It is truly with joy that we bring Sophie for baptism today. But we do so in the knowledge that baptism is a hot topic. I have had passionate debates with people very near to me about whether we should baptise children. Famously, this is one of the defining differences between us and the Baptist church down the road.
The concept is that when we are baptised we publically align ourselves with Christ and promise to live lives under his lordship and control. We baptise babies when their parents and godparents promise to model this life for the child, to bring them up actively in the faith, and to involve them in the life of the worshipping community.
The problem is that so few families seem to really be able to live up to this promise. I have personally carried our 423 baptisms during my time here at St Michael’s. Even if half of them have moved away, that should still leave a couple of hundred young people and their families joyfully sharing with us the adventure of following Jesus. Please understand that this is not said to blame them or their families.
The challenge is for us, the church. We profess the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, just as we will do in a short while in this service; but we are called to proclaim it afresh in each generation. As Sophie grows up, we must find ways to help her understand and live this timeless faith in ways that make sense to her.
The challenge is for us, each of us, for me. In our reading from Matthew Jesus comments on the way that he was received by the people around him. Some thought he was too straight laced and boring, while others thought he was too easy living and lax. What they had in common was that they found it difficult to follow him and obey him. It seems to be a common human trait to rebel against God.
Paul picks up this thought in this puzzling passage from Romans 7. We replay the sin of Adam and Eve: God places us in the perfect garden but we think that we can do better than God, and improve it. We replay the sin of the nation of Israel: God rescues us from Egypt and gives us the Law as a sign of belonging, but we find ourselves unable to keep it. In deeply personal language, this great Christian leader Paul talks about the paradox that the more we want to live God’s way, the less we seem able to do so.
Every one of us faces this experience. We may agree with the truths of the Christian faith, and about what constitutes a good life, but we seem chronically unable to live them out. The biggest reason I encounter among people who do not belong is a feeling of inadequacy and guilt. We do not feel good enough. We might even be tempted to ask whether being a Christian “works” or not.
For Paul, who learnt from Jesus, the answer is clear. Of course we are not good enough, of course we are not able to live lives that are pleasing to God. We know that, we have experienced it. If we think that we are living lives good enough, we are fooling ourselves (Jesus said, Matthew 9:12). We were stumbling around in the darkness of our lives, and God gave us the Law, like a bright torch that shines everywhere – and shows us just how disordered we are! We can make frantic efforts to put things right, but really we are just rearranging the mess. What we need is a complete clear out.
And the good news, the gospel, is that God has done this. It is as if a kindly friend has paid for a squad of cleaners to come and sort your life. The contract has been signed and the fee paid. Your life is sorted, in principle. But you have to let them in.
Like all analogies this is a pale reflection of the truth. The death of Jesus on the cross was a historical event that brought forgiveness for each and every sin that we have ever committed. God raised Jesus to life. He is alive today and he promises to come and share our lives today. Every one of us who has been baptised and has said the words “I turn to Christ, I submit to Christ, I come to Christ” is saying that we have welcomed Jesus into our lives.
Do you see the problem? It is not just that there might be questions about whether or not to baptise infants. How could any of us dare to be baptised? Every one of us who is an adult believer is challenged to experience the truth of these words and let Jesus into our lives. Once we have done so, we are challenged to encounter him afresh and to grow in him – every day.
Jesus says it all, when he asks us to come to him. To be a Christian is more than having a good knowledge of scripture or being able to sing lots of hymns. To be a Christian is more than having a good ethical basis for life. To be a Christian is to know Christ and to be fixated on him. “Be thou my vision, O Lord, master, commander, of my heart,” “be thou my best thought in the day and the night, both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.”
Paul’s response to the practical problem of how to live this out is to say: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Understand that God loves you and that Jesus died for you, and open yourself to the possibility that he wants to share your life and take an active part in helping you to live.
· Look to encounter him in his word, as you read it privately and as you spend time with others exploring its meaning.
· Look to encounter him in prayer; spend perhaps four or five minutes in silence each day, asking Jesus to help you come to him.
· Look to encounter him in meeting others, as you discuss and pray together and support each other.
1. “22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” What sense can you make of this?
2. “25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” What is your practical, day-to-day experience of this?
3. 28 ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Spend some time praying, for yourself and for others in the group, to encounter the living presence of Jesus.