A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus
Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:21-22
One of the more interesting Facebook pages I follow is one called Battersea Pictures. Local people, in the main people who have lived in Battersea for many years or even all their life, post pictures to the page of Battersea in days gone by, old shops and pubs, street scenes, pictures of the power station and old factories. You get the idea.
In the main this is a harmless and rather enjoyable trip down memory lane; but occasionally wistful nostalgia becomes something a little less positive and people start to indulge in the romanticisation of the past. One of these posts occurred yesterday and when a local man started to reminisce about the changes that have affected Battersea Park Road, which apparently according to the comment was “the Westfield of its day,” it prompted a large scale explosion of “things have gone to the dogs”, and complaints that all the newcomers to Battersea are interested in is “money, money, money.” And the conversation became much less edifying.
Reading the thread through – as a relative newcomer I didn’t dare comment – I was struck forcefully that, harmless reminiscing aside, what was being mourned was some sort of loss of community. Set aside for a moment the risk that nostalgia brings of grieving for a past that never existed, and the rather rose-tinted view of the past that can easily, but it is a widely-held view that in our modern urban, technological, virtual, online world, that some sort of community spirit has been lost. We know far more about what is going on in Syria and Yemen than we do in the house or flat next door.
I see the other side of that too, a perhaps more positive expression of longing for and looking for community, when I visit and prepare families for the baptism of their children. Inevitably, levels of faith commitment or understanding vary from family to family or even from one parent to the other, but two things occur more often than not when asking couples why they are bringing their child to baptism. One is a longing for values and the other is a longing for community. When they bring children to be baptised they are looking for something bigger than the family to which they can belong. Sometimes that is focused on the worldwide Christian family, the universal church into which their children are to be baptised; at other times the focus is much more on the local community, and the way in which belonging to the local expression of Christian family can connect their children with others in the town, village or suburb.
When Jesus comes to be baptised, as we heard in Luke’s very brief account of the moment, Jesus does so, not because he needs to repent and be forgiven, as John the Baptist preaches, but as a sign of solidarity with his fellow-Jews. He embraces the community of which he is already part and, although he is circumcised at 8 days old, and bar-mitzvah-ed as a child, here is shows himself to be part of the community that is seeking the blessing of God in the new thing that John is preaching and proclaiming. So, for Christians down the ages, who have been baptised in obedience to the command of Jesus and who have sought to be faithful to the way of repentance and faith that baptism signifies, being baptised brings each one of us, adult or child, into a form of human solidarity with Jesus Christ at the centre. In other words, we commit to being part of a community and to build a community focused on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of our founder and Saviour. We aim to be a community of which he would willing to be a part and which he would recognise as being part of what Jesus thinks a community is to be.
And it’s worth pondering for a moment, especially in a moment of national uncertainty and profound division, what being in the community of the baptised is about.
First, looking back at my friends in the Battersea Pictures Facebook Group, we can acknowledge that, amidst the nostalgia for times gone by, something was valued, namely the way in which people looked out for and looked after each other. It’s probably true that it never was any where near as thorough going as the rose-tint of spectacles views it, but to belong to a true community, and certainly a community of the baptised, means to be, in the deepest way imaginable, members one of another. St Paul uses the image of the body with its many parts. It is probably true that our world today takes a far too instrumental view of human relationships – the idea of relationship as based on what we can get out of the thing – but the nature of Christian community has a profound sense of equality about it. We are all equally valued and loved as children of God, we are all (just as the Christians in Samaria were to discover in our Acts reading) those in whom the Spirit of God dwells, and this means that we are all called to love and serve our neighbours, loving them as ourselves is the way Jesus puts it in the Great Commandment. I think there’s something of this that remains deep in our cultural DNA as a nation, even if we have come a long way towards a secular nation. There remains this Christian folk-memory of service and care and love and when many of our parents speak of this longing for community, even if the God-language isn’t strongly present or the God-knowledge keenly felt, the Spirit of God in our culture still stirs us to this sort of community spirit. A baptised person is a person in community, for community, members one of another for the love of neighbour.
