Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Source of Life - Imogen Black

Given by Imogen Black, a second-year ordinand, whilst on placement at St Peter's, Eaton Square. The service also saw the celebration of the sacrament of baptism - the name of the candidate has been removed.

They reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end.”

(Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 2, verse 1.)

This morning’s first reading is, as it stands, arguably rather a depressing one, hardly seeming fit for a day on which we celebrate a child’s baptism. It presents the words of the ungodly, the wicked, who assert that this life is all we have, and then advocate that it should be spent in violence, oppressing and torturing the righteous man because he is inconvenient to [them] and opposes [their] actions.

A look at the reading’s context, however, brightens the picture somewhat. The author himself, we should note, has declared the ungodly to be ‘unsound’ in their reasoning, and if the passage selected had gone on one sentence further, we would have heard why. They are in fact wrong that this life is all that there is, for, the author declares, God created us for incorruption. There is life after an earthly life comes to its end, regardless of how short and sorrowful a person might complain it has been.

Wisdom was written as a Jewish not a Christian text, but the conviction that there is life after death is of course a Christian one too. We see it in today’s Gospel, where Jesus tries to instruct his disciples that “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” The disciples are unhappy with this, and afraid; yet in their confusion and fear they are failing to notice something very obvious. Yes, Jesus is declaring that he is about to suffer, indeed to suffer horrifically, but that categorically will not be the end of the story. After that, he asserts, he will rise again; out of his death will come life.

That Jesus’ death proved to be a source of life, for his followers, for us, potentially for all mankind, is absolutely central to the Christian faith and is at the root of what we are celebrating today. For this reason the readings, grim though they may seem in their talk of suffering and evil, are not in fact inappropriate for a baptism. For baptism, so the Church teaches, is in fact intimately connected with the concept of life coming after death.

A baptism has various aspects. Certainly, part of what we are doing today is thanking God for this child’s birth, sharing with her parents and family in their joy. But there is rather more going on than that, which is why the Church of England distinguishes between a simple service of thanksgiving for a child’s birth and a baptism. What takes place at baptism is explained by St Paul in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans. Anyone who is baptized in Jesus’ name, he says, is baptized into Jesus’ death. This may sound alarming, but it shouldn’t be. For if, Paul continues, we die and are buried with Christ, we will also then be raised with him; as Christ’s own death led to new life, so we, by sharing in that death, can share in that life.

The fact that in baptism we are united with Jesus in his death is shown by its actions. In this church we have a fairly traditional small English font, a basin over which this child will be held as water is poured over her head. But in the early Church things were done rather differently: people were baptized not by pouring water but by immersing them fully in water (Jesus himself, we know, was baptized in a river) and there are churches today that still do that. The advantage of that is that the symbolism of the actions becomes rather clearer. As the person – child or adult – is fully submerged under the water, they are symbolically drowned, they die with Christ; as they are brought out of the water again, they are symbolically raised from the dead, into their new life in Christ.

I say ‘symbolically’, but it is important to remember that this ‘symbol’ has an actual effect. Jesus, living and dying sinless, broke the hold of sin over mankind, enabling us to enjoy a new life with God. When we are baptized we are, through the grace of God, in a mysterious way united to Jesus in his dying and in his rising. As St Paul puts it, we do indeed die at our baptism: we die to sin so that we can live to God. Of course this is not to claim that n. at her age is busily committing sins, rather acknowledging mankind’s tendency to sin, the temptation to live selfishly, which we all experience as we grow up. Baptism admits this human tendency, and asserts that we are not enslaved to it, but given by God the opportunity of a new start, a new life with him.

Such opportunity, such new life is to be taken seriously. That is why promises will be made today on this child's behalf, promises to turn away from sin and turn instead to Christ. That she is not answering for herself is not a problem; indeed it is a good reminder that baptism is a gift, given generously to us because God loves us, not something we earn by what we ourselves do. But the promises indicate an expectation that this child, as she grows, will herself seek Christ; today she is beginning her own journey of faith.

And it is not only n.’s parents and godparents who will be responsible for helping her on that journey. Baptism is not a private matter – the reason why n. is being baptized at one of our main Sunday Eucharists is that baptism involves joining a community, the community of the universal Church, and, more specifically, the Christian community here. It will therefore be the job of all of us in this community to pray for her and help nurture her in her faith as she grows. Later in this Eucharist, we will be celebrating the fact that we are one body, the body of Christ. As we do so let us then remember and celebrate that this child is part of that body too.