A Sermon for The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus: 10th January 2016
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The Baptism of Alfred and Grace Ford
Who am I?
It may seem a strange question to ask, but it’s worth asking from time to time. Who am I?
The thing that’s prompted my asking myself this has been updating my Facebook profile. As you all know I’m sure, Facebook enables you to make friends, to get in touch with old friends and generally to keep the world in touch with the minutiae of your life, whether they want to know it or not! So, yesterday afternoon, I managed to see details of a friend’s visit to a Scottish football fixture, a pile of beer bottles which are the main birthday presents given to someone else, photos of a walk in the park someone did before it started raining yesterday and pictures of someone else’s visit to Prague.
But, the “who am I?” question came to mind when I was updating my own Facebook profile, the information about me that I want other people to know: my interests, background, my tastes in music and literature, my politics, priorities and a whole lot more. The interesting thing about Facebook is that it is perfectly possible for you to tailor your own profile so that people get a very particular impression about you. You can almost be whoever you want to be on Facebook. You’re married, but you don’t want to be online… well you don’t have to be! You’re a bank clerk in Colchester but you’d rather be a catwalk model in Miami…that’s fine! The online world allows you to be whoever you want to be, and to change whoever you are as many times as you want.
I don’t think this is as new as it thinks. We all present different parts of ourselves to the world depending on who we’re with. At one level that’s absolutely fine – when we’re at the gym or the pub or in the office environment, it’s inevitable that some parts of our personality come to the fore. But there is always the danger that we become so compartmentalised in our lives that we become almost different people depending on whether we’re at home, at the office, out socialising or even in church. In a world where the internet and technology connect us in so many new and fast-changing ways, the question of identity, of who we are, and the moral necessity to have some integrity about how we present ourselves to the world, has become a much greater issue of our time.
At stake in all of this is the issue of our own personal history and identity. We are complex people. One writer describes human beings as ‘multi-storied’ people, in that we are made up of a number of different stories that have shaped our lives and identities. And we tell different stories about ourselves. I remember the first time I got to know Africans: it was at theological college. When I introduced myself to them, I’d say something about where I was from, what I did for a living, my age, my family and that sort of thing. What was salutary in encountering an African introduce himself to me was that very early on I learned a lot more about his village, his tribe and, most surprisingly, his faith. The telling of the journey to faith story, the testimony, was a very important part of his introducing of himself to me. Not something we are prone to do in the Church of England!
But what does Christian faith have to say about this ‘who am I?’ question? In a world where people have multi-story lives and where, at ever increasing speed, we can change and adapt our identity and our reality like a chameleon, how should people of faith respond?
It seems to me that, at the heart of this question, lies the issue of baptism. I’ve said before, and increasingly I think it’s more and more true, that in our Church we have forgotten the importance of baptism. Because most of us cannot remember our baptism, and because (to my mind, unfortunately) we confirm people at far too young an age, the meaning and significance of our baptism has been forgotten. It plays very little part in our consciousness.
Think about the image of baptism – at least in the Gospel reading this morning – where Jesus goes down into the water and comes up again to be anointed by the Holy Spirit for his ministry. This descending and ascending is at the heart of baptismal theology because the descending is pictured as a dying to the old self and the ascending is rising to new life. Baptism, in Christian understanding, is the enactment of Good Friday and Easter Day in the life of the believer. We die to the old self, we enter into the new life given to us by Christ. This image peppers the New Testament. It’s almost impossible to understand Paul’s letters without it. Without understanding what it means to be a baptised person, I don’t think we can ever learn to consistently make right decisions, informed by the Holy Spirit. Without a true understanding of what it means to be a community of the baptised, I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond an individualist consumer-driven approach to church life into the sort of church life where living together in the Body of Christ trumps the need always to have our own way. And, perhaps most importantly for this morning’s subject, without a true sense of who were are in Christ, who we are as baptised believers, we will continue to fall victim to the need to present multiple personalities to a world which needs integrity, wholeness and consistency. Let me run with that last one for a few minutes…
One of the most significant aspects of baptism is that, through it, believers in Jesus are given a new identity. We’re given a new life. Paul puts it like this, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me.” All that history, all the baggage from the past, all that sin and unforgiveness, it’s all dead and buried. Instead we are a new creation, a new identity by the Holy Spirit. And that new identity is…Christ. He lives in us. And one of the great implications of this is that our history, the past that you and I bring, no longer defines us. No longer are we first, child, son, daughter, father, mother, friend, partner. We are first and foremost children of God. No longer are we first architect, cleaner, teacher, civil servant or checkout girl. We are first beloved of God. And no longer are we first abused child, disappointed man, betrayed spouse, bereaved widow, unemployed worker, bored housewife or lonely man. We are first and foremost members of the Body of Christ. The writer Robin Greenwood puts it like this, “Through baptism, forgiven sinners are no longer chiefly identified by their own history but as citizens, already, of the Kingdom that they are committed to help make a reality in the world.” Think of it this way: no longer do you and I need to present multiple personalities and identities to the world, because through Christ and our faith in him, what truly matters is that we allow his identity in us to shape and form our own. The Christian life is about becoming an integrated, whole, person, who is shaped not primarily by the past and what we have been, nor even by who we are in this present moment, but by what, by God’s grace we are becoming.
Well, that’s all fine. But how the hell can it come about? How do we learn to stop being defined by our past, how on earth can we escape from the shackles of the multiple identities and the deceit than can often accompany it? How can we become what we already are through baptism? How can we change and discover our birthright as Christians?
Well the short answer is, through conversion. But the conversion is primarily not about what we can do, not about changing some attitude or belief, but through what can be done to us by the Holy Spirit at work in us. There is absolutely nothing you or I can do to achieve this conversion. At one level it is a life-long thing. In the end I don’t think it’s about changing our beliefs. Rather, it is about discovering the truth of who we are, getting in touch with that deep identity we already possess if we have faith to accept it. The writer Richard Rohr, an experienced spiritual guide puts it this way, “practice drawing from this deep well within you.” In other words, learn to recognize the truth of who we already are.
Christians have a word for this recognizing. We have a word to describe this drawing from the well. The word is prayer. We can all too easily trivialise this word to turn it into getting something we want. Prayer is not that at all. At its heart prayer is about drawing from the well that is the Holy Spirit already in you and me through baptism. It is much more about a relationship that a technique. As we tune ourselves in to God’s presence within us through Christ and by the Holy Spirit, so we learn that we are known and loved by God and in that knowing and loving we slowly, gradually become less and less our own person and more and more the person Christ made us and formed us to be. We become less and less different people with multiple identities, but more and more like the Christ we see in the Scriptures. We become less and less captured and defined by the wounds and the scars that litter our history, not to mention the joys and triumphs, but more and more people formed for the future and living God’s kingdom in the present.
And that all starts at the font. May we all be ready to embrace that reality of our baptismal identity; may we all be ready to draw from the deep well of the Holy Spirit within us; and, as we gather to seek God’s will for the future of our church in the coming days, may we all be ready to allow God’s Spirit to shape and mould his church. Amen.