But it’s not all positive stuff. Being baptised and seeking community says something about the sort of community we are looking to build. This is where my friends in the Battersea Pictures group went astray yesterday, because at the heart of their assumption and regret is the idea that true community can only be present when it is exclusive. The idea they shared was that, in some way, newcomers to community are a threat to community. We see this in part driving the Brexit debate as well, for some at least (not for all I make it clear), especially in those influenced by far-right politics and what is known as the ‘Identitarian Movement’. The language around immigration in our current situation implies that immigration will in some way diminish our identity, take something away from us. You get that in local communities too sometime, as though the arrival of so-called outsiders is a threat to the sense of local identity or brings unwelcome new ideas or values. Sometimes you even get it in churches, especially in ones that have grown numerically, and people say I don’t recognise this place as the way it once was.
Being a baptised person will have none of this. Go back to that Acts reading about the Samarians, a people who had long been viewed as suspicious by the Jews. Here we see them warmly encountering Christ and, albeit a bit late in the day, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Being a community of baptised people and building the sort of community that Christ envisions, is to be an open community, ready to embrace new people and their new perspectives and values, as they teach us something of what they know of being human in Christ. Learning what it means to be a baptised person is about learning to welcome the newcomer and the outsider, because they also are beloved of Christ and full of his Spirit. Having a strong sense of identity is one thing, but it is never the most important thing, because there is always more to learn and more to grow into. Being an effective local church in a local community is to be a place and community of welcome and hospitality and encouraging that in our local life. And in the midst of this most challenging of political environments, British Christians must set their face against narrow nationalism or claims of national superiority, whether our future lies within our outside the EU. We should be rightly concerned about any future for our community or our nation that offers encouragement to such views. The division that can be painfully seen going down the middle of our British outlook, and which is so painfully-reflected in the life of our Parliament at the moment, this division is something that it is our calling as baptised people to work to heal, whatever happens in the next three days, the period up to March 29th and beyond.
The last thing I want to say about community and baptism is an encouragement to let our longing for community to become more than just a longing. It needs to be more than that. It has to be worked out in reality. When I visit couples and prepare them for baptism, I often encourage them to think about what belonging means. They don’t get guilt-tripped into coming to church, because guilt is no basis for belonging. But I do pose this question, and I pose it to us all. How can we learn to be community if we don’t gather as one? And if our modern life makes coming to church regularly a challenge, how can we be community even when we are not present? If you want an answer to the last question, then may I encourage you to come to one of the explorations of sharing a Rule of Life in the coming weeks, or to explore the resource online. We do need to find ways of being community when we are not able to always gather.
But to the first question – How can we learn to be a community if we don’t gather as one? – we have to recognise that simply longing for community isn’t enough. Communities can’t simply be ideals. We actually have to belong to a community – with all the risks that implies – if we are going to make our words more than just vague aspiration. This is something that the early Christians had to learn and which the monastics who came after them struggled with too. They had to learn – as we do and as any community does (including our national community in the face of Brexit) – they had to learn that being a community means submitting our own desires to the reality of the needs of others. And for baptised people, that also means submitting our own desires to the pattern and example given to us by Jesus Christ, to allow ourselves to be shaped by him. And at the heart of this is learning to listen. We know from our closest relationships that listening to the other is at the heart of being close – we soon discover the consequences to the closeness if we don’t listen! And so it is in community, learning to listen to our neighbour, to our fellow church member, and in love learning to serve them by setting aside our own goals and preferences for the other is what being a genuine community means. It has to include the possibility that community will change us, and the readiness to allow it to do so. In the famous Rule of St Benedict, perhaps the greatest and most influential expression of what it means for Christians to live in community, the Rule begins thus, “Listen, my child…” That’s the secret of community; if we long for it, we have to start listening.
I often wonder what Jesus felt when he came up from the waters of baptism. Today’s Scripture tells us that he heard the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Among that which pleased the Father about his Son was, I’m sure, the identification he made with human beings in his baptism. Whatever else community might mean to Christian people, surely it means identifying with Christ as he identifies with us. And from that identification, much blessing follows, including the blessing of community. May it enrich us always. Amen.