It was summer. A few mates who had worked together were going on holiday to Cornwall. They were travelling in an old Ford Escort. The journey didn’t last long for almost as soon as they joined the M6 the car was involved in an accident. Thankfully they all survived, a little shaken, a memory they would not forget. It was a near death experience.
This morning we heard of another near death experience in our Gospel, the baptism of Christ. The scene is set. Jesus steps into the river and John pushes him under the water. If he’d stayed there, his lungs would have filled with water and he would have died. Yet John pulled him out and his ministry began.
Our own Zach Higgins had a similar near death experience off the East Coast when he was baptised in the North Sea last year. Then we did plunge him (his father said I had a look of glee on my face) under the water, we pulled him out a little breathless by the whole experience.
Being baptised should be dangerous. It is a near death experience.
And yet I fear, rather like the radical eruption of the life of God in the birth of Jesus into our time and space that we celebrated at Christmas often reduced to picturesque Christmas Cards, we have rather domesticated baptism. Made it all too safe.
Type baptism into your internet search engine and you’ll find all sorts of interesting images, most of them are rather inoffensive images. And cards for baptisms usually show a little baby and a few drops of water, there is no sense of baptism being in some way about death and that death leading to new life.
Unfortunately, our rituals rather reinforce this. We have small fonts, and when it comes to baptising little ones even if we are being bold we still end up pouring water over the head, we don’t dare risk immersing babies fully. It’s a Health and Safety risk!
Whatever the risk I can’t help feel that what we do should in some way express what we say, because though our liturgy talks of dying and rising with Christ, words only go so far. I reckon people would understand the significance of baptism more, if they could see how dangerously near death it is.
So perhaps our Baptist brethren have it right here, their plunge pools really do express how baptism really is about dying (almost) and rising again. The trickle of water we pour over the candidate’s head doesn’t adequately express the transformation that takes place at our baptism.
Which leads me to the question posed in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, ‘Into what then were you baptised?’ What would we say? Have we ever even thought about it?
Are we rather like our rituals a bit timid about saying how something dangerously life changing takes place at baptism? That when we were baptised into Jesus, into his death and resurrection we are forever mystically linked with him in an invisible and yet real way.
And that this union with him makes a real difference, is a kind of life changing bond that unites us with Christ as we go through our lives. A bond that doesn’t protect us or give us any kind of special insurance but does say we are his forever.
We all know that being for Jesus isn’t always easy but it was ever thus. The verses immediately following those we have heard in this morning’s Gospel remind us that once Jesus hears of his belovedness, he is ‘immediately’ sent out in the desert being tempted by the devil.
When we leave here we don’t head out into the desert but we do have to face our own challenges and temptations in the coming week, yet we do so having been reminded here that we are truly beloved, with Jesus as our companion united with him through our baptism.
That’s why this Sunday is such an important one, a chance to remember the life changing event that happened when we were baptised. And the journey began then in one in which we continue as we strive to keep learning and growing as followers of Christ.
In a few minutes having recalled our baptism, before you are sprinkled with holy water, yes sprinkled I will pray these words ‘May we, whom you have counted worthy, nurture your indwelling Spirit with a lively faith.’
Nurture your indwelling Spirit with a lively faith.
What might this ‘lively faith’ mean for us as we begin a New Year, when we are in the season of resolutions. And though maybe some good intentions have already been undone, perhaps today we could make another, to renew our commitment to grow in our faith.
At St Mary’s I’m really proud of what we are doing to put this renewal at the heart of our life together. Our Pilgrim courses are a great blessing both to those who lead them and those who participate in them.
Lots of people are either on, or waiting to go on one (I wonder, could all of you stand.)
Perhaps you might like to join them this year. I hope you do, it will bring great reward.
Sometimes that sometimes people feel a bit frightened to think about their faith, as if it might dissolve and disappear when it comes under scrutiny.
However, I think the opposite happens. For as we learn and grow together our faith deepens. We understand, through what God has done in Christ, more and more how beloved we are. And so are able to live the faith we profess here more fully in the midst of our daily lives.
Following the Pilgrim Way of Christ may not be, to return to my beginning be a near death experience, but it is dangerous, because it means we shall and so change. But then sometimes things do need to die in our lives for new life to emerge.
But don’t just take my word for it, talk to one of your fellow Pilgrims. They can speak of the laughter, the tears, the honesty and the enriching of faith that has and is taking place for them.
As you leave this morning, you’ll get a free, yes free bookmark, do take it use it pray for all the different strands of our work to nurture our ‘lively faith’ and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. But see it also as an invitation to join us on the journey.
As a child one of my favourite books was entitled ‘Dangerous Adventure’ it was all about Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris.
We may not be about to fly the Atlantic but together by faith through our baptism we are reminded that we are involved in a dangerous adventure.
So may God give to each one of us a lively faith as we seek to follow Christ.