Loving God, keep us, your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling, Amen
In our neighbourhood, there are three dogs often in voice. There is one a few doors up which sounds like the dog that barks from our basement. There is also a dog next door. As if they knew I was talking about them, two of the three have started to do what dogs do as I write or type this. The problem is, sometimes you can’t tell if the dog up the street or the dog downstairs is barking, but for sure one of two is barking.
Behind our house is an area with a small drain. It often fills with water and cedar pieces (as I call them) gather to block the drain. So sometimes the man of the house (I guess that would be me) has to go round with a brush and sweep the leaves away.
However, a few weeks ago I started to be concerned after we had a lot of rain (remember those days) and decided it was necessary to check the drain in the early hours of the morning. As it was raining I had my hood up and on returning to the back door the dog that lives downstairs was alerted to a stranger. Although she could not see me that did not stop her barking. Tom (my daughter’s partner) decided to check out who was there. I knocked on the door: not perhaps the best plan, but it did scare the life out of him.
John the Baptist was the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to invite to your birthday party; for he was more a ‘speak first, explain later’ sort of guy. Mind you these sorts of people have their place, even in Church life. They tell you how things are, as they see it. Speaking their minds, not to attract negative attention (though sometimes you wonder), instead offering the truth in love, rather than seeking to keep everyone happy.
John was a rough diamond, a thorn in the flesh of the religious establishment because he called people to repent of their sins; literally to change their minds, to find a new direction for their lives. And what better thing for us to do than to make a fresh start at the beginning of a new year? For in the Christian life we do a lot of waiting and a lot of starting again, and today, the Baptism of Jesus is just such an occasion for starting over.
John’s baptism focuses on repentance and forgiveness, and he adds for Jesus, the Holy Spirit is central. In baptism, we turn away from our old life and turn to Christ to begin a new life in God’s grace and forgiveness. And the Holy Spirit (to use the words of the Anglican baptismal liturgy) bestows on the baptised: the forgiveness of sin and the new life of grace.
So as we renew our baptismal vows we turn away from our old life of sin and turn back to Christ, who is the means of our forgiveness, and for living in a life of grace.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are informed several times of how our understanding of baptism develops: it follows faith, the faith of the person being baptised (Acts 8 v13-36). Baptism today is exactly what it was when Acts was written. In other words, it is much more than an individual act, for in baptism we become part of the (worldwide) Church of God and part of the local church.
Baptism then is a fundamental change; we are transformed (whether as infants or adults) by what happens, we become part of Christ’s body. It is also a sacrament, the most important sacrament, and a means of grace, whereby God comes to us. It is a moment where a new life begins, a life of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, of union with Christ and becoming part of the Church.
My journey began on May 3rd, 1959 when I was baptised into the Church of God, one of nine children baptised that afternoon in a blue-collar housing estate in Coventry. I don’t any memory of my baptism, though I have a card to certify it happened, plus my confirmation and first Communion, 11 years later. Since then it has been a wonderful journey, attending different churches, making many friends and working with some incredible people. That is the joy of the Christian life, something deep-seated that begins with God in the sacrament of baptism as we become part of a body (the church local and universal) that literally changes us as we journey through life.
Just stop for a moment and think of the people that have changed your life as a result of being part of this Church. People you have known for 40 years, or 2 years or somewhere in between. Do you remember who spoke to you when you arrived, or who made you feel welcome? If so why not phone or email them today or sometime soon, and say thank you. And if there are now no longer with us, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for that connection.
As I look back on my first 63 years I can recall some blessed people whom I have met through being part of the life of the Church, part of the life of Christ. People who have ministered to me and people to whom I have ministered. People who have inspired me with their faith and their dedication to God and the Church. People who have worked hard (sometimes without credit or recognition) to enable the Church to be the body of Christ, to be the hands and feet of Christ. Loving and caring for one another, praying for another, binding up one another’s wounds.
Being part of the Church requires that we give of ourselves as Jesus gave of himself in his life. There is no sense in which we can be half-hearted in our commitment to God or God’s Church. It is all or nothing; it is about giving everything to God. For it is like any close relationship we have, with our children, with our parents, with our partners, with our friends, we are there for them, we hope they will be there for us, come what may, despite any and every circumstance.
The dog that lives downstairs is a bit like John the Baptist; she tells us someone is there, a friend or stranger. John himself prepared the way for Jesus by announcing he was coming and baptising him which marked the beginning of his ministry. In the same way, when we are baptized we begin our journey with Christ, and from time to time, as we will do in a moment, it is important to renew the promises made at our baptism.
We sometimes think that coming to Church is about what we will receive, and the truth is we usually do get so much for being in fellowship with those also making their journey to God. But what really counts is what we can give to the Church, not just our time, our skills, our resources, even though they are important too, but first and foremost we are called to give ourselves to God. For the Church consists of all of us. Our presence is essential, we are needed, we are vital to its mission and ministry, essential to the very being and life of the Church.