The Baptism of Christ - a renewed calling

A sermon preached by Martin Carr at St George's Campden Hill and adapted for St John's Holland Road on Sunday 13 January 2013

Isaiah 43.1-7; Luke 3.15-17,21-22

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery hangs one of my favourite paintings, the Baptism of Christ by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca. I’ve printed it in miniature on the front of this week’s newsletter, but a visit to the gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the original is well worth the time. Piero painted the Baptism as an altarpiece for a monastic chapel. At their daily mass, the monks would have gazed at the body of Christ in the very act of baptism as they celebrated that other great sacrament of the church, the Eucharist.

Careful attention to the painting reveals much about Piero’s intentions. The other figures overlap and are peripheral whereas Christ stands central and solitary. Christ’s upper body is serenely prayerful, whereas his legs are twisted in movement, stepping down and up again from the Jordan river. Above Christ hovers the dove, the Holy Spirit, declaring Jesus to be the divine Son of God. Yet the figure of Christ is pale and almost naked, altogether human just as we are. In his baptism Jesus identifies with us. He is washed and cleansed, and commissioned for his ministry – the babe of Bethlehem is now the teacher of Nazareth, sent out by the Spirit to preach the good news of God’s kingdom. Yet in this fragile human figure, painted to hang above the altar where bread is broken in remembrance of Christ’s death and passion, we are reminded too of the fragility of human life, and the risk of choosing to follow God.

Baptism is a moment of decision. For Jesus it is a moment when he turns from the obscurity of life in a carpenter’s workshop to be a teacher and leader. In choosing to identify in baptism with sinful humanity, he risks opposition and death. But in that choice Jesus also chooses life –stepping out of the shadows to enable others to share in his life of self-giving love and service. Today, for Joshua and Monty, baptism is a decision taken on their behalf by parents and godparents to bring them up within the family of the Church as followers of Jesus. Through the waters of baptism they become members with us of Christ’s body. As adults Joshua and Monty will be invited to take on for themselves the promises made at their baptism when, in the sacrament of confirmation, the bishop prays for the Holy Spirit, first revealed by the dove at Christ’s baptism, to strengthen them as disciples of Jesus. For us, as we together renew our vows and are sprinkled with the waters of baptism, we are reminded that turning to Christ is not merely a one-off act, but is a daily process of aligning our lives to be the people God calls us to be, open to the needs and service of others, working together to bring love, peace and justice into our world.

In the early church baptism was usually carried out at the Easter vigil when, after a long period of preparation during Lent the candidates would symbolically be plunged into the waters and rise again, participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to the old self and rising to the new. The first Christians risked persecution and even martyrdom for this faith, so it was not a decision taken lightly but through prayer, teaching and fasting. Like Christ in Piero’s painting, the candidates stood naked in their humanity before God. They were anointed with oil, representing the Spirit, and, after immersion, clothed in a white robe representing purity, and given a candle to signify the light of Christ which now illumined their own lives.

Today we are invited to follow in the footsteps of all who, in the course of two millennia, have given their lives to God in baptism. ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ is the key question asked at the font. In his own baptism, Jesus says yes to his vocation as Son of God, and is anointed by the Holy Spirit. Monty and Joshua today turn towards Christ who calls them to be part of God’s family, the Church. And God calls all of us, and I really mean all of us, to turn once again to Christ, putting away our old selves and living from now on as Christ himself, in lives of love and service. ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’ speaks the voice of God from heaven at Jesus’ baptism.’ So baptism also gives us our true identity, each of us called personally by name, and beloved of God. Our vocation as children of God is built on our identity in baptism, freed from sin and egotism to be the people we truly are meant to be.

As we celebrate the baptism of Monty and Joshua on this great festival of the baptism of Christ, I would encourage us all to consider our own faith and renew with them the promises made at our own baptism. Can we stand, like Christ in Piero’s painting, assured in our humanity and ready to accept God’s commission? As Lent and Easter approach once more, are there some of us who, like those first Christians, are ready to take the next step in faith, whether that be to confirmation, to a renewed commitment to prayer and service, to learn more about our faith through study of the Scriptures, or even to take the first steps towards a new ministry? God’s call comes to us all whether we are young or old, firm in faith or just starting out. And if you’re not sure where you’re going on your journey of faith, speak to one of the ministry team here, we’d all be delighted to help.

In my own work as a lay minister one of the greatest joys I have is in helping others, through preparation for baptism and confirmation, discover where God is calling them. So I pray that this morning, as we rejoice with Monty and Joshua, and meditate on Christ in his own baptism, we too might be renewed in our vocation as God’s children. Touched by the Spirit, let us live no longer merely for ourselves, but for the world God loves and the people he calls his own, born anew in Christ to life in its fullness. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice