is lit and then lamps and then comes the dawn of a new day accompanied by loud shouts & singing.
If we heard of something like that today we would think that brainwashing or even a form of torture had taken place. We would fear something unspeakable & cultic had taken place. If it happened to a loved one, we would think them lost.
What I have described, what we have imagined is something akin to Baptism in the early church. In what we now called Lent those who wanted to become Christians spent time preparing. They would have studied the scriptures. They would have heard how God rescued Noah and his Ark from the Flood. They would have learnt how Moses and the Israelites fled out of slavery in Egypt. They passed through the waters of the Red Sea escaping the drowning that befell Pharaoh’s charioteers in hot pursuit.
They would have learnt of Jesus, of his Baptism by John in the Jordan, of his life and ministry. In a dramatic way they would have accompanied Jesus through the events of his last days – betrayal, denial, trial, torture and death, all this accompanied by prayer and fasting. Recalling Jesus dead in the tomb they would be plunged into water to enter as new Christians into the great celebration of Easter, with Christ bursting forth from the tomb.
To make such a choice was not easy – it could be a matter of life & death because to be Christian was to face persecution & death. But so tremendous was this story, so wonderful the new life received though God’s Spirit that not even death could stand in the way.
Easter and Baptism remain firmly linked. It is why we begin in darkness, why we bless fire & light, why we recall our Baptism, why we read of Exodus, and of the death & resurrection of Jesus. It is why Alexander is being baptised today. With St. Paul we are handing on ‘that which we received ... that he appeared.’
I always enjoy showing groups of children around the church. Most of all I love their questions, even when they come with the rapidity of machine-gun fire. Once I was asked how many christenings I had done. I don’t know the exact answer but it must more than 500. The other day I looked up how many I’ve done here – 238 in 11 years. 238 persons, plus parents, grandparents, siblings and godparents, a couple of thousand people directly involved.
I enjoy Baptisms or christenings, I enjoy welcoming new Christians, I enjoy the celebration. I believe in infant baptism because I believe that God in Jesus welcomes us and calls us to respond in faith. I’m grateful to those who in faith brought me to be baptised 49 years ago.
But can’t help noting that only a tiny proportion of those I have baptised or have brought children to be baptised seem to give expression to their faith through active participation in the life of the Church. What a difference it would make if they did. Sometimes I recall Bonhoeffer’s damming of the church for dispensing cheap grace – the cost at his time was selling out to the Nazi’s. And then my conscience is a little troubled.
What is needed is a realisation or rediscovery of what baptism means in our lives. It is to know God’s life given to us in Jesus, to know ourselves as new people, changed by our faith in Jesus. It is to be filled with hope even in the face of death. It is to participate in Jesus’ death and in his resurrection.
Participation – in many ways Christianity is very simple. When we pray we are to say ‘Our Father’. We are to join together to read the scriptures, to sing, to worship, to share bread & drink wine. We are to serve others and to love them as God in Christ serves and loves us.
The participating makes a difference. It can be imperceptible or it can be dramatic. Most of all it is about belonging and handing on. In Baptism we join and are joined to the Christian body. In bring our children to be baptised we are handing on. We are part of something that is 2000 years old, small, frail handing on adding up to something big.
How can we realise our own baptism? It is something that God does through his Holy Spirit. Our part is to say yes by seeking to live participatory Christian lives of worship & service.
As I was thinking about how baptism works the second verse of ‘I vow to thee my country’ came to mind. As Christians we belong to another country.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
A blessed Easter to you all
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