Sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Sunday 12 January, 2014
Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-end
A few days ago I was in Durham cathedral, which, although at the opposite end of England, has over the centuries had a number of links with this one, links expressed through the architecture of these otherwise rather different cathedrals. Most of Durham was built in the Norman period, and has a heavy, imposing, character. But when you go round behind the high altar, you find yourself in a wide eastern set of transepts, which was built in the early 13th century and which feels almost exactly like a piece of this cathedral. The proportions are familiar, the window arches look like these, and, just as all around us now, between the windows there are thin upright shafts of polished darker stone standing proud of the main uprights. And this is no coincidence, because the bishop responsible for that extension of the cathedral was Richard Poore, who as first Dean then Bishop of Salisbury had been responsible for moving this cathedral from its old location and constructing this new building; when he went to Durham, he echoed this building there.
And Poore's journey north was repeated in the late 18th century by another Bishop of Salisbury, Shute Barrington. Barrington was the man responsible for the next most radical architectural phase here after Poore, for he it was who brought James Wyatt in to clear up and remodel what was regarded as the cluttered jumble of medieval obscurity and fussy rococo fittings, and to conform it instead to a more elegant 18th century aesthetic. Having stripped out this cathedral and churchyard, Barrington, once bishop there, got Wyatt in to do similar things in Durham.
But for all their radicalism Wyatt and Barrington did not take away the most remarkable interior fitting of Durham cathedral, the cover over its font, which confronts you when you come into the nave. An elaborately carved spire of 17th century woodwork, which must stand 30 feet tall at least, it's a remarkable statement of the importance of baptism in the christian church. And it was just such a statement which we here sought to make just a few years ago when we installed our own font in a similar location. Artistically there is almost no similarity between those two font arrangements, but in purpose they are the same - to point to baptism as the key to our christian journey.
Today's gospel reading points to the baptism of Christ as a key moment in the process of epiphany - of revealing the truth of God in Christ to the world at large. Traditions about Christ's baptism were various: it is recorded differently in each of the gospels - indeed it doesn't happen at all in John's. However that writer does echo what the others say about the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, so making the point that this was a moment of special empowerment and commissioning of Jesus for his work. Matthew's account, which we heard, has one peculiarity, the little dialogue between the Baptist and Jesus about who should be baptising whom. Quite simply, that reflects the evangelist's characteristically meticulous anxiety over why God's son should receive a baptism which was expressly for the forgiveness of sins. To be baptised without demur might seem to suggest that Jesus was himself in need of repentance.
In each gospel we are unambiguously told that this Jesus is God's son, something proved in the experience of baptism. The fourth gospel has John state this; in the other three it is a voice from heaven which does the talking. Now a voice from heaven is a wonderfully convenient thing, and I guess it is more of a literary device than a verbatim description of events. What those writers knew, and what we know, is that things were never the same after Jesus encountered John the Baptist, that (to use the phrase from Acts) 'God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power'.
The manifestation of that power is then described in Acts in this way: 'he went about doing good'. Now this phrase, which is quoted in various prayers and collects, is one which has not usually set my pulse racing; as a description of the life of the Son of God it seems rather banal, not the kind of thing implied when the Baptist says 'he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire'.
But actually I think that this phrase is a key for us this morning, just as the baptism of Jesus is a key to grasping the nature of Christ. No cynic like me could accuse this phrase of being a convenient literary device like a voice from heaven. 'He went about doing good' is a simple description of what Jesus did - he made people well in body, mind and spirit. How dare I think of doing good as banal? And the wonderful thing about it is that, whereas we may feel second best because you and I have never heard any voices from heaven, and, frankly, we don't expect to, there is absolutely nothing standing between us and going about doing good.
Epiphany is a season dedicated to grasping that God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ. His baptism was a special moment which signposted that fact. For his followers ever since our own baptism unites us with him, makes us members of him, and therefore empowers us to represent him. In other words, God is manifested to his world now through us - you and I are the signs of his transforming presence. No heavenly voices maybe, but the everyday power to do good. Let us use that wonderful power.