Sunday 10th January 2015 – St Andrew’s Leytonstone
This morning we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We heard the main details of the event in our Gospel reading. It’s a good time to recall those details, but also to reflect on our own baptism and what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.
We talked about baptism at the Advent group, and in particular about the various reasons that parents might want to have their children “done”. We also discussed whether it is appropriate for baptisms to take place outside of the main service.
Imagine, if you will, the river Jordan. John the Baptist is going around preaching about repentance – in Greek, metanoia, or ‘turning’. And he is baptising people in the river. This is a rich symbol of a new start, a new direction for life. Immersion in water was already a Jewish ritual for purification. It was associated with God’s salvation: the waters of the great flood which Noach and his family escaped were to rid the world of wickedness; the waters of the Red Sea which the Hebrew people fled through during the escape from Egypt were not only the start of freedom from bondage, but the beginning of a new journey, being led by God. And of course, the cleansing properties of water are obvious and also symbolic.
Full immersion in a river is a dramatic act compared to the gentle sprinkling of water people receive when they are baptised at St Andrew’s and many other English churches. But whether your own baptism was by the most delicate of sprinkles, or involved a pool or even a river and a lot of dripping afterward, the idea of turning toward God is important.
For Christians, repentance and a fresh start are only part of the story. John the Baptist is preaching about repentance, but he also makes clear he is not the Messiah: he baptises with water, but one is coming who will baptise by fire and the Spirit. It’s a bit scary really: the idea of the Messiah sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and burning up the chaff in unquenchable fire, is quite a contrast with the idea of being re-born to new life after repentance!
I don’t claim to have a complete answer to what the fire means for us, but some of my favourite words from the Old Testament were in today’s reading from Isaiah:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”
There’s that juxtaposition of water and fire again but this time with the assurance of, if not safety, at least survival. And something more: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
God calls each and every one of us by name, and baptism is part of our response to that vocation.
Jesus is baptized in response to a vocation from God: and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. The reading from Acts suggests that the Holy Spirit is part of becoming Christian – which makes sense if you think of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit moving among the people as the start of the Church.
Christian baptism, then, is about repentance and new life, but it is also about becoming a member of the Church. The new life we receive at the re-birth of baptism is new life in Christ, and we live it out as members of the Body of Christ.
Whether or not we meet the people who are baptised here, they, like us, have a vocation as members of the church. And so part of our role must surely be to welcome them, and, like the apostles Peter and John, to pray for them. We are all siblings in Christ; we are all beloved children of God, waiting for the day when we too may hear a voice from heaven saying, “With you I am well pleased.”