Baptism has been in the news in recent months. First we had the baptism of Prince George back in October. On the day, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire turned up here at the Cathedral and I drew the short straw to stand by our ancient font and record a piece on baptism. Having conducted something approaching a 1,000 baptisms I thought it would be an easy task. However, my well-honed theology was to no avail. What really caught their interest was my off-the-cuff comments about how to hold a baby. I was taught by a midwife in the hospital after our first son was born and as she was explaining how to wash a baby’s hair she turned to me and said ‘I suppose this is how you baptize babies’. I thought, ‘it is now’. Though when it comes to David in a short moment, we won’t be employing quite the same grip, at 10 years old he’s a bit big for that.
The second place where baptism has been in the news is over some revisions being made to the words we use at baptism. Ever since the latest text came out in 1998 many of us have found it to be out of touch with where most people are when they come for baptism themselves or bring their children for it. There is too much unexplained reference to the devil and the language is just not earthed and doesn’t connect. So revision is needed.
The news reports, though, about dumping the devil set me off thinking about the nature of evil and how it can concentrate and become focused in a place or a community so that it can take on a life of its own and we can find ourselves caught up in this. It’s easy to see where ideas that personify evil as a person come from. There are, though, other ways of saying this, which don’t imply horned creatures dressed in red with a spikey tail pitchforking the damned into the eternal flames, which is not very helpful and does tend to spoil the Christening party somewhat.
Baptism is a sign of how God deals with the reality of evil. He does this in the person of Jesus Christ, sharing our humanity and our struggle, taking the human condition, even to the point of death, and breathes new life into it. He also calls us to join in with him, to become his followers, his special agents in the world witnessing to love, hope and peace. So, on this Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus we are drawn to look afresh at what lies at its root.
Baptism has its origins in washing, in the removal of dirt and making ourselves clean. It lies in the freshening up after the heat of the day and getting ready so that we are acceptable for a special occasion. We scrub up. John the Baptist was building on a tradition that used this as a way of getting people ready for God’s kingdom, specifically a place where God was the ruler and not the Romans. So people went to the Jordan, a place rich with significance as the place where the people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. As they lined up for this ritual washing, they signed up for the rule of God in their lives, in the life of their community and nation, they signed up to be special agents of his kingdom. As they entered the flowing water, and either went beneath the waves or had the water poured over them a connection was made with how vulnerable life can be, how fragile we are. Water can also overwhelm us, at its worst we can drown in it, and we’ve seen just how powerful it can be in the waves battering the coast and in the unstoppable floods. Sadly yesterday the body of young man was found off the south coast. Fragile and vulnerable, water in baptism reminds us that life is a special gift. So God’s rule is founded in an eternal hope that the world belongs to God and so we try to shape our lives and the common life in accordance with the moral tone and purpose which flows from our faith.
Our Gospel reading took us to the River Jordan (Matthew3:13-end). Along comes Jesus to sign up for this too. This causes confusion for John because it is him that he is getting everyone ready for. So this is the wrong way round and doesn’t make sense to him. It wouldn’t make sense to us if Jesus arrived through the great West Doors and asked to be baptized. In presenting himself at the Jordan, Jesus identifies fully with who we are and where we are. He takes the baptism and gives it a new significance. It is no longer something that needs to be repeated, as with ritual washing, but becomes an entry point into his kingdom. Once the waters of life have touched us we are incorporated into his family, his household of faith, and become his children through grace, through his gift. We become his special agents.
To show this three symbols will be used. These children will be marked with the sign of the cross, using special oil blessed for this purpose by our bishop. They will be anointed, blessed. People are anointed for special jobs; it’s an ancient practice. The special job which these children have, and which all of us who have been baptized share with them, is to be a follower of Jesus Christ. There are not just 12 disciples, but there were many more and since there have been billions. In a moment, there will be three more called David, Isabel and Esme.
Then there is the water, the way we sign up for this. We are washed, brought through the vulnerable submission and incorporated into the life of Christ’s church. The consequences of sin are repaced by the freshness of salvation. Finally we will give them candles, and the words used talk about shining as lights in the world to the glory of God. This takes us back to that debate about the devil and evil. Following Christ means challenging evil wherever we find it, it means making a difference so that we bring light into situations, not darkness, we aim to be people who are grace and blessing to the world: challenge evil, make a difference and be grace and blessing.
Today we make 3 new disciples of Jesus Christ; people who are blessed and who will themselves be blessing. They are to be signs of hope in a fragile and vulnerable world, lights to counter darkness wherever it is found, however we choose to talk about evil. They are to be special agents of God’s kingdom as all of us who have been baptized are called to be. The challenge for the rest of us here is help them do that, to set the example for them to follow. That is why God draws us together as his church to help one another in this journey. Baptism is a sign of God’s confidence in us to do this and be this in the power of his Spirit.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 12th January 2014