The liturgies of the church have a habit of crystallising the whole of the faith. This is especially true of the Eucharist which is a weekly event in most mainstream churches. The liturgy of baptism, less celebrated because of its want of candidates, also crystallises the faith but from a different direction.
While the Eucharist nourishes the community week by week, baptism is about welcoming a newcomer into the faith and indicates what that means. It is thus as important for the congregation as it is for the candidate. This is often not understood by parents who bring their new child for what they usually call “christening”, a word that had dropped out of usage among the churched and been replaced by the more biblical “baptism”. Practice among clergy varies widely between those who will accept any child regardless of whether or not the parents know the significance of baptism and the importance of the promises they make, to clergy who insist that baptism really does signify becoming a member of the church which means regular attendance and guidance of the child in the faith.
This debate is complex and I have found myself on either wing at different times. This controversy, which has been the undoing of many a well-meaning member of the clergy, is part of the conflict between public expectation and the church’s self-understanding. Often members of the public want to drape the national flag on a coffin while others expect baptism on demand or marriages performed according to the latest fashion. They are astounded when the church asserts its own understanding of the nature of the ritual requested. It is no wonder that congregations who struggle to maintain buildings and ministry are resentful of strangers who act as if the church is there to satisfy their requirements on their terms.
It is essential that the church asserts its self-understanding. For example, the sacrament of baptism is the rite of entry into the church and its liturgy reflects this understanding. It is not a celebration of the child. It has been my experience that when the gospel is preached in the face of popular religious notions, that are often sentimental or superstitious, something real happens. I think the following sermon at the baptism of a child we will call Craig (the name is changed to protect the innocent), based on John 10:1-10, is just such an example.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Something important is about to happen to Craig. He is about to be claimed, without his permission, by the one who leads His sheep to good pasture. From this time on he will listen to the voice of the shepherd and to no other. He will not be as other men, being drawn hither and thither to the sound of a multitude of voices, but he will listen with all his might for the one voice that matters, the voice of the shepherd. Although what is about to happen seems a charming and harmless enough ceremony, its innocent appearance disguises a darker meaning - Craig is about to be put to death, he is about to share the death of Christ and to be raised with him. In some Orthodox liturgies an actual coffin is brought into the church to further emphasise what is happening.
Craig is about to be put to death to those multitude of voices that would have him follow them, including, and perhaps most important of all, his own voice. For his own voice, above all, needs to be put to death. His own voice so encouraged to demand its own way, esteem itself, insist on its own rights and choices, stands between himself and the voice of the shepherd. In baptism this insistent voice is silenced so that he may hear the voice of Christ. That is why baptism is understood as a kind of death. His dying and rising in baptism this morning will mean that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. He is not his own, he has been claimed by the shepherd. This means that he will not have to invent himself out of various bits of personality but that his identity is hidden in the identity of Christ.
We approach here a profound mystery: dying leads to life, slavery to freedom. For when we die in Christ we become what we were meant to be, sons and daughters of the living God, prepared to have life and have it abundantly. When we become a slave of Christ we attain the most profound freedom because Christ opposes all other masters, including the master we know as the self, who, like the thief, would steal our lives away. His opposition and silencing of these other masters sets us free.
We must admit this goes against the grain of our present understanding. As we turn more resolutely away from God does not the grandiose figure of man, puffed up by his own importance, stalk the earth? Does he not see himself as the centre of all things and answerable to none? Does he not see himself as free but is ever more entangled in chains? Are there not even more voices clamouring for his attention: the sellers of all kinds of wonderful things, of objects marvellous to behold, of experiences that would sweep our breath away, of lifestyle and identities forged from fashion and the desire for prestige? Are we not now more exposed to the claims of the nation, of blood and soil, of the corporation with its mission statements, of the profession and even, dare I say it, of the family?
