The Baptism of Christ - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Baptism of Christ

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

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15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;

16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:

17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

 

21 Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,

22 And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

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It is rather a startling thought - but later this year, on the 24th May to be precise, I will be marking the 60th anniversary of my own baptism, which was in this Diocese, in the church of St Nicholas, Hayes, in what these days is described as Greater London.

I don't remember anything about my baptism, of course - I was only five months old at the time.  And because my family moved from Hayes when I was four years old, I have just one very faint memory of the church itself - although, as it turns out, an accurate one - which is of a very modern looking building with rather striking stained glass windows.  I certainly have no actual memory of the vicar who baptised me, though I have always known his name - Brian Barry (because that information appears on my baptism certificate).

The Church Times, which is the Church of England's weekly trade rag, affectionately known by many clergy as the 'Devil's Trumpet' - (as the saying goes, 'It's a duty to read it but a sin to enjoy it!') - has a weekly obituaries column.  And some years ago, in one of its editions, I happened to spot a notice of the death of one Brian Barry, who, it turned out, was indeed the clergyman who had baptised me.  My family had had no contact with him whatsoever since about 1963 - but nevertheless I found myself moved to write to his widow, whose address I was able to find through her husband's entry in Crockford, the Anglican clerical directory. 

And my letter to his widow went along the following lines: 'You won't know who I am; you won't remember my family.  But I do feel that I owe your late husband an immense debt of gratitude; because back in 1959 he welcomed me into the family of the Church - the family of Christ - through my baptism.  And in terms of how my own life has unfolded, that has proved to be the pivotal point of all that has happened to me since. 

I sent off the letter with no great expectation of hearing anything back - after all, I didn't even know whether or not his widow was still alive.  But a couple of months later, much to my astonishment, I received a card back.  It had been written on behalf of Brian Barry's widow, by her brother - she herself was too frail to write herself.  And it was a short note to say what a huge amount my letter had meant to her.  And it also contained a rather unexpected revelation, which was that, bizarrely, his son had been a contemporary of mine at a neighbouring theological college when I was training for the ministry in Oxford, so the two of us may well have attended some of the same lectures.

Now, in terms of my own particular life journey, my baptism was to prove of immense significance to me for very obvious reasons, given what I have ended up doing - but I should point out that it was not apparent that it had any particular significance at all until I was well into my twenties.  Because, as some of you have heard me say before, I had absolutely no interest in church at all until I was a graduate student, and finally felt the need to check out this religion malarkey, if only to satisfy myself that there was nothing in it. 

But it was at that point that the fact that I had been baptised - that I had been made a member of the family of Christ at the age of five months, all those years earlier - it was that that gave me to confidence to turn up to a church service - because however alien everything church-related felt to me at the time, I knew that I had a right to be there by virtue of my baptism - it was a place where I would be completely unknown, yet where I already belonged. 

Baptism is about a whole range of things:  it is about belonging, as I have just indicated.  It is about cleansing, and refreshing, and new life - hence the powerful symbolism of water: originally all baptism was by total immersion, and that process of being submerged under the water, and being brought up again, was a powerful symbol of our dying and rising to new life:  burial under water, and emergence renewed and refreshed.  Baptism is also about proclamation and identity: at this service we have named each of these children individually, publically, and before God. 

But perhaps most significantly of all, Baptism is a new starting point.  It marks the beginning of a very different kind of journey - and not just any journey - but the single most important journey that any of us will ever make in this life.  This is why in a tradition going right back to St John's Gospel, the language of 'second birth', the language of being 'born again' or 'born anew' has come to be associated with baptism.

In our Gospel reading a few moments ago, we heard how the true identity of Jesus, the Christ, was made explicit: first, by John the Baptist, who, as we heard, announces the coming of one far mightier than himself.  And then at the moment of Baptism itself, a voice from heaven declares to Jesus: 'You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.'  It is this, his Baptism, that marks the starting point of the ministry of the adult Jesus.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led by that same Spirit to spend forty days in the wilderness with God, a time of fasting and personal struggle; a time of preparation.  And only then does his active ministry begin.

In my own case, the significance of my baptism for my own life journey is now pretty obvious, because it turned out that my own vocation was to the ordained ministry.  But God calls each and every one of us to discover our true identity, and our true path in life, by opening our eyes to see him; our ears to hear his call; our hearts to receive him, so that we can all discover what that path might be, and where it might lead us.  And the likelihood is that that journey, should we have the courage and the faith to embark upon it, will be rich beyond our imaginings, and may well prove utterly different from anything we might have expected.  And it is important to remember that it is not a journey that we undertake alone - we are fellow pilgrims on the way, here to help and encourage and support one another; here to help and encourage and support these children and their families.

I have fond memories of my mother, utterly bewildered, trying to come to terms with the news that I, her renegade youngest daughter, one time lead guitarist in a punk band, had been selected to train for ordination.  Her precise words, etched in my memory, were: 'You're going to be a parson?'  The Lord certainly has an interesting sense of humour sometimes.  Indeed, I might add that the bass guitarist of that same punk band is now a Prebendary of Bristol Cathedral.  But that, of course, is absolutely characteristic of the marvellous, glorious, and utterly unexpected nature of the path we walk with God.

There is a wonderful little poem by Ann Lewin called appropriately enough, 'Baptism', which captures all of this perfectly.  I shall leave you with her words:

Baptism, by Ann Lewin

Birth by drowning,
Upheaval of a settled way of life.

All birth is dying,
A painful separation from the past.

Our first birth called us from
Security, to face the lifelong
Struggle to survive.

Our second, no less vigorously,
Calls us to set out on our
Pilgrimage with Christ,
Finding in him with all our
Fellow pilgrims, new insights
Into love, and truth and life.
A pilgrimage that daunts us
And excites us,
And will not let us rest till
We arrive.  Our only certainty
God's promise: 'My love will hold you,
Do not be afraid.'

Amen.

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