Category Archives: Baptism

Is baptism important? (The Baptism of Jesus, Year A 8 January 2017)

Readings
Acts 10.34–43
Matthew 3.13–17 

…because of their baptism, they are bound to the patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do with them. (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes)

How important is baptism?

It seems to have been important to Jesus.

In Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist tries to put him off:

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’

But Jesus insists. This is the way forward.

John’s baptism was a sign of repentance; that’s why John didn’t want to baptise Jesus. He knew Jesus didn’t need to repent.

But Jesus was identifying himself with sinners. All of them, from the unclean and those outside the law to religious hypocrites who thought they were fine as they were. He was identifying himself with the whole of Israel. Eventually it would be clear that he was identifying himself with the whole world. He was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Christian baptism—our kind—is a little different. In his baptism, Christ identified with sinners; in our baptism, we are identified with Christ.

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Transfiguration happens all the time (Year B, 15 February, 2015)

Readings
2 Corinthians 4.3–6
Mark 9.2–9

Today, we heard that odd story we call The Transfiguration.

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them…

It may appear to be a strange story, but you know little transfigurations, ‘mini transfigurations’, happen all the time.

By that, I mean that something quite ordinary can easily become truly significant to us in a life-changing way. It becomes a moment of transfiguration for us. We don’t control it, it just seems to happen, but we know that it is so. We may know it at the time, or we may realise it later as we reflect back on what has happened. But there it is—a moment of transfiguration.

We often associate these mini moments of transfiguration with love.

I remember first seeing Karen. At the time, I was just looking at a pretty girl. (I doubt she remembers the occasion at all.) In retrospect, as I look back, that moment has been transfigured for me into something full of meaning.

Two other people may lock eyes across a crowded room, and they just know there and then. This is the one. Their hearts skip several beats, and the moment transfigures their lives. They know it straight away.

A mother or father holds their child for the first time. Their heart melts with love, and the meaning of this event is one that changes their lives forever.

It’s a little moment of transfiguration. The new mum and dad see more truly what their lives truly mean.

A young person finally realises that they have vocation in life, which may be to teach, to nurse, to be a gardener. They feel elated. They want to share it with others. That’s a moment of personal transfiguration too.

These little, personal moments of transfiguration happen when something ordinary reveals itself as something meaningful.

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The heavens torn apart (The Baptism of the Lord, 11 January 2015)

Readings
Genesis 1.1–5
Mark 1.4–11

Mark tells the story of John baptising Jesus in very few words. Let’s hear it again:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

That’s it. Mark tells the story of John baptising Jesus in very few words; and he tells it from Jesus’ point of view. The heavenly voice speaks to him: ‘You are my Son…’ Jesus sees the Spirit descending like a dove, and Jesus sees the heavens ‘torn apart’.

Did anyone else see or hear anything as far as Mark was concerned? We just don’t know. Mark seems to be presenting it as a purely personal experience of Jesus.

I’m really intrigued about one thing. The first thing Jesus saw was ‘the heavens torn apart’. That’s a pretty violent image, don’t you think? Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Matthew and Luke tone it down in their stories of Jesus’ baptism. You need to be aware that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as one of the sources for their own work, and they moderated Mark’s language at a few points. This is one of those points.

Matthew says,

…suddenly the heavens were opened to him…

And in Luke we read,

…the heaven was opened…

We may prefer Matthew and Luke over Mark. Their accounts are calmer. ‘Opening’ is quieter than tearing apart. It’s more serene, more in keeping with the tranquility suitable to proper religious occasions.

Yet I can’t help thinking that Mark’s version would please the prophet Isaiah more. Isaiah’s heart yearned and burned for God to come down. He once wrote (64.1),

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Well Isaiah, it’s happened at last: the heavens are torn apart.

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“The Rock from which you were hewn” (24 August 2014, Year A)

Readings
Isaiah 51.1–6
Matthew 16.13–20

 

There are a lot of references to rocks in the Bible.

Deuteronomy 32 calls God ‘the Rock that bore you’. And in 2 Samuel 22:

The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock,
and exalted be my God, the rock of my salvation.

And Psalm 18,

For who is God except the Lord?
And who is a rock besides our God?

Not to mention Jesus:

The stone that the builders rejected 
has become the cornerstone…

It’s a rocky road we’re taking today, as two of our readings speak of rocks: firstly, in Isaiah we are encouraged to 

Look to the rock from which you were hewn.

