The Baptism of Christ

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If you missed our Mass on Sunday, you can find the video below. We had some audio issues this week, but hopefully you can still follow along. The pew sheet and the sermon are also further down the page below the video.

The few short months between Christmas and Easter are where we play the Gospels in fast-forward mode. Just four days ago, we were celebrating the arrival of the Magi at the crib, and now we’re thirty odd years in the future, and a whole new epiphany is taking place. From the Gospels, we have a pretty good idea about what happened. Jesus meets John the Baptist, dunk in the water, Holy Spirit, beloved son, etc. etc. And from that brief encounter, where we actually know quite a lot about what happened, and not a lot of explaining what it means, we get to the fundamental rite of passage for Christians. It all feels pretty plain and simple. But delving a bit deeper, we find that there is a bit more to it. Why is Jesus having this ritual washing? For those watching the scene, this hardly speaks of a sinless Son of God. Such washing is for those who have sins to repent from, surely. And who actually saw this dove and heard this voice? 

Well, we could spend hours unpicking the entire theology of baptism, and you’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t go through all of it now. But there is an incredibly beautiful aspect of this scene that I think is very relevant to the position that we find ourselves today. And that is about vocation, and mission. One of the curious things about the baptism of Christ that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense when we think about it, especially when we compare it to our own baptism and confirmation, is the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes down upon Christ. What does it mean, for the person from whom the Spirit processes (as we say each week in the Creed) to receive the Holy Spirit as a gift? For us, it makes perfect sense, but for God to receive himself, and in that, receives his mission in the world. 

It is here though, that we see what baptism is. Our vocation in this world, our calling, that path in life that allows us to be the person who God creates us, is something that we cannot find for ourselves. It is a gift from God. And for almost all of us, there will be some discrepancy between the path we choose, and the path God gives us. That is a simple fact of being human. It might take us most of our life to find out what is truly our calling. It might be something that we run away from, or something that we simply think we do not want to do. But ultimately, it is that gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive at our baptism that sets us off in our mission in the world. And for Christ, that mission is clear. Since is the one from whom the Spirit processes, and is also the one upon whom it falls, his choice about his path in life aligns perfectly with the will of the Father. His very existence, and his actions, are in perfect harmony. And so at that moment of his baptism, the gap between earth and heaven is infinitesimally small, as the life of the two are joined together in the person of Christ. 

It is that link between our existence as a Christian, and our actions in the world, and indeed, any gap between them, that feels in particularly stark contrast for me as I speak to you today. This feels a really weird sermon to preach – I am well used to preaching to a camera by now, but it is the first time that I have preached in church, all dressed up, to a completely empty building. When I heard on Monday lunchtime that the Prime Minister was going to be addressing the nation in the evening, I was fully prepared for us to be told that places of worship would be closed by law. It was a huge surprise, not just to me, but to clergy and worshippers up and down the country, that we were to be permitted to remain open. And that is what I wanted to do. As a priest, the link between my vocation and my action in the world is simple. I give the sacraments to the people of God, and I did not think there could possibly be any circumstance in which I would choose not to do so. And yet, here we are. This past week has been one of huge internal conflict, not just for me, but I know for members of the PCC as well. Making decisions about what is safe, and what is best, when none of us are epidemiologists or experts in risk assessment has been fraught with difficulties. And yet, I have been returned regularly to that relationship, between our existence as a Christian, and our action. 

Our building is not built for hundreds of people; and even though it has good ventilation, and is easy to clean, we are faced with a situation in which our Sundays are busy. It’s been a stark choice, and I knew something had to give: do I feed people the sacrament, or do I give them food to eat? It’s an impossible choice, with two wrong answers, because Christ demands both of us. So, we come down to the simple task of loving our neighbour, which also means keeping them safe, which also means that with infection rates at 1 in 20 in parts of London (probably, I fear, in our own), a major incident declared, the Mayor asking the Prime Minister to close places of worship, and scientists asking the same thing, it seems that our action as Christians leaves us where we are today. And it breaks my heart to do so, but if our fundamental vocation is to love one another, I cannot see a different way forward. 

And so we are where we are. But there is nothing on this earth that can distance us from the goal and purpose of human life, which is to worship Almighty God. Whether we do that here together online, or whether we do so just by saying a prayer at home alone. I have no idea how long this closure will last, and if I’m honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if our discussions whether to close or not became academic in the next few days and the decision was taken out of our hands. I’ll be working with others to find a variety of ways to allow us to worship, whether that’s online or offline. But in the meantime, if you do nothing else with this period of lockdown, please pray. Please pray for those working in healthcare who are facing such stresses. For the emergency services. For all those working in retail, transport, post, deliveries, and all those who continue to put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. And don’t forget to pray for each other, and for yourselves. Amen.