Baptism, 8 January 2012

Sermon – 8 January 2012 – Baptism of Christ

Southwark Cathedral

Gen 11-15; Acts 191-7; Mk 14-11

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Good morning, and Happy New Year.

This time of year always prompts us to reflect on the year that has passed and on all that is to come in the year ahead.   The last time I was here with you at this service it was shortly after the sad and sudden death of Dean Colin Slee.   Much has happened since then and, having grieved deeply for him, we are now looking forward to the installation of Andrew Nunn as the new Dean.   In the Diocese we welcomed Bishop Christopher in March after a vacancy lasting a year.  In the wider world we have experienced huge economic uncertainty, violent disturbances in cities in the UK, and the upheaval of the Arab Spring.   We will all have seen changes in our individual journey of life.

New Year is, of course, a time for New Year resolutions and to wonder, “What will the New Year hold?”    One of the newspapers is prompting us to take “7 steps to a new me” and in my local park I’ve hardly been able to move for joggers in bright shirts!   We all have hopes and fears as we look forward – as individuals, in the Church and in the Cathedral, in the nation and in the world – and I want now to reflect on these through the lens of baptism.

We’ve just heard in the Gospel reading Mark’s depiction of the baptism of Christ.   This moment was vital in Jesus’s life and, unlike most elements of the narrative of his infancy, it is retold in all four gospels.    There are three key elements to the scene.   First, there is Christ’s identity.  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says the voice from heaven, establishing Jesus’s importance from the start.    This is followed by a statement of affirmation: “…with you I am well pleased.”   And finally, there is empowerment: the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, embraces and empowers Jesus so that he knows God’s indwelling of himself.   This is a mystical union of human and divine.

The same three elements pervade our own baptism.   First, identity.    What makes us the people we are?   We are shaped by so many things – our genes and upbringing, relationships with family and friends, our occupation, the consumer / materialist culture which has spawned the phrase, “Tesco ergo sum” – “I shop therefore I am”.    Sometimes we are just a number, a bank account, a PIN.    But in baptism it becomes clear that our primary identity is as a child of God.   “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, starts Genesis, revealing that the deepest reality is not a materialistic universe but God, whose nature is love.    We are made in his image.

Then there is affirmation.   Most of us have all kinds of insecurities and fears and are very aware of the things that we do that are wrong.   Yet in baptism we receive the affirmation that we are loved by God, accepted by God, forgiven by God.  It is often difficult to believe that we are truly loved and affirmed by God, but God love always embraces us.   God’s love always forgives.   God’s love always seeks new life for us, to grow in love.

And there is also empowerment.   In baptism, when we freely open our lives and hearts, God’s Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us.    In the Acts of the Apostles we find that the Spirit of Jesus is present in a new and powerful way, and we heard in the reading that when Paul baptised followers of Jesus in Ephesus, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”    Very few of us have had such overwhelming experiences but it is vital to be open to the Holy Spirit within us.

As an example, when someone falls in love everything looks different.   It is the same in our relationship with God, and we need time to be aware of God’s love just as we need to take time to nurture and develop our human relationships.   This means taking time for prayer and for silence.  What is your pattern of prayer?   How can you develop it?   That prayer brings vital inner strength is particularly clear in the words of the ordination service: “You cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength…pray daily for the Holy Spirit”.   The meaning of this is clear: we need to live aware of God’s indwelling love and let it inspire us.

So, at the start of this New Year, 2012, what are the foundations of your life as you look forward?   Jobs, homes, finances, families are all vital and we may be able to get some help from “7 steps to a new me”.   But the key is in everything that flows from baptism.   Our identity: we are created by God in his image.   Affirmation: we are loved and forgiven by God.   Empowerment: we are strengthened by God to live by the law of love.   So, as we look forward to 2012, let us reflect on our baptism, and how its deep meaning for our identity, affirmation and empowerment can enrich and shape our lives both as individuals and as a Church.