Saint Stephenís, Lewisham, 13th January 2002

"Suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God

descending like a dove and coming down on him"

 

Today we keep the feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Last week we baptized a baby. Next Sunday we are having a Confirmation. So this seemed an invitation to say something about Baptism and Confirmation as we experience them at St Stephenís.

I say "as we experience them at St Stephenís" because, as you know, there are other Christian traditions which do things rather differently. Some only baptize adults and refuse to baptize babies and children; some draw a distinction between "baptism in water" and "baptism of the Spirit"; whilst others still, like Quakers and the Salvation Army for instance, donít practise baptism at all. Itís not my intention this morning to explain why theyíve got it wrong Ė that would need a whole course of sermons by itself Ė but rather to explain what we do at St Stephenís, which is what is and has been done by the majority of Christians throughout the ages.

Baptism is a sacrament: that is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". We believe that the sacrament of Baptism turns people, by the grace of God, into something they could not otherwise be: the Child of God, a Member of Christ and an Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Baptism is something which is therefore extremely important. And that is why, when people bring their babies to be baptized we meet them at the door of the Church. This is for two reasons. In the first instance we are saying to the parents and godparents "hold on a moment; are you sure that you want to go ahead with this. Itís really a very serious step to take". And on the other hand we are at the door to welcome and assure them that, should they decide to take this step, then you and I, the priests and people of St Stephenís will give them every possible help to keep the promises which they will be making on behalf of their child.

In other words Holy Baptism, like every other Sacrament, is a public and corporate action. That is to say it is done openly and publicly with the congregation witnessing to the baptism, and themselves affirming those promises and beliefs; and it is done corporately by the Church, with the priest who actually performs the baptism acting on their behalf. That is why itís important for all Christians to know that, in an emergency, anyone not just clergy, can (and should) offer to baptize a child (or adult for that matter) who is in danger of death. There are many people in the world today who have been baptized by a nurse, a doctor, or one of their parents, and their baptism is every bit as genuine or valid as if it had been done by an ordained priest.

As the Baptism Service progresses it becomes more and more a corporate affair. To begin with, the parents, godparents and baby stand separate at the church door, asking for admittance. Only when they have declared their good faith in what they are asking for, can the process of giving it to them proceed.

The congregation turns to face the font, the all-important questions about repentance and faith are put not just to the parents of the child but to the congregation as a whole, and when the baptism is complete the child is received with applause by the congregation into the Body of Christ in this place. This child, born again of water and the Holy Spirit, has become a member Ė that is a limb or bodily organ of Christ, he or she has been made by baptism and new birth the Child of God, and from that moment all the riches and responsibilities of the Kingdom of Heaven are available to them, they are inheritors with us of the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.

So far, so good. But there is one glaring drawback to all this. What guarantee is there that the child, when they grow up, will fulfil the promises made on their behalf by their parents and godparents?

The short answer is that there is, and can be, no guarantee at all. Letís assume for a moment that the parents and godparents and the clergy and congregation of St Stephenís do their level best to train up this child in the way he should go. Itís a pretty big assumption, but letís make it. Despite all the best efforts of their parents a tragic number of children abandon the practice of their faith as they grow up, and those whose faith survives adolescence often drop-out when they leave home to go to University or College.

Itís easy to see why some churches shy away from infant baptism. However, by so doing they are only replacing one lot of difficulties with another. From the very beginning the Church has baptized infants. The family of Cornelius the Roman Centurion whom we heard about in the Second Reading is a case in point. Cornelius and his household were baptized by St Peter, and that presumably included the children and servants as well. So those who fight shy of baptizing children on the grounds that nobody knows whether they will remain faithful or not have to face the fact that this was never, in the early church, seen as being an insuperable objection to baptizing any children at all.

Well the practice at St Stephenís, and until recently the more or less invariable practice of the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion for that matter, is to use the Sacrament of Confirmation as the answer to this. One way of looking at it, I suppose, is as baptism-without-the-baptism but that is an unnecessarily short-sighted view.

What it means in practice is that every adult who has been baptized as an infant is invited, after a course of intensive instruction, publicly to profess their repentance, belief in, and commitment to, Jesus Christ in the presence of the Bishop as the principal representative of Christ and the focus of unity for all Christians in a given neighbourhood. The Bishop in turn, lays his hands with prayer on the head of each individual candidate as setting the seal both on what they have promised and on the continued duty of the local church to support them in this new life which they, by their own will, have taken on.

The great advantage of this is that it gives both candidate and parish priest a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Ėnot only to get to know the faith which we profess, but also, which is almost as important, to get to know each other. During the past fifty years people have suggest this, that and the other way of making sure that candidates for confirmation understand what theyíre promising, and remain faithful to what they have promised, but in my experience, and , despite the occasional disappointment, no other way has worked as well.

For experience suggests, doesnít it, that most people see the point of, and accept, the need for a period of instruction? This is true whether weíre thinking about learning to be a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or simply passing the Driving Test. Of course in theory itís possible to learn all of these skills simply by reading the necessary books. The same might be true of someone who learning to be a Christian but had nobody to teach them. But the fact is that for the learner to have a period of intensive tuition in which he or she can ask all those questions that one wants answered is a great help whatever oneís trying to learn.

(In passing let me say that the benefits are two-way ones. What I have learnt myself by preparing people for Confirmation has been one of the biggest bonuses that any priest could wish for. From the protected position of the pulpit one simply has no idea of what oneís audience has, or more importantly has not, understood. With nobody to say "hold on a minute! That doesnít seem to square with what you were saying last week" or "Iím sorry but that just doesnít seem to make sense at all" itís possible to go on for years and years spouting out the same old stuff without asking oneself how helpful, relevant or even true it is).

But perhaps the most valuable part of confirmation preparation is the opportunity it gives to open the candidateís eyes to what really lies behind everything we do in Church, and in particular the extraordinary and wonderful thing that is about to happen to those who are being baptized and confirmed. As John baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, both of them underwent some profound experience which can best be described as a drawing back of curtains. Just for an instant they saw the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit of God coming down upon Jesus and a voice proclaiming him to be indeed the Son of God.

Thatís not very different from what happens in confirmation. When the candidates have affirmed their turning away from sin and towards God, and professed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, the Bishop lays his hands upon their heads as a sign that the Holy Spirit of Promise has sealed their commitment for life; and at that instant the whole Church of God, not just the congregation present but everyone, living and departed, Christians who lived long before ever there was a St Stephenís Lewisham are joining together as the great "cloud of witnesses" to welcome the candidate as a fully-committed lifelong member of our divine fellowship.

For many people this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This will be most forcefully true of those who have learnt the art of thinking in pictures. They can envisage in their minds what it means when we talk about "angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven". But the great plus of being a Sacramental church like this one is that even those who find imagining things a little more difficult, know for a certainty that they have made their lifetime commitment to Jesus Christ and received, in recognition, the Laying on of Hands by his representative, the Bishop, as an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which God supplies to enable them to remain faithful to their undertaking and that in the Mass which follows, what appears to be nothing but bread and wine is, in fact, the very Body and Blood of Christ.

 

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