In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A chum of mine was describing what he imagines cathedral clergy do all day. I have to admit that his vision was not only bizarre but also fairly attractive! He imagines that the Dean and the three Canons and the Vicar of the Close sit around in a kind of oak panelled room, reclining in deep sofas, with heavy tomes of thought-provoking theology open in our laps, and that every now and then we look up from these repositories of ancient wisdom to make intelligent comments about what we’ve been reading. Then the other four nod, stroke their chins, take off our glasses if we wear them and do this..., And then return to our reading. This we do until called upon to visit the sick or conduct the service. Or go to a drinks party.
In contrast to this extraordinary vision, the other day the sub- Dean appeared in the vestry before service to say that he had just spent the last hour or so sticking post-it notes onto a map of the diocese in order to identify whereabouts in Dorset and Wiltshire the cathedral has non-Residentiary Canons living. I’m a geographer so that is jolly exciting to me. But it got me thinking about the area, the geographic area, of which this Cathedral is the Mother Church. And I remembered that actually I was baptised in Salisbury diocese. I was baptised at the age of about nine months in the parish church of All Saints Wyke Regis. Do you know what, I don’t think I’ve been back in that building since my baptism. I googled it, and whilst there are loads of pictures of the church and its interior I couldn’t find a single picture of the font. I know where I was baptised, but of course I can’t remember anything about it.
My guess is that most of us here this morning were baptised as infants, and so we won’t be able to remember our own baptism either. There will be some of you who were baptised as children or teenagers or even as adults, in fact I know that, because some of you have been baptised here, but that second group of people are in the minority.
Why, just a few days after the feast of the Epiphany when we remember the visit of the three wise men to Jesus as an infant or very young child, do we jump ahead in the story probably by at least 28 years to the story of Jesus’ baptism? Why is it important to think about his baptism at the beginning of the year?
Well some of it is about the Church of England trying to be clever. Because baptism tends to be the first rite or ceremony that a person experiences in their Christian journey, it’s nice to have Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the year.
Some of it is more profound than that. This is a month of thinking about the way in which we experience God, and the way in which God is revealed to us. I preached about this on Friday. And Jesus’ baptism is one of the first moments when, as an adult, people begin to notice that there is something really quite strange, weird, intriguing, and special about Jesus. The reading from St Matthew’s Gospel we just heard describes the heavens being opened, and a voice from heaven. It’s not clear in all of the gospel accounts whether only Jesus could hear the voice or whether everybody else could, the details vary slightly from account to account, but in some of the Gospels it is quite clear that this is a public thing, that the people standing around on the banks of the Jordan experience this extraordinary vision of heaven breaking in to the material world.
I think there’s an even more profound reminder though, on this Feast of the Baptism of Christ, about our relationship with God. And that is that there is a real, genuine connection between earth and heaven. And that connection is not remote and distant, it’s not something that happens on a level that we need to strive for and struggle to achieve. The real and genuine connection between earth and heaven is Jesus. Jesus’ words echo through the ages in the gospel accounts. Jesus who is entirely divine and at the same time entirely human, making that connection absolutely indissoluble, Jesus who we will receive in our hands in the substance of the holy sacrament later in the service, the sacrament which itself is absolutely earthly and normal, and at the same time the very body and blood of our Lord.
So Jesus’ baptism shows us something about the fact that heaven and earth are connected. It shows us that God is interested in, committed to, and personally involved in his creation. So what about our baptisms? What about my baptism, back in the first year of my life, in a church I have not been into since, in a font that I can’t recall?
Well I remember someone describing it like this, to a young couple who had brought their baby to church for christening, baptism. They said what happens at the font is that it’s a bit like God connects an infinitely long and stretchy invisible elastic band to us, between God and our heart, so that no matter what happens in the future, the matter where we go or what we do there is connection, there is relationship, earth and heaven are linked and actually at the level of individual relationship, as well presumably as many other levels. Now like most sermon metaphors it doesn’t do to push them too far, but the point is that in baptism of human beings, of you and me, those who will be baptised here on Saturday, connection is made, or affirmed, or restated, that makes it clear that God is completely committed to his people. And that is true because Jesus was baptised, and Jesus doesn’t just remind us of God, he is God himself.
What difference might this make to any of us, eight days into the New Year? Eight days into a year which many people are hoping will be brighter, more positive, more compassionate and generous than the year which has just passed. A year in which we have already experienced one terrorist attack, this time in the United States. This year in which we are going to hear more about the elderly and the disabled struggling more and more to cope in our own country, in which we will watch Sudan and South Sudan, Syria, and want to know how to engage with these seemingly intractable and impossible problems, and feel helpless?
Well I would encourage us to rediscover our baptisms. To remember, in the words of Bishop Michael Perham, “not that I was baptised, but that I am baptised”. Those of us who are baptised, whether as tiny babies or very recently, can know that there is not a void, a chasm fixed between where holiness is and where we are. We can know that actually we are ordained by our baptism, and I really mean that. Think about what happens when someone is ordained as a priest or a deacon or a bishop. There is prayer, there is a liturgical gesture, there is symbol, and there is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. All of that is there in baptism. Every one of you who has been baptised has received the most important ordination that anyone ever does. Whether or not, after that, you become a deacon or priest or bishop is secondary, and far less important. It is in water, and in the descending of the Holy Spirit like a dove, trailing its invisible elastic band, that love letter from God which will be absolutely faithful for the whole of our lives, that we are gifted with everything that we need in order to navigate life. Because we are gifted with relationship.
Of course that doesn’t mean that you can go home at lunchtime and think, ‘well because I’m baptised I can fix Syria’. Or ‘because I was christened I can resolve the crippling poverty into which so many of the elderly and disabled in our country are descending’.
But it does mean that the story which we are now going to retell as a church through the rest of this year, the story of a baby who becomes a boy who becomes a man who challenges injustice, who is not afraid to speak truth to power, who is more interested in the marginalised and weak than the mighty, a man who will defeat even sin and death itself, and would do so not by strength but by love - this man’s story is your story. This man’s love is love which pours from his heart into yours. If you were christened, baptised, you have been ordained, anointed and chosen to join in his struggle for the lowly and the sorrowful, for the persecuted and the downtrodden. And if you are here this morning and have not been baptised yet, well we’ve got a pretty big font and God will supply the elastic band.