Let me start with a question: ‘who here can remember their baptism?’
Well, I can. I was baptised, as an adult, in 1992 in a small village church in Rode, Somerset. My baptism took place on a Tuesday evening with just Sallyanne and a friend in attendence, prior to my confirmation the next day. I was confirmed in Frome by the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, Jim Thompson; a proper ‘old fashioned bishop.’ Now I need to be honest: I had been taking communion for some time prior to my baptism. The reason why is that I was blissfully unaware of church rules, regulations and protocols. My vicar, who was effectively later defrocked, had no reason to suspect that I hadn’t been baptised, so was somewhat shocked when I presented.
I think my own baptismal story speaks a little to the nature of the Kingdom and has parallels with Jesus’ own baptism, for indeed all of our baptisms should find their parallel in the Baptism of Christ. Jesus was baptised by John, the wild man of the gospels; a man who in his own words said of his cousin ‘I am not worthy.’ This is a crucial point of detail which reveals something very important about the nature of the sacraments, and the sacrament of baptism in particular. Please never, ever, think that the presiding minister is in any way different or uniquely worthy; we aren’t.
You see when it comes to the sacraments the only one who is worthy is God. The miracle of the sacraments is that God chooses to make himself real and present through the office of the unworthy. This is a very sobering thought indeed. Please do stop and think about it: the sacraments of the church are administered by the unworthy yet we sometimes place too much emphasis on the role of the priest or deacon; too little emphasis on the work of God. It is God who transforms water, bread and wine into life giving, life enhancing, spiritual nutrients. It is God who we the ‘unworthy’ meet in the sacraments.
If I am honest, I don’t know how I would feel about being baptised by the likes of John the Baptist. I suspect that in very large part I would want the person baptising me to look a little bit smarter and, well, more classically priestly. I am not sure that if I had known about the extra curricular behaviour of the priest who baptised me, I would have gone ahead with my baptism. It is, you see, so easy to either ignore or forget that the initiative in the sacraments is entirely, and only, God’s. The accounts of Jesus’ own baptism remind us of this. The initiative of God in cleansing us – the ‘unworthy’ - through the sacraments can in fact be reduced to one word: Grace. To receive and partake in the sacraments of the church is to open ourselves up to the grace of God – unworthy as we all are.
So, what else can we learn from the stories of Jesus’ baptism? Well, the first thing that I think we can learn is that baptism, as a sacrament, opens up new possibilities, new horizons, new ways of being and relating, for as we have heard ‘the heavens were opened to Him.’ Baptism opens the heavens up for us as well, and allows us to become the sort of people who strive to bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ into the here and now; baptism is the catalyst for a Christ-like way of life. Washed clean through the waters of baptism, we like Christ, become the sort of people who are capable in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, of ‘magnifying His Holy Name.’
Secondly, through baptism we acknowledge that we, like Jesus, are truly beloved of God. At and through baptism God says to each and every one of us: ‘You are mine, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ This is an utterly remarkable thought: that you, me, us are God’s very pleasure.
Can I ask you this week to meditate on this and let those words sink into your soul, for to do so is to pay due homage to God? Do, this week, perhaps every week, try to find some time to bask in God’s love for you and pleasure in you – for to do so is to recapture the very essence of baptism.
You see we might not be able to remember our own baptisms but what we can do is to meditate on Jesus’ baptism and own for ourselves the picture of the heavens opening and the very Spirit of God resting on us – the unworthy - calling us by name, and proclaiming His love for us, and his pleasure in us.
And if we do this surely we will be irrevocably changed for the good?