Turning to Christ
A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
I have just been reading a book called The Character of Virtue that I received for Christmas. It is a book of letters that the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote to his Godson Laurence Bailey Wells. When Lawrence was born Sam Wells asked Stanley to be Lawrence’s Godfather. At that time they were living on other sides of the world. So Stanley began writing one letter a year to Lawrence which he received on the anniversary of his baptism and each letter focuses on a particular virtue that seemed suitable for his stage of life, until Laurie was old enough to read them for himself. In the introduction Sam admits that to begin with, as a young child, these letters were as welcome to Laurie as five beans were to Jack’s mother in the Jack and the Beanstalk story but of course when you plant beans they grow, and so does the significance of our baptism – what emerges is a deep insight into spiritual companionship and growing up and what it means to share the Christian faith- to be both a Godparent and a Godchild. I recommend it to you.
The idea of Godparents reminds us of course that baptism is not just a one-off event in the past, a rites-of-passage that marks a stage in your life after which you move on. Baptism is the beginning of a relationship with God and one another that should last the whole of your life. We have just witnessed the baptism Raphael Darby and the promises that parents and Godparents made. Promises of faithfulness. In this precious moment what we were doing was re-enacting the first public moment in Jesus’ ministry when Jesus himself was baptised in the Jordan. But just like the Holy Communion we are not just remembering a past event that remains in the past. We are remembering but also making Christ present now, and in our lives to come. In the Holy Communion this is expressed in the liturgy when we say:
Christ has died (past tense)
Christ is here (present tense)
Christ will come again (future tense)
Here is the past meeting the present and the present living in the promise of the future. It’s the same with baptism. The Gospel tells us of Jesus baptism nearly 2000 years ago. But that baptism is also taking place here today. And that baptism changes all that is to come. You see today Christ claims you for his own. And that’s nor just Raphael that’s everyone in this church. The Gospel is telling us a story about Christ but that story is also your story. The Character of Virtue says it’s like God putting a song in your heart, and it’s easy to forget the tune. Therefore parents and Godparents and all of us have to sing that song back when the child forgets how it goes, indeed when we ourselves forget how it goes.
So let’s now look closely at the Gospel story which speaks both in word and in sign.
First of all we see John the Baptist. He both calls us but also points beyond himself to the one greater than he is, the one whose sandals he is not fit to untie. I wonder who it is in your own faith journey who has pointed you beyond themselves to the one you have come to know as Christ. The temptation in our celebrity driven culture is to want to focus on our own abilities, needs, power and achievements- but here John the Baptist shows a very different model of inspiration- he prepares us for Christ by calling us make our lives ready but then by getting out of the way himself so that we ourselves can meet with Christ. I wonder who has done that for you- a parent, a Godparent? A friend?
All this week I have been thinking about a woman called Anne Duffin many of you may know called who died just before he 93 birthday on 2 January. She participated in the life of this church for 60 years. “What did you love about Anne, I asked Alison Hardwick , one of her closest friends at St Martin’s. “She was the most tremendous example to me of how to live with faith and grace- I could always turn to her,” Alison said. Yes you could always turn to Anne because you knew Anne was turned to Christ. In her meditation group which she led come wind or rain- that’s what we did each time we met. She turned to Christ and she taught us to do the same- Physically we learnt to do that. To turn to Christ with our whole bodies and gaze upon him. To be filled by his presence. That’s what she taught. Right through all the struggles I was going through she taught me simply to turn to Christ. And that turning anchored me. I am still learning to do that. This is the central call of our baptism. Do you turn to Christ? Yes, I turn to Christ.
And when in the baptism we turn to Christ what happens then. Well we are told when Jesus himself came to be baptised the heavens are opened. The heavens are opened for you too. Its like entering into a new dimension of living, for yourself but also beyond yourself. It’s hard to explain to a person who has not experienced this epiphany what it means. God’s world has entered your world. God’s love has broken down the barriers. The veil between you and God has been torn apart. There is a height and a depth and a breadth opening up. Eternity is now. It’s like Jacobs ladder in which the transcendent mystery of God is connected with our own lives and souls. It’s like those wise men reaching the stable and suddenly seeing the connection between the star and the miracle of the Christ child. It’s like Mary realising that God has broken into her life in a way she never imagined possible. It’s like you or me realising we are no longer defined by our sin or failures, or our limitations but that the life and the kingdom of God are opened for us too. All of us who searched for meaning and belonging are witnessing that we belong to God. If you want to see an image of that eternity now. After you leave church today go over to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery and stand for ten minutes in front of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ. It is a painting which captures moment of serenity and stillness. A moment in time and yet- for all time. The heavens open.
And there is a sign, a sign of a dove and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus. And the realisation that this is what our baptism is. That dove is descending on you. That the heaven beyond- the kingdom of God is not just something out there. It is in us. The Holy Spirit has made its home in our mortal flesh. You may feel lost or frightened but God’s Holy Spirit is within you. You may feel alone but God has made his home the very stable of your own life. You may feel torn and pulled in all directions. But be still here and now, you are standing in the beam of God’s love. You are God’s manger. You may think that peace has deserted the world but you are the bearer of God peace. You are the dust into which God breaths his life. Your own frail mortal body can become place where others encounter God. Yes your own body, however broken or lost it may feel is the dwelling place of Christ. Remember the dove in the story of the flood which became the bearer of hope and a new covenant. Well that dove rests on you-the new covenant has been made with you
And finally those incredible words- the voice from heaven that speaks these words: “You are my son the beloved with you I am well pleased.” With baptism comes the promise that these words are not past tense, not words meant for Christ alone but that miraculously you too have been included- here and now and for eternity. God is saying to each one of us in this sacrament of baptism you are my daughter, you are my son. You mean everything to me.
How often we have heard a different message from religion. The message that we are unacceptable, sinful, outsiders, shameful, condemned. But this is not the story of our baptism. The song of our baptism says I love you no matter what. I will never forget you. You are my beloved. You may feel dirty but I wash you. You may feel unworthy but I will clothe you. You may be ashamed but I will lift you up, you may be hungry and thirsty but I will give you living water and the bread of life to eat. There may be a time in your life when you feel you believe you are totally abandoned and you would gladly eat the pig food but you are still my beloved, you are still my daughter my son. You are the dwelling place of my love and you will be with me in paradise.
It’s a big event this baptism- the biggest. This turning to Christ, heaven opening for you, the Holy Spirit dwelling in you and the voice of God telling you that you are beloved, that you mean everything to God. Today is not just the memory of a day that happened for us perhaps years ago, no baptism is everyday- the day you discover the kingdom of God is within you.