A Frenchman, a German and an Englishman
This sermon is about a Frenchman, a German and an Englishman – an artist, a philosopher and… well, we’ll shortly get on to Englishman.
First the Frenchman, a late c.18 post-impressionist artist, Paul Gauguin. One of his greatest painting has its title in the top left hand corner of the canvas – ‘Who Are We? Where Have We Come From? Where Are We Going?’ The yearning to understand the purpose of existence lies behind the title. The painting is supposed to read from right to left – it begins with a baby, representing the beginning of life. The group in the middle symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and on the left of the painting is an old woman approaching death. In the midst is a statute or idol symbolising the sacred, the spiritual, what Gauguin described as ‘the Beyond’.
Painted over 100 years ago in Tahiti, it’s now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. In our modern secular world, the spiritual dimension to life just won’t go away. I constantly meet people who are searching, asking questions. Many are unsatisfied with a purely materialist consumerist life. Is there more to life that just the acquisition of more and more stuff, to achieve, to progress in our careers, to become what social media values and promotes - youth, beauty, wealth.
None of this is necessarily wrong. Yet deep down, in the quiet of our heart, other questions persist. Gauguin recognised this: ‘Who Are We? Where Have We Come From? Where Are We Going?’ There is a powerful human yearning for something that’s more than simply ‘getting and spending’, a desire for a truth beyond the self, for transcendence and faith.
Many find themselves attracted to the benefits of faith: uplifting sense of openness to beauty and goodness, and the trust that our best and deepest aspirations in life are not arbitrary flailings around in the dark – in a completely meaningless universe – but are part of the quest for the divine.
That’s the Frenchman, the artist. Now the German, the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He spoke of a twofold sense of ‘awe’: the awe at the vast splendour of the starry universe that we inhabit and to which we respond to with wonder, joy and gratitude. And wonder at the compelling power of the moral values that call forth our allegiance… to care for those in need, to respect justice, to avoid harming others. These dimensions – these spiritual yearnings – might seem rather nebulous, and resistant to modern scientific rational scrutiny. And yet, for hundreds of millions of people across the world and throughout time, this deep yearning of the human spirit for truth, beauty and goodness can’t simply be swept aside as some kind of irrelevant emotional ‘noise’.
Coming to church, we have the opportunity to pause for an hour, and to give space to these spiritual urgings. ‘Who Are We? Where Have We Come From? Where Are We Going?’ We come to church to be encouraged and comforted, yes, but we also come to be challenged by the moral imperative to think and act more compassionately at the start of each week.
We’ve had the French artist, the German philosopher, now the Englishman – or young child, Archie. Today he is being put on the Christian path where he’ll learn the stories of faith. The stories of the whole of human life are right there in the Bible – loyalty, courage, love, faithfulness, as well as betrayal, lust, murder, grief. It’s all there. He may choose to embrace the Christian faith for himself when he’s old enough to engage with it, or he might not. Or he might, as many people do, go on a ‘faith holiday’. Whatever his experience of life, God will still be there.
Today’s reading in Revelation describes the importance of water: water for cleansing, for healing, for entry into the city of God. Jesus offers to quench the spiritual thirst of anyone who comes to him. We hear the welcoming words from Revelation:
… let everyone [this is a rather important word here - not just good people, or religious people, or those who are deserving, or those who have different beliefs to us] let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift.
The baptismal imagery here is particularly poignant. The offer of hope and transformation - in place of the desert of our lives there will be streams of living water.
Archie begins his journey of faith today. This doesn’t mean that God will love him more after I’ve sprinkled some water on him… nor does it mean that God loves Christians more than Muslims or Jews or those with no religious faith. God’s love is not tribal. God’s love is universal and it encompasses all. With that noted, I think God delights in Archie being baptised today.
It’s impossible to know what sort of live lies ahead for Archie, what sort of person he will become. His life will be full of events: exiting, sad, joyful, disappointing, thrilling. Choices to make. He will be happy and he will be sad. He will succeed and he will fail. He will be good and he will be bad… Yet whatever he becomes we are affirming in baptism that he will never be alone.
He will know– and need to be reminded again and again – of the love and care of a generous God who will love him for what he is and not despite what he is. He will walk with a God who affirms his humanity as something which is celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction. He will find God in all things; not just religious things. He will have the love of different people in his biological family and in his God family, the church community.
And when he starts asking the big questions about life and faith, we must take the opportunity to examine our own faith.
We as Archie’s God family have a responsibility to teach a faith that is inspiring, a faith that’s open to question and doubt. A faith that’s willing to learn from others.
Like the early Christians who were described as followers of ‘the Way’… we too here today are invited to walk a new path of life.
My prayer for Archie is that he might become a human being fully alive, knowing deep, deep down God’s unconditional love for him – and that love will radiate to those around him.