This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed. The service also included a baptism. The Scriptures referenced are 1 Peter 2:1-10, and John 10:1-10.
In a few minutes, Billy’s parents and godparents will bring him to be baptized. And so I’m going to take those minutes to unpack – just a little – what it is that we’re about to do, in the light of today’s New Testament reading.
Baptism is the beginning, the new birth into the Christian life. And so the baptism service tells us some very basic things about who we are as Christians; it spells out something of the DNA of Christian faith and life, which we ought, then, to expect to see expressed and lived out.
The very first question that is going to be asked in the baptism part of the service is whether Billy’s parents and godparents accept the responsibilities placed upon them in bringing Billy for baptism. He is just beginning in life; at this age, proud owner of four teeth though he is, he has a long way to go yet before he’s walking and talking and interacting with the world with a degree of his own agency.
And spiritually it’s much the same; he’s just beginning. The love and nurture of his parents thus far have spoken with a depth beyond words, of the love and nurture of God, but Billy is a long way off having more than an instinctive understanding of that God, or of being able to foster his own relationship with God. Just as newborn infants need pure milk, his spiritual needs are just as foundational; as he grows he will need to be taught to pray, taught the big truths of Christianity, taught how to relate to those around him, taught what the Christian way of life is, and guided in taking it on for himself. That’s a lot to teach, and it’s no less important than communication and social skills and practical skills; all the things which his parents are going to be fretting over for some years yet.
So here are some of the foundational things of the Christian life. To turn to Christ: to taste and see that the Lord is good. To be willing to come to God, with a degree of openness to the possibility that God might actually be interested in each of us personally. To see whether we can hear a voice which we recognize as someone with whom we belong.
To repent of your sins and to reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust; to rid yourselves, as the reading put it, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Because repenting doesn’t mean feeling vaguely guilty but going on in our habitual patterns of relationship; it means turning away from those patterns which are dysfunctional and making active and real changes in our way of life. No guile, no insincerity, no slander, but honesty, integrity and respectful relationships; that’s the example that Billy needs to see in front of him day by day as he learns what it means to put sin aside and focus on what is right.
And – I should remind the whole congregation – this isn’t just down to Billy’s family and godparents. All of us will promise to support them in this calling. We are fortunate in that because Billy comes to church here we will be able to know and watch out and care for him as he grows, but we need to remember that he will know and watch and learn from us; the example we set may well become his standard for the Christian life. So our repentance, our renunciation of evil matters profoundly, not just for each of us individually, and not even just for Billy, but for all the children who look up to us as models and exemplars.
Beyond that, though, there will be some very profound prayers said for Billy before he is baptized; that he may “proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ,” and thanking God for “the ministry we have in your world and to each other in the household of faith.” These prayers remind us that Billy won’t stay a young, vulnerable, impressionable child forever. The day will come when he is ready to take his place in the church and the world as a contributing adult. On that day, like every other baptised Christian, he will have responsibilities. The reading this morning spoke of the church as “a holy priesthood,” “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
As Billy grows, he will develop and find his own particular gifts, his personality, his passions, and he will find there is a contribution in the church that is uniquely his to make. The reading this morning spoke of us as living stones being built into a spiritual house, a temple, a place of prayer and spiritual sacrifice.
The image of a temple in which each of us is a stone speaks powerfully of the corporate reality of the church; together we can be more than we could be each as isolated individuals. And the fact that we are living stones is important too; indwelt by our living God, this church is not a dead, static, cold reality but a lively, dynamic one, and we are constantly changing and growing.
But if some of the stones are missing, fail to find their place in the building, not only do the stones miss out on being part of a spiritual reality which is bigger than themselves, but the church as a whole is poorer – and I’ve seen one theologian go so far as to say deformed – without them. Every single one of us is needed to make the church the fullness of what God intends it to be.
Which is really to say, be encouraged. Every one of us has something unique and precious to offer. Every one of us – from the most out there to the most shy and retiring – is someone we cannot do without, without being the poorer for it.
But also bear that in mind in looking to the needs of the next generation, we need to make sure that this church is a place which welcomes, nurtures, supports, educates and equips our children to take their place joyfully and with confidence as part of this royal priesthood which includes every one of us, by virtue of baptism. It’s not all about the clergy; this is work in which we all participate together.
We come to the waters of baptism to receive mercy, to look for new beginnings and seek relationship with God. Held in trust for us in the church is the dignity of being God’s own people, with a special relationship to Him, to one another and to the world. Billy will – God willing – spend a lifetime discovering the depths of what is begun today. All of us who are today reminded of our own baptism also have the opportunity to discover a little more of those depths. So I commend to you this time to remember and be inspired afresh.