Sermon preached by Fr John Pritchard