The voice of the thief who would steal away the sheep has become a tumult and has disguised itself in what sounds good and true. But Craig this day is placed on a life trajectory that will enable him to see the illusions for what they are and turn away. Because his one loyalty is to Christ, whose death he is baptised into, he will spurn those other loyalties that make such heavy demands and promise him the world. In his baptism today Craig will be given power by the Holy Spirit to close his ears to these voices and listen to only one.
He will gradually see that the promises of the thief, so seductive, so full of half-truths, are lies that lead to nothingness. He will come to understand that the voice of the shepherd has the power to quiet all others and to lead him out into the world into abundant life.
This battle for Craig’s soul will not be over until that other death, the death of the body, claims him. There is the possibility that despite his parents’ efforts to point out the way he will turn his back on what is about to happen to him today and choose to listen to the voice of the thief. He may wander far over the earth and find himself in all kinds of situations, he may even forget he is baptised. But we will know, it will be written in our book. And God will remember that Craig was this day immersed in the waters of Christ’s death and raised with him into life and that he has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We will look for the fulfilment of the promise of resurrection in him, a promise that can only be ended by death.
This is an unapologetic sermon that uses the language of the church without concession to modern thought. Indeed, I like it because it flies in the face of much that conditions modern thought: the emphasis on the autonomous person, the triumphalism of progress, the relativising of the legion of voices that clamour around us. This sermon represents what modernity hates. The child is given no choice, his baptism could be described as abusive. He is not sent into the world to listen to all of the voices and to make up his own mind which he finds most attractive, but is directed towards listening to only one. The scandal of the particularity of the gospel is here, at its most scandalous. The cult of personality, the idea that we are our personality, is shown to be a sham. But perhaps the most offensive of all is the notion that the baptised are not like others, thus confronting the shallow equalitarianism of the times.
Critics will say that the weakness of this sermon is that it does not connect with modern man. But if connecting with modern man means defacing the proclamation of the church to the smallest degree, then the church must forsake that perceived advantage. Has not this been the cause of the failure of liberal Protestantism? It is time the church insisted on asserting its own view in the face of a culture that seems so reasonable. It is here that I have some sympathy with the conservative attitude to modernism of the late Pope John Paul II.
To make an extreme example, the church’s problem with Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system could have been dealt with in another way. For, theologically, the earth is the centre of the universe because it is the setting of salvation history. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, is an earth bound God. Of course physically it is only one of billions of planets in our galaxy. But when this information is given precedence over the understanding of Israel, that the earth is the centre of creation, our theology is decentered to the extent that speculation arises about life on other planets, which has a strange habit of relativising all that we know.
When our gaze is thus directed we look for meaning in the vast expanses of the universe and find none. This is how Copernicus’ discovery of the heliocentric solar system is theologically important. In our awe at the extent of the universe and our realisation of the physical insignificance of the earth in it, we lose an essential focus: we take our eyes off our own culture and wonder what other cultures could be. After all, we are probably only one people of many, and who are we to talk about God?
Modernity has only been around for about 400 years and we are already talking about post-modernity. While no one wants to return to the squalor of the prescientific ages it is also true that we have discarded, like so much outmoded rubbish, many important insights. And we are the poorer for it. I think I detected an anxious expression on the face of the mother when I announced that her baby boy was going to be put to death. However no one rushed from the church in horror during the sermon. I begin to wonder why the church would want to soften its most crucial speech in order to please the man in the street. When we do this we lose all credibility and give away our richest heritage. No wonder most have lost interest, we seek to tell them things they already know.
The church finds itself in the mode of retrieval, discovering lost ritual and lost meaning. The antithesis of this is represented by the worship spaces of the charismatic movement that bears no symbols and are replete with stage, band and amplification systems. This is a movement without a history. Similarly, when Russell Crowe can have his child “baptised” in his own private chapel, without the support of the faith community, presumably without ordained ministry - for what clergy would get involved - it is obvious that many feel they may ransack the church for what they want without having to pay the price: the invitation to come and die.