Let’s ‘look to the rock from which we were hewn’. Sometimes when I’ve holidayed back in England, I’ve visited the church in which I was baptised, Christ Church Harrogate. And I’ve stopped by the font in which I was baptised, and offered a prayer of thanks. Here it is:

Font 

 

You can see that it’s made of stone; I remember the first time I went back, it was this verse that popped into my head:

Look to the rock from which you were hewn.

And why not? Whatever is happening in life, a rock gives you a solid place to stand, a firm place to be. And we need a place to stand.

For me, baptism is one such place. I suppose that’s why that verse came to my mind that day. Baptism gives us a new identity, a firm identity as daughters and sons of the God who came for us in Jesus Christ, and who sent the Spirit among us to bring us new life.

It is easy to feel lost today. Things are changing more rapidly than ever before. So much seems out of control. There are things that we can hold on to: family, friends, home. But so much is out of our hands.

We hear about

  • the way that the forces of ISIS are committing atrocities and terrorising anyone in northern Iraq who doesn’t support their particular kind of religious and political extremism; 
  • the horrors of the never-ending conflict between Israel and Gaza;
  • the way children in detention centres set up by Australia — by us! — are suffering chronic psychological trauma and even harming themselves.

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(A bit of) what you need to know about UC elders…

Reading
Luke 19.1–10

 

Let me tell you about the first time I went to church after I gave my life to Jesus. Some of you will know that it was the church of my best friend at school, and that it was an Open Brethren congregation. He’d invited me, and I was glad to go.

I’d been brought up as a nominal Anglican, rarely setting foot inside a church.

The Brethren have a particular style of worship, which includes a weekly Memorial of the Lord’s Supper. So I’m sitting in church, and the bread and wine (real wine!) were passed around the pews. I receive the Lord’s Supper.

Unbeknown to me, this causes quite a flutter of consternation. Who is this teenager who comes to church for the very first time and partakes of the Lord’s Supper?

After the service, my friend comes to me. ‘The elders’ have taken him aside. They want to know who I am. Is your friend a Christian? they ask him? He says he thinks so. He then tells me I have to go and talk to them.

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Lend a hand—as baptised people (29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Reading

Jeremiah 31.27–34

 

Last week, we were reminded that Jerusalem was destroyed for the first time in 597 BC. That’s 2600 years ago. The city was demolished by the Babylonians, who were the superpower of the time. The Temple, God’s house, was torn down. And Jerusalem’s best and brightest were carried away into exile in Babylon, in the place we now call Iraq.

When the Jewish people were carried away, they felt they could no longer worship God. The Temple was gone. That was their only place of worship. So in Psalm 137 they sang,

By the rivers of Babylon
we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there
we hung up our lyres,
for there those who had carried us captive
asked us to sing them a song,
our captors called on us to be joyful:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

How indeed? As if broken hearts and broken spirits were not enough, how could they sing God’s songs with no temple?

The Book of Jeremiah countered this by telling them to put down roots, to grow food and have children, to pray for the welfare of the city of their enemies.

And when the time came that they could go back to their ancestral home, the Book of Jeremiah has startling news for the returning exiles. God says:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel…says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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Taking Jesus seriously

Ordinary Time 19C; Pentecost 12C; Proper 14C

Readings
Isaiah 1.1, 10–20
Hebrews 11.1–3, 8–16
Luke 12.32–40

Right there in chapter one of his book, Isaiah tells Israel that God does not ‘like’ its worship services in the great Temple of Jerusalem. God says,

When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen…

So, how do you feel after a service of worship? Do you enjoy our services? Perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should ask how you ‘respond to’, ‘experience’, ‘appreciate’ our services.

Maybe you don’t enjoy worship all that much. If not, why not? Often, when people say that they mean the music isn’t right for them. Or the sermons are too long. Or we should have Holy Communion more often, or less ‘liturgy’—whatever that is.

Maybe we feel that the Pentecostals have got it right, with their exuberance, their songs and their spontaneity. Or the Orthodox Churches, with their mystery, icons and incense. It may even be we’re ok with the way things are.

But let’s face the real question: If God didn’t like Temple worship back then, then the real question is not what we think about worship, but what God thinks about it here in Centenary Uniting. How does God respond to our worship?

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