The Baptism of Christ

A sermon preached on Sunday 11th January 2015, by the Revd. Peter Walton

Seven: Two; it’s not a post Christmas diet. 7-2; it is not a football result.  7-2 is about sacraments. A sacrament is a church service or rite which has been instituted by Jesus Christ himself. The Roman Catholic Church holds that there are seven sacraments. Martin Luther argued that there are only two sacraments. 

Baptism is one of the two Dominical (from the Latin “of a lord”) sacraments, given by our Lord Jesus Christ, the other being the Eucharist. 

A sacrament in the 1662 catechism is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Grace is the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

Some of us are baptised as grownups; some will be here today interested and enquiring about the Christian faith and but have yet to take this step.  And I expect that many, like me, were baptised as a child and have no recollection of it all - except perhaps grainy photographs or silent cine film. 

And because the decision was taken for us, baptism is something we probably don’t often think about very often.

But we should!

Having recognised Baptism is a sacrament, I would like us to remind ourselves of two things and undertake a third:

·        How Baptism came to be so important to the Church – after the pre resurrection ministry of Jesus.

·        What it means to be Baptised and how it should shape our lives as individuals and as a church.

·        The undertaking. You will have seen from the Newsletter that at the end of the service, we will renew our Baptismal vows, which I hope when we have done this it is the perfect individual and public statement of our “New Year Resolutions” and that the Sunday when we celebrate the Baptism of Christ is one of the most important Sundays in the church’s calendar.

One thing I need to say. The question of ultimate salvation does not depend on whether a person has been baptised. There are no Biblical references to such a requirement. God won't love us or our children any more after baptism than before. God just is love - regardless of whatever religious tradition we come from or whether we have no religious belief at all. Some people do have real worries about this and if any of you here today do, please feel free to make contact with Father James.

How baptism came about? Today’s Gospel speaks to us of Jesus’ Baptism. There is not time this morning to say much about this except to stress the wonderful phrase “This is my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Few more comfortable words could be addressed to anyone. God is love. Henri de Tourville wrote the following on prayer:
 “Say to yourself, “I am loved by God more than I can either conceive or understand.” Let this fill all your soul and all your prayers and never leave you. You will soon see this is the way to find God”

We wish to world to know of this love and grace and are reminded of Jesus’ “Great Commissioning”: 9Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 
Shortly afterwards, in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost when Peter had preached the good news of Jesus the Messiah to a crowd “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And about 3000 were baptised that day.

The church was built on people being baptised. It is the doorway into Christian commitment through which we all pass. You can live a life in accordance with Christian teaching but you cannot be a Christian without being baptised. Later services such as confirmation are an invitation to deepen the Baptismal relationship with God and are conditional on being baptised. The seriousness nature of the status of being baptised is underlined by the issuing of Baptismal certificates and a register of baptisms is kept by the church.

The Church, having come from a Jewish background, there are parallels with the rite of circumcision. There is the affirmation of belonging to a community and a sign of the covenant between God and his people. But baptism also reflects the gentler and more inclusive approach of Christianity; both male and female are invited to be baptised. There is an absence of pain and blood – no need for blood, Christ has given his blood and we can think back to the dove at His baptism, the dove being the poor person’s sacrificial animal for sale at the Temple, a harbinger of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ mission.

Baptism of households including children became normal by the second and third Century.  Today some people struggle with the baptism of children. In the Church of England, a minister is required to baptise anyone who asks for this gift. We see Christ as the saviour of all –indeed Jesus uses children as an example of the kingdom and if a child is born into a Christian family, baptism is a natural part of being brought up in the church and a springboard into growing in to the Christian faith. We make all sorts of choices for our children, so why not religious ones? The gift of baptism allows children to consider the question of Christian commitment later on as a question not of “opting in” but “opting out.” 

What then happens at Baptism? We turn to Christ, we commit to repent of our sins, to renounce evil, to continue in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of bread and in prayers. We commit to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and to return to the Lord.  We acknowledge Christ's authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice.

And here’s a challenging one:
To proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, loving our neighbour as ourself.

At a church like St. George’s, some might see evangelism as being owned by the Evangelical churches, Billy Graham, the Damascene moment of conversion.
But increasingly it is now understood that for many people, conversion is more usually a journey. We should see proclaiming the good news as “anything that helps people move towards God.” So what we are called to do is to show the world in our own way and by our own behaviour, that God is loving and Christians are people to whom they can relate.

Christians cultivate kindness, generosity and care for all people we come into contact with. We hope that our behaviour might cause people to enquire – “I wish I had a faith like yours.”

Incidentally this is the chance for a quick advert. In Lent at the evening mass at St. John’s we will be launching a series of weekly “Why Me?” talks in place of the sermon where a member of the United Benefice will give a personal reflection on their life and faith. In other parishes this type of series of talks has had an amazing impact on the spiritual life of the congregation. So do please look out for them and bring your friends. 

One final word.  When we find that the stuff of everyday life is getting too much and we are tempted to do something that separates us from God and our baptismal promises, let us be reminded of Martin Luther, who when he was tempted, said “baptizatus sum.” – I am baptised.
Holland Park Benefice