Baptism of our Lord: 12th January, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
My family and I have been blessed with a few days at Queenscliff, by the sea, and I'd like to begin this morning by reading you a poem that I've been reflecting on written by an English nun.
House by the Sea : Carol Bialock rscj
- I built my house by the sea.
- Not on sand, mind you.
- Not on the shifting sand.
- And I built it of rock.
- A strong house.
- By a strong sea.
- And we got well-acquainted, the sea and I.
- Good neighbors.
- Not that we spoke much.
- We met in silences.
- Respectful, keeping our distance,
- but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
- Always, the fence of sand our barrier;
- always the sand between.
- And then one day
- (I still don't know how it happened),
- but the sea came.
- Without warning.
- Without welcome, even.
- Not sudden and swift, but sifting across the sand like wine.
- Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
- Slow, but coming.
- Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
- And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
- And while I thought the sea crept higher,
- till it reached my door.
- I knew, then, there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
- That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbors,
- Well-acquainted, friendly-from-a-distance neighbors.
- And you give your house for a coral castle,
- And you learn to breathe under water.
Baptism is a bit like this. We may sprinkle a few drops of water, symbolically, on a baby's or a child's or an older person's head, but that is really just where the sacrament of baptism starts; it is the start of the flow, the beginning of the coming of the sea, moving slowly more often than not, like the flow of wine or even of blood, creeping higher, across the fence of sand, into our house, into every corner of our lives, if only we are willing to stay rather than to flee, if only we are willing to learn to breath under water.
The origins of baptism are found within first-century Judaism, as an admission rite for new converts. It was a relatively new thing that John the Baptist practiced, not mentioned in the Torah or other early Jewish scriptures, but Jesus was drawn to it too. For the early church, following the lead of John and Jesus, it took on increasing significance. In the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter makes very clear the importance of baptism: "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him" (Acts 2:38-39).
The early church held baptism in extremely high esteem, and it was normally conferred by a bishop and only at Easter and Pentecost. By the fourth century it became popular to delay baptism until death was near for fear of the responsibilities it incurred. Augustine did much at this time to shape the theology of baptism, defending the importance of infant baptism against the Pelagians, and developing a doctrine of baptismal character. We are marked quite literally by our baptism, he argued, like a royal seal on a coin.
A traditional theology of baptism was challenged during the Reformation, by the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli for example, who denied its necessity altogether and saw it as little more than a sign of community membership. The Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England specifically countered this teaching, defining baptism as a 'sign of Regeneration' by which 'the promise of forgiveness of sin and of our adoption to be the sons [and daughters] of God by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed.' This theology was again eroded by eighteenth-century rationalism, but revived in England particularly by Edward Pusey and other nineteenth-century Tractarians, and this influence is very much part of our heritage here at St Peter's. Baptism matters!
When I reflect back on my life, I relate very much to a traditional understanding of the powerful significance of baptism. I was marked by my baptism as a child in Adelaide Cathedral; I can see the mark of baptism unfolding in the lives of my children. It is not magical, it is often two steps forward and one or more back, but the mark of baptism is real and it undoubtably has the power to shape our lives after the life of Christ.
I saw this truth of the mark of baptism clearly in the life-story a parishioner shared with me recently. She is from a large family, but was one of the few of her siblings to be baptised as an infant. Her parents rarely went to church, and just didn't get round to baptising the others. As she grew up this person was drawn back to the church of her baptism, even though her family never went. One Saturday she attended the church fete, but being from a poor family had no money to spend, so she stole the teddy-bear she wanted. Her mother eventually found out and sent her to the vicarage to return the teddy. Years later, in her teens, of her own volition, she went back to the church again to attend the youth group and eventually decided to attend confirmation classes. The classes were held in the vicar's lounge, and after a couple of sessions she noticed a teddy-bear sitting on the mantle-piece; it looked familiar. After a couple more classes she plucked up the courage to ask the vicar about it. He explained that years ago a young child had come to the door of the vicarage and confessed that she had stolen the teddy. Her courage and contrition so impressed him that he kept it. "That was me," she tentatively admitted. "I know," he said, "and I'd like to give it back to you."
Some of you may have already learnt how to breath under water. Most of us are still learning. As a baptised people we are marked, we are called to welcome the slow but sure advance of the Holy Spirit into our lives; to give our house for a coral castle.
The Lord be with you ....
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.