May 9th 1999
Year A Easter 6
Acts 8: 5-8, 16-17
1 Peter 3: 15-18
Three Sermons on I Peter: No. 3
A Clean Break?
Baptism, you will remember, is the theme which runs right through the readings from the first letter of Peter which we have been listening to every Sunday since Easter.
Baptism has been likened to being born, and it shares with childbirth one of the curious puzzles or paradoxes which seem to be part and parcel of every one of life's most important "changes of gear" as we might call them.
Birth, the first day at school, leaving home, growing up lot, marriage, retirement and death are all what might be called "defining moments" marking out as each one does the end of one stage and the beginning of a new one.
The puzzle, or paradox, consists in the fact that there isn't a "clean break" between the various stages: we carry forward, so-to-say into the new stage, many things from the old one. Unlike a snake shedding its skin, which then dries up and falls into decay in, we continue to be "ourselves" even though we are quite different from what we previously were. We've become a wife, a husband, an employee, a mother or a father a son or daughter, whilst still remaining the same person Henry Jones or Mary Brown that we ever were.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the case of Birth and Baptism and it leads to one very important result. Whilst it is true that the utmost care must be taken to see that people are properly looked after and prepared for the supremely important experiences both of Birth and Baptism, this must never come to be thought of as "the end of the story". No matter how much trouble and care has been taken to ensure that a baby is born safely, what happens to that being the in the next 52 weeks and months is equally important.
It's easier to realise this in the case of Birth than it is in the case baptism. For one thing a neglected baby will make its feelings known pretty quickly, whereas and neglected newly-born Christian may not even realise that they are being neglected.
But there is another reason: we have all been educated to see the importance of physical and mental and emotional growth and schools and clinics are constantly on the watch for any signs of things going wrong; but churches and Church people have largely missed out on learning about spiritual growth, and what the signs are that it is proceeding satisfactorily in a particular person (not least ourselves) or, on the contrary, is failing to do so.
As a result of our own spiritual malnutrition we not only have a General Synod which will cheerfully take decisions whose consequences are foreseeably and disastrously wrong. It will take these decisions for no better reason than it believes that its street-cred with the secular world will be increased (whereas in fact if anything it will become less).
But there is worse than that. So far from being able as Saint Peter urges in today's reading for us to have "our answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you have" most Anglicans and today can only waffle on about the fact than going to church "makes them feel good". Well, I'm glad if it has that effect, but "Feeling Good" has never rated very highly on the scale of Christian virtues.
There are probably many virtues that we should be trying to grow in our spiritual garden: Piety, Kindness, Patience are three which we might all agree on; but there is one virtue which has become widely overlooked in recent years. It's what might be called the ability to "discern the Truth"
In the gospel passage board day Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit which we receive it baptism as "the Spirit of Truth". Unless we nourish and develop that Spirit in ourselves then we shall be like those babies we thought of earlier whose whole future depends on being properly looked after.
Our ability to discern the truth is one of the most important differences between ourselves and the rest of creation. Inanimate objects, cars and houses and plants and trees know nothing about it; some animals seem to have a rudimentary grasp of it; but man alone of all creation can be disciplined recognize the truth when he sees it.
There are many different ways on discerning the truth, but underlying them is the need actually to have an appetite for it, to learn to love the truth more than anything else.
Learning to love the truth begins by learning to respect it. We respect the truth by learning how to tell it and her and how to avoid telling lies. One of the problems about growing-up as a Christian is that so many people nowadays tell lies and appear to get away with it that its fatally easy to believe that the truth doesn't matter all that much. But if the truth doesn't matter all that much, God doesn't matter all that much. It's hardly surprising when children who have had a scant regard for the truth leave home, their regard for God goes by the board too.
The ability to tell truth from falsehood is not a particularly difficult one to learn once one has developed a taste for the truth, just as it's not difficult to persuade children to eat healthily once their taste for good food has been developed. And this is best done they tell us, not by nagging (which will almost certainly have the opposite effect) but by careful and imaginative use of the ingredients which make up a balanced diet.
"Learning to love the Truth" isn't a matter of having a whole lot of A-levels; it isn't a matter of everlastingly doing what we don't want to do and avoiding doing the things we do want to, though of course self-discipline comes into it.
No. Learning to love the truth is best done by learning to love Jesus Christ who is in the Truth, through the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Truth.
How we can do that might form the basis for another series of sermons some time in future.
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