St Agnes, Kennington

12 January 1997


[Sermon I on Baptism]


Today would seem a good opportunity for starting a series of sermons on the Sacraments.

For today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord: and baptism is generally agreed to be one of the Sacraments.

It also seems likely that we shall be meeting each other on a number of Sundays in the future, so it's a good idea to have a theme to study together. And since our meting will be in the context of another sacrament, the Holy Communion, it means that we shall be thinking about something that we are personally experiencing.

We've all been baptised; we're all taking part in the Holy Communion.

"Sacraments ordained by Christ", the Prayer Book tells us in one place "are not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they [are] certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by which he [works] invisibly in us and [enlivens], strengthens and confirms our faith in him".

The fact that Baptism was "ordained by Christ" and the fact that Jesus's public ministry began precisely at the moment when he was baptised; plus the fact that the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describes, each in his own way, the fact that something quite remarkable took place at the time of our Lord's baptism in the form of the Spirit coming down upon him, should alert us to the fact that in Baptism we are dealing with something really important.

The Prayer Book stresses this importance in another place when it says that the two Great Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion are "generally necessary to salvation".

Generally necessary here, by the way, means what we should today describe as universally necessary, or without any exceptions.

Think of water, the material which we use in baptism.

Water is generally necessary to human life. Not in the same way that water is necessary to the lives of fish who have to live in it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but in the sense that without water the human body will eventually become dehydrated and die.

There are cases, we're told, of people lasting for several days, or even weeks, without water, but they can only do so on the reserves that their bodies already contain. So even with them the rule is the same. Water is generally necessary to human life; and Baptism is generally necessary to salvation. There may indeed be people who are not baptised who are being saved by God - one thinks of someone who is being instructed as an adult in the Christian faith. Should such a person die as the result of an unforeseen misfortune before they have actually been physically baptised, Christians have always believed that such a person will be accepted by God as having received the "baptism of desire".

But that, like the person living without water for an extended period, is an exception. But it also highlights an important principle to which we shall be coming back more than once. The principle is contained in the saying "God is not bound by his sacraments, but we are"

In other words we're not to think of sacraments as some kind of religious magic by which our actions, so to speak, "force God's hand" into doing what he might otherwise not be willing to do; on the contrary, so far from "forcing his hand" we are doing precisely what he told us to do in the certainty that he, for his part, will do what he has promised if we obey his will.

So yes. We are to baptise people with water "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", and many people, incidentally don't seem to realise that baptism is something which any Christian can, and should, administer in an emergency. You don't have to be a priest or a deacon in order to baptise. Nurses and doctors are baptising infants all the time who seem to have little chance of survival after birth.

But leaving such exceptional cases on one side, where it's quite obvious what we should do, we are, in the more ordinary cases, faced with a particular difficulty, namely that of deciding who should and who should not be baptised and subject to what conditions.

Let me explain. All practising Christians are commissioned by God to be "the Stewards" (or Trustees of Guardians or Curators of his means of grace, especially the Sacraments.

Now, if you've been entrusted with something, or have been made somebody's guardian (say a small child whose parents have died or gone abroad for a period) then it means that you've been given the responsibility for making decisions on their behalf.

There's no two ways about this. Guardianship or Trusteeship or Stewardship involves taking responsible decisions and there is no guarantee that those decisions will always be easy ones.

Sometimes, of course, they will be easy. If an adult says he wants to be baptised and is prepared to undertake a course of instruction and repent of his sins, then there's every reason why he should be baptised at the end of it.

Equally if a family of regular churchgoers at St Agnes (or anywhere else) ask for their latest child to be baptised, then there's no problem. It's the mark of a responsible steward to agree to share God's gift of eternal life through baptism with people like that and it would be very irresponsible to refuse to do so.

Problems arise, however, when people who are not regular Christians, people who perhaps haven't been baptised themselves, request (or more probably demand) baptism for the latest of a succession of their children, none of whom has been near a church since the occasion of their baptism. What is the responsible way to behave towards them?

Equally problematical, if rather less common, is the case of the person who wants to go and live or work in the Middle East but has to prove (by being baptised) that they are neither Jew nor Muslim. In other words they are someone whose principal reason for asking for baptism is not the desire to receive God's saving grace, but as a means of obtaining a travel permit or visa which will enable them to go where they want to.

It has to be said that there is no easy answer to either of these problems. Hour upon hour has been spent by clergy chapters, diocesan synods, PCCs and others discussing what is sometimes referred to as "Baptism Policy". Feelings are apt to run high between those who say that we have not business to deny God's sacraments to anyone who asks for them, and those who believe that unless we safeguard what has been committed to our stewardship or guardianship from abuse, then we are falling down in our duty as Guardians or Trustees. We shall be ministering Cheap Grace which nobody in the end will value or appreciate just because it is cheap.

There is no simple answer to this problem. The best that we can hope for is that thinking about the problem will lead us as Christians to examine more closely what it is we are talking about. How long was it since you discussed baptism at St Agnes?

But that leads on to another point, the matter of "badges and tokens"

You remember that the Prayer Book says that sacraments are "not only badges and tokens".

Well that person who wants to be baptised for some other reason than their personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is in fact more interested in the token than in the reality which that token signifies.

What the person who is going to the Middle East wants in the first place is that piece of paper, the baptism certificate, which proves that he isn't either a Jew or a Muslim. What matters to the unbelieving, careless family is that they can satisfy mother in law that little Peter or Sharon has been "properly done" and wave the baptism certificate under her nose to prove it.

To think as these people do is to confuse the sign with the reality it signifies. That word signify in fact means Sign-i-fy: to be a sign of something else more important than itself. We know that a birth certificate is nothing like as important as actually being born. The two things are quite different both in their nature and their importance.

Unless someone has been born into the world, a birth certificate means nothing. Unless someone has been reborn of water and the Spirit in baptism, than that baptism certificate means nothing. However anyone who has been born is really alive even though they may have lost their birth certificate (or their parents have failed to register their birth) and anyone who has been reborn is really a Christian whether they can find their baptism certificate or not.

As we think more about the Sacraments, and we shall have at least one more session on Baptism, we shall come to discover that much of what divides Christians from each other, many of the misunderstandings which arise between us, stem from attaching too much importance to the "badges and tokens" of our faith, and not enough importance to the reality which "underlies" or "underpins" them. We often managed to confuse the signs with the reality which they signify. It's rather like imagining that a signpost which points the way to Kennington and which has the word "Kennington" on it is actually the same thing as Kennington itself. It is not. It may be several miles away from the "real" Kennington.

So yes. Baptism and Holy Communion are signs. But they are something infinitely more important than signs. They are, you remember the prayer book tells us, "the effectual means of grace by which Christ strengthens and confirms our faith in him."

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