St Stephen Lewisham
29th June 2008
St Peter and St Paul
& the Baptism of Isaiah Aaron Lucas
Today is the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It’s also the day for of young Isaiah to be baptized.
Peter and Paul were amongst the many hundreds of Christians put to death by the Emperor Nero after the great Fire of Rome in the year 60ad. Much of the city had been destroyed and the rumour was going around that Nero himself had started the fire. So in order to divert attention from himself, Nero, like so many political leaders today, used the ploy of blaming the disaster of the fire on a small minority group, in Nero’s case the Christians, and had hundreds of them, Peter & Paul included, put to death. The result, as so often is the case, was that the Christians, so far from becoming fewer, came to be seen as victims and their numbers, grew spectacularly. As someone said ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.
It would be hard to imagine two more different men than Peter and Paul. Paul was a brilliant graduate of Tarsus, one of the top universities of his day. Peter was a poorly-educated fisherman who, in spite of his humble origins, had learnt to read and write, and, most importantly to speak fearlessly in public about his beliefs. Jesus had chosen both of them to be His Apostles, literally Sent-men, and sent them out into the world to preach the Gospel of salvation through faith in Him and His atoning death and resurrection.
So it seemed a good idea this morning to look at what both Peter and Paul have to say about the Sacrament of Baptism, which young Isaiah will be receiving in a few minutes, and which will make him the latest recruit to the Church of Jesus Christ on earth here in Lewisham.
Peter and Paul would never have seen Holy Baptism, as many people look upon it in today’s world, as a family event, involving just his friends and relations. On the contrary, they would have seen every baptism as something in which the whole Church of God on earth (and in heaven) would have a critical part to play – not least those who had died in Nero’s persecution. That’s why baptisms at St Stephen’s usually take place during Sunday Mass when the as many of us as possible are present.
In his first Letter St Peter says to those newly-baptized ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who has brought you out of darkness into His marvellous light’.
St Paul, writing to those same Christians in Rome said, ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death… so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life; and a few verses later he says, ‘we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him… so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’
Nobody reading these words of Paul and Peter could possibly see today’s Baptism (or any other one) as anything other than a supremely important event in someone’s life. Baptism is a commitment not just for a week, a month, or a year but for life. Like our birth, to which Jesus likened it in his talk with Nicodemus, our baptism can only ever happen once. However unfaithful we may become to Him, Jesus Christ our Saviour will always be faithful to us.
But our Baptism doesn’t begin and end with, so-to-speak, our ‘signing-on-the-dotted-line’. Like every soldier or sailor who enrols in the armed forces becomes part of a regiment or the crew of a ship, Isaiah, like you and me at our Baptism take a lifelong responsibility for ourselves and each other. It matters not that we are young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, agreeable or disagreeable. In Baptism we have each been chosen to be a faithful soldier and servant of Jesus Christ: chosen, not because we are particularly nice or clever or interesting, but because Jesus has seen something, and something different in each of us, that He knows He can bring to perfection if we allow His grace to work in and through us during the rest of our life on Earth.
But Baptism is more to it than a simple enrolment. Just as every soldier and sailor on enrolment is issued with a kit consisting of a uniform, and a set of tools or weapons to enable him to do the lifelong job he has been called to do, so also, after his or her baptism, every new Christian receives three pieces of equipment to enable him (or her) to perform the tasks to which God is calling him; and St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, even gives us a check-list of the pieces of armour every Christian soldier is issued with at Baptism to fight against the Evil One.
But there’s only time now to consider those three gifts, which follow the supreme gift of Baptism itself..
First there’s the Oil of Anointing. Oil is used to ‘mark-out’ a particular individual as being ‘different’ (or ‘distinct’ if you like) from everyone else. The highlight of the Coronation Service in Westminster Abbey is not the Crowning, as many suppose, but the Anointing with Oil. This signifies that Elizabeth (or George, or Henry or whoever), is now the Monarch, and that nobody else may claim that title for themselves. In the same way, the Anointing in Baptism shows that this person being baptized is unique in God’s eyes, and that they, and only they, will be given that particular vocation and grace which God has prepared for them.
Secondly there is the white robe. ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ says St Paul to the Christians of Rome. ‘Clothe yourselves with humility’ said St Peter to the newly baptized. We are not born fully-clothed. Clothes are something that you have to put on if they are to do us any good, and fulfil the purpose for which they were made. Furthermore, as we grow, we have continually to be updating our clothes if they are to fit us. So it’s no use hoping that the white-robe of innocence which we put on at our baptism will be the same garment which we shall be wearing in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time. People often complain that their faith ‘doesn’t seem like it used to be when we were young’. Of course it’s not. They’ve grown since then, and unless their faith has grown with them they will find wearing it most uncomfortable, like an adult who tries to squeeze himself into a toddler’s jump-suit!
Thirdly there is the gift of a lighted candle which every newly-baptized person receives ‘as a token that they have ‘passed from darkness to light’ as St Peter puts it. The amazing thing about a candle is that it can hand on its flame to hundreds of other unlighted candles without losing any of its own candle-power. Just imagine that! A gift that you’ve been given which grows bigger every time you hand it on to someone else! By passing it to them we are, ‘show[ing] forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light’ as Peter wrote.
Water, Oil, Shawl and Candle. All of them very ordinary, everyday things. But because we believe that for our sake, God the Son chose to humble Himself by taking on Himself our ordinary human flesh, is it surprising that He should ‘[choose] what is foolish and weak in this world to shame the wise and the strong’ – as St Paul tells us?
And is it then really so surprising that God should have chosen people like you and me, and Isaiah whom we shall now baptize, to become, as St Peter said, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’?
Return to Sermon Salad
Return to Trushare Home Page