Baptism of the Lord, 10th Jan 21
What are you a member of? It took me a while to think of things of which I am a member. The Church, of course, but obviously I’m going to come on to that later. But what about other things? Well, I’m also a member of the Society of Mary and of Forward in Faith, both of which are great Anglo-Catholic organisations I commend to you. I’m a member of certain priestly societies like one at Walsingham and the Society of the Holy Cross. But I’m not sure there’s much else. The car is covered by the AA. I’m a member of couple of Art Galleries. I used to get nectar points from Sainsbury’s before I lost the card. I used to have a Nero rewards card when I was a student at university and spent most of my day drinking large black coffees.
I think I’d assumed we were all members of lots of things - and I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this - but I’m not sure that’s true. Membership seems to have been replaced, certainly on my own list, with reward schemes and loyalty cards. I loved the taste of that tenth cup of coffee, which was free because I’d had nine already. We pay the monthly car recovery scheme because we don’t want the car to breakdown without them on call. The whole premise of these is that they are transactional: we pay for membership so we get something in return. The Church societies I mentioned are different. They’re not an insurance policy. They’re largely because I think their aims are good aims and they’re worthy of my money and as part of that they’ll support something that is godly.
So let’s look at our membership of the Church. I despise the fact that Church of England parishes have what’s called an Electoral Roll. This is a list of names of those who are baptised and over the age of 16 who worship habitually in the churches of the Parish. These people are then eligible to stand as members of the Parish Church Council and other posts within the Diocese and it’s one way for people to be able to get married here. On the one hand, keeping up-to-date records of people’s contact details is important so that pastoral care can happen and so that notices can quickly be disseminated. We’d have been in quite a pickle during the last ten months of pandemic had we not got people’s postal addresses, email addresses and telephone numbers to explain whether churches were or were not open. But the Electoral Roll is a slightly secular affair, it strikes me, a bit exclusive, and I don’t care for it.
What the Church teaches us is that Baptism is really important and the fact that Jesus was baptised, as we celebrate today shows us this. Jesus is true God and true Man. He had no need to be baptised at all. St Mark, as we heard, records John the Baptist’s humility and elsewhere we discover he was even reluctant to baptise the Lord (St Matthew 3:14). But Jesus shows His humility, that He is emptying Himself into our humanity, and is baptised. Our arrogance and pride would have got in the way, I fear, were we in that position: “Well, I don’t need to be baptised so I’m not going to be.” When we reduce things to necessity we forget the importance God attaches to beauty. This is a beautiful thing Jesus does in being baptised in the River Jordan, hallowing water that we might be regenerate through it in our own Baptism.
Our baptism makes us members of Christ’s Body. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they are all members of one another (Ephesians 4:25) and he repeats this in his other letters too (eg. Romans 12:4). The image of the body is crucial to our self-understanding of our shared identity as Christians. It means there’s not only an interconnectedness between us all as Christians, but an interdependence. We’ll know to varying degrees what happens when one part of our body is not working. When I was a teenager I broke my collar bone playing rugby. It’s a tiny bone and we don’t even realise it’s there doing it’s job until it breaks and then the whole arm needs to be in brace, and all sorts of things you usually do with that arm simply cannot be done. So, it is with the Church. We may feel we are insignificant to its huge efforts but we all have a part to play. And someone else will be dependent on us doing that properly to be able to do their job, just like my fingers were pretty useless without a functioning collar bone.
That Baptism is the Rite of initiation is shown by the custom of having the font, where baptisms take place, by the main doors to the Church. Baptism secures entry. The sacramental realm is unlocked through our Baptism. Partly for this reason this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord follows on from the Epiphany, which we celebrated on Wednesday. The Wise Men show the response all people must have to Christ: worship with knees bent, hearing the straw of the stable rustle as we stoop to do the Lord homage. Today’s Feast of the Baptism is also linked to the first miracle Jesus performed: the wedding at Cana in Galilee, where He transformed the water into wine (St John 2:1-11). The reference to water, blood and the Holy Spirit in our second reading from I John 5 is mystical. It must also refer then to the sacramental life of the Church as a sign of the love that is to exist among us, to show we have been “begotten by God.”
But, of course, you don’t have to be baptised to enter the Church building and some of us here today I know aren’t baptised. It’s a wonderful sign of God calling new children to rebirth and regeneration that this is the case. When we consider the awful terror attacks that have happened in Churches in France and elsewhere it is a stark reminder that churches are places of openness. Anyone could walk in. Troublemakers do sometimes come in. That’s part of the wonderfully compelling and transformative love of God: they will want to come in. I have to say it’s in stark contrast to what we see in places like schools and nurseries which so often look like prison camps rather than places of education, though I can obviously see the reason why. Indeed, churches are the only places where you can gain access with no questions asked and which guarantee full admission even if you’ve got no money. Hear again the words of the Lord from our first reading, Isaiah 55: “Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come!”
So, our membership of the Church is not to be transactional. We’re not hoping to get something out of it for ourselves. It’s not a form of life insurance. Remember too the words of our Lord when he reminds the disciples that we are slaves of the Lord: “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done,” (Luke 17:10). Through our offering of this worship we are doing precisely what we are meant to be doing on the Lord’s Day in memory of Christ. Through our support of the churches where we attend Mass, we ensure they can be places where others can go. I don’t buy AA membership so that other people’s cars can be fixed. But I do give to this church and help keep it clean and ordered and try to ensure the worship is as clearly prioritised as possible and I do this not just for my own benefit but so that others can come to know the Living God and experience His love and His grace. This, my friends, is the great endeavour we as Christ’s Body are about. Amen.