From my pursuit of a coherent expression of my baptismal theology, here's the sermon I offered at this afternoon's baptism in Church on the Hill. Here the congregation was, as expected, young professionals, well versed in acceptable behaviour in churches. They listened politely, as the parents had during our preparation time, and superficially at least it seemed that they had got the message. As to its long-term impact, - that's not, thank God, for me to define.
I'm posting the sermon simply because of the ongoing struggles outlined below...Comments sincerely welcomed. The readings (unusually both chosen by the parents) were from Mark - Mark 1 9-11 (I often use this account of the Baptism of Christ) & Mark 10:13-16 (Jesus welcomes children)
Famously we’re told that a picture is worth 1000 words, - and our two Bible readings today give us very vivid pictures.
First we have a snapshot of Jesus’s own baptism.
It’s quite an interesting group….Jesus’s cousin, the drop out, John, with his camel’s hair coat and leather belt…standing waist deep in the river, while crowds line the banks, and head one by one into the water….Then the close up of the young carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth going down into the waters, and emerging to his own personal affirmation from his heavenly father.
“You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”
Here, God is expressing the truth that has always existed…That from the very beginning, before ever Jesus taught, healed, died and rose, God looked on him and loved him.
That truth applies to C too – and to each one of us here.
What we are doing for C today will change nothing on God’s side.
God won’t love her any more because she has been baptised – there’s nothing that she, or any one of us, can do to make God love us more…because God already loves us completely and unconditionally.
Just as we are.
A while back, I had the joy of baptising D. A lively toddler, he wasn’t content with the rather half hearted little drips of water that I poured on him, and, as I held him he began splashing in the font, till he, and many of the rest of us were a lot more than just damp. His mum was hugely embarrassed and kept apologising but actually it seemed to me that D was the only one of us who had the right idea. If the waters of baptism are one way in which we represent God’s love and grace available for each of us…well, that’s not something poor, mean and limited.
It is boundless, overwhelming. Something that can flood our whole lives and change every part of us, if we only let it. For that reason, maybe those who baptise by total immersion have the right idea – for you can’t ever have too much of God’s love – but God never forces it upon us.
Our response is a choice…
What happens today can be a one off,- a celebration of love, a welcome – but it carries the potential to be so much more…
Baptism is only a sign, true enough, but it’s one that speaks of our readiness to accept God’s love and forgiveness that is so freely given, and to take its impact seriously. To accept forgiveness means too, that we recognise that there are things within us that are imperfect or destructive– things we need to change. That may not seem very real in a little one like C, - but the same genes that ensure our survival can lead to unbridled selfishness, to damaged lives and damaged relationships.We can't curb those tendencies on our own.
The cross which we’ll trace on Chloe’s forehead in a moment is an invisible badge, that announces exactly who she belongs to…and what shape of life she is called to. The cross, after all, is the way of costly self-sacrifice, perfected by Christ but reproduced in our own stumbling efforts to follow his way.
So as we sign C with that mark we commission her to a new kind of life. It is, if you like, our version of the moment of adoption that is represented in our other reading, one of the best known in Scripture, the account of Jesus welcoming children.
Perhaps as you heard that story you imagined Jesus cuddling clean and photogenic children, children a bit like C herself – but from what we know of 1st century Jewish society, it seems more likely that the children brought to him were street kids, fatherless, homeless, outside society. In placing his hands on their heads, Jesus used the ritual by which men would acknowledge paternity. He was publicly adopting each one of those urchins as God’s children, and declaring them citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. Today, that Kingdom is represented (however imperfectly) by the Church – so at baptism we celebrate Chloe’s adoption into that family, her church birthday.
We’ll look for signs of a family likeness, as N & M teach C what being a Christian really means, and help her to live a life that is modelled on the life of Christ. That’s what the other name for baptism, “Christening” represents…It’s the way in which we begin to become Christians, little Christs, called to carry his light, his love and his joy into the world every single day…
and our prayer must be that this will be true for C, that the promises made for her today will bear fruit so that she can grow more like Jesus all her life long, as God looks down on her in love and confirms
“this is my beloved child…I’m well pleased with her ”