Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-9; Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 3: 13-end
Preacher: Revd David Gardiner
May the words of my lips, and the mediations of all our hearts, be forever pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
One of the first steps of the Christian journey is baptism. For many of us, that baptism came when we were too young to remember it. Even for me, the choice to be baptised when I was sixteen was more than half my lifetime ago(!). Since then, my life has changed, and the way I understand my faith has changed. How do I reconcile those changes with the life-long promises I made at my baptism? How do you reconcile the faith you have grown into with the faithful promises you may have made in earlier years, or, even trickier, the ones made on your behalf by your parents and Godparents?
Do those promises hold you? Do you ever think about them? If the way you think about your faith now is different to how you thought about your faith then, or different to how your parents and Godparents thought about faith, then what is the value of those promises?
When I was 16, one of my favourite preachers and writers was Jeff Lucas, a Baptist minister who often collaborates with Anglicans to encourage both to think outside their boxes. One of the stories he tells if of the time before he became a Christian. One day in school, his Religious Studies teacher asked him, “Jeff, are you a Christian?” His response was: “Of course I’m a Christian, I’m British!”
Of course, we know full well that being British doesn’t make someone a Christian. So the question that arises is this: What does make someone a Christian? It’s obviously not about national identity, so what is it about?
Like many of you here, I think the sacraments are very important. But I don’t think that they’re what make me a Christian. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the other way around. I think it’s because we are Christian that breaking bread together and having water poured over us are sacraments. They are sacramental because of the way they help us to relate to the God who gave them to us. Without God, and without our belief, they would be meaningless.
To show you what I mean, I want to look at our readings. There’s something in them about the nature of being a Christian that I think is both exciting and possibly rather daunting.
In the Gospel, Jesus comes to John to be baptised. John, of course, is appalled at the idea. Wouldn’t you be, if you knew someone far holier than you was coming to you for something spiritual? I’ve known some people balk at the idea of giving me a blessing, let alone someone actually holy.
On Maundy Thursday, the priest in charge of the service washes the feet of members of the congregation to remind us that, though they are a priest and our leader in the service, they are also our servant. Yet it’s always very, very hard to find enough volunteers to have their feet washed. Symbolically, you’re supposed to have twelve, but even from a congregation of seventy or eighty, it’s often hard to find just twelve. Why? There are plenty of excuses, but I think it’s because they have a similar reaction to John. “Don’t wash my feet: I’m not worthy.”
As if Jesus went around washing the feet of the worthy! As if foot-washing was done because priests want to check the congregations’ feet are already clean and pretty!
It’s the same for the act of baptism that’s going on here. John isn’t worthy to baptise Jesus. Of course he isn’t: no one could be. But Jesus wanted to be baptised. He told John that it was important that he be baptised because it fulfils all righteousness. I’ve said before that the best meaning I have for ‘righteousness’ is ‘being right with God.’ Jesus wanted to be baptised, he seems to need to be baptised, in order for everything to be right with God.
It’s a pivotal moment. It contains God in all three persons of the Trinity, acting in concert. John is seen to be doing the baptising, but the sacrament is really conducted by God. In the sacrament the Holy Spirit is sent on Christ. And it doesn’t happen to just anybody, but to God’s beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. There is significance in the sacrament that goes far beyond the apparently simple action of water on skin.
Like so much in the story of Jesus, it’s pivotal. Like Jesus himself, it’s pivotal to the whole story of creation. Why? Because of what it means to be a Christian.
In Acts, after talking about Jesus being sent by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring salvation to the world, Peter goes on to say that the followers of Christ were themselves chosen to be witnesses to him. He said that they were themselves told to go out and tell others about him, so that all who believe in him will receive forgiveness through his name.
Christ provides the salvation. But he chose the disciples to go out and continue his ministry to the people. Christ’s ministry was to bring justice to the world, but much of the world does not seem to know it is there.
Pouring water over someone’s head is not itself something special, but Christ underwent baptism at the hands of his own creation so that we could share in it with him. In baptism, we are adopted by God. Through coming to God in baptism, we have to face the uncomfortable truth that we are important to God, as important to him as his only-begotten Son. As Paul says, we come to share in Christ’s inheritance. And as we share in his benefits, we also share in his tasks.
At the Mission Action Planning workshop on Christ the King Sunday, members of our congregations came up with over thirty vision statements for how our churches could carry on Christ’s ministry. As we renew our baptismal vows today, we take the next step towards turning these aspirations into actions. How can we make these desires reality? It’s up to you. And, in fact, down to you. What we as a church will choose do, and the way we do it, is going to depend on you. You will be inform the decision the PCC makes on what to do. You will be the people that make it happen. You can find more details on the Mission Action Plan handout.
We are called, with Christ, to live in righteousness, in an active right relationship with God. It’s not just Jesus that the Isaiah reading is talking about: because we share in Christ through baptism, it is about us too. God has taken us by the hand, and will not cast us aside. He will send us to be lights to all the nations. He will use us to open blind eyes, and release the prisoners of darkness and injustice. He swears it by his most holy name.
We are about to renew our vows of baptism. When you do, remember the words of God at the baptism of Christ. They apply to him, and in sharing in his baptism, they also apply to you: “You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”