Sunday 13 January 2008

One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism

1. Introduction

  • The feast of the Baptism of Our Lord gives us a chance to think about baptism more generally, so as well as talking about Jesus’s own baptism by John, I’m going to talk about how Christian baptism started among Jesus’s disciples, what a mess our splintered Churches have made of it since then, and the hope that we can recover some unity in the diversity of our different baptisms in future.
  • But first, I hope you like this little baptism joke that I discovered. A baptism is taking place, with the congregation gathered around the font. Just as the Rector pours the water over the baby’s forehead, a 5-year old says in a stage whisper, so all can hear: “Daddy, why is she brainwashing that baby?” Hold onto that thought – out of the mouths of babes!

2. All 4 Gospels tell us of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the river Jordan:

  • Just before today’s reading, Matthew quotes John as saying “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire”. A very striking image! John baptised penitents in water, as a sign that their sins were forgiven, washed away in the water. But he believed the promised Messiah was coming after him, whose baptism would be something wholly different.
  • In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 3:13-17), Matthew tells us that John at first refused to baptise Jesus. John recognised Jesus, which isn’t surprising because they were cousins. John believed that he needed to be baptised by Jesus, rather than the other way about, because he was already convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. But Jesus insisted, and John consented.
  • Since the earliest times, Christians have been puzzled that Jesus insisted on being baptised. After all, if Jesus, the Son of God, was without sin, with nothing to repent, a baptism for forgiveness of sins seems inappropriate. Perhaps the reason is that Jesus was determined to express his solidarity with his sinful people – with you and with me – by standing with us as we bare our souls in repentance, our sins are washed away, and we receive God’s forgiveness. Solidarity – Jesus is here with us and for us, always!
  • ‘And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.’ Such a beautiful image, so often captured by artists! ‘And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”’ Surely Matthew must have very deliberately chosen these words to echo Isaiah’s words in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9): ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’.
  • But who saw the dove, and who heard the voice from heaven? I don’t think it can have been the crowd down by Jordan’s banks, because Matthew uses the pronoun ‘he’. This vision is surely not a public one, but a private religious experience. The pronoun is ambiguous. Is it Jesus then who sees the vision? Possibly. Perhaps this is the very moment when Jesus realised that his destiny, the destiny of the Son of God, the Messiah, was that of Isaiah’s suffering servant. But perhaps more likely it is the Baptist who sees the vision. For the writer of John’s Gospel tells us that John the Baptist testified: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’”
  • Whatever the truth of these musings, this passage stands as a critical text for all Christians who understand the nature of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit. This is the only place in the Gospels where we find all three persons together at the same time. It is the defining vision of the Trinity

2. Jesus himself did not baptise anyone, but his disciples did.

  • They did so while he was alive, as the writer of John’s Gospel tells us. And he also tells us that Jesus taught that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God with out being born of water and the Spirit’.
  • And Jesus’s disciples baptised after his death, following his Great Commission, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 3000 are said to be have been baptised on the day of Pentecost alone!
  • So right from the very start Christians have used baptism to symbolise the joining of disciples into the Church, so memorably identified by Paul as the body of Christ.
  • I feel sure Jesus himself really did institute baptism, and I think he meant it as a gift to unify his people.

3. Yet from the earliest times Christian people have found reasons to fall out about baptism!

  • The Apostle Paul had to beg the Christians of Corinth not to quarrel about who had baptised them.
  • As Christian denominations have multiplied over 2 millennia, they have quarrelled bitterly about more or less every imaginable thing to do with baptism:
    o Is baptism necessary to salvation or not? That doctrine is behind the horrid medieval practice of refusing to bury un-baptised children in consecrated ground.
    o Is it right to baptise infants, or ought baptism be reserved for adults capable of making promises for themselves?
    o Must baptism be by total immersion or is pouring or sprinkling alright. Is water required at all?
    o What form of words must be used? We baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, as Catholics and Orthodox do. Some Churches baptise ‘in the name of Jesus’, which many scholars make a persuasive case was the wording used in the primitive Church. Many Christians on both sides reject each others baptisms as invalid.
    o And Christians have disagreed whether baptism qualifies children to receive communion before they are confirmed as they approach adulthood.

4. Surely Christ must weep to see what his professed disciples have done with his gift of baptism!

  • The reality of the matter is that we brothers and sisters in Christ can agree neither on what Christ asks us to do in baptism, nor on what it means. While I don’t believe that Christ wants us all to believe exactly the same – our God seems to like diversity in the natural world – I do believe he wants us to respect each other in our diversity. We break Christ’s body again when we refuse to recognise the equivalence of each others baptism.
  • Yet there are signs of Christian hope! In 1982, theologians from a variety of denominations, working together in the framework of the World Council of Churches, were able to put forward some ideas to allow practices to converge in the areas of baptism, eucharist and ministry. As a result, some churches have changed their liturgical practices, and some have entered into discussions, which in turn have led to further agreements and steps towards unity.
  • This is part of the background which has lead Rev Marie to propose that baptised children should be admitted to communion before confirmation in this parish.

5. Next week is the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

  • This is another initiative supported by the World Council of Churches. It reminds us how very much more still needs to be done to unite us all in faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Which brings me back to where I started: ‘Daddy, why is she brainwashing that baby?’ Our brains do indeed need washing, to wash away our very human but sinful tendency to create divisions between each other, little pockets of them and us.
  • Our prayer this week should be this, I think: that the Holy Spirit may so wash our brains in every denomination of Christ’s Church, that we respect each other in our diversity.
  • Only then can we, in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ rejoice in ‘the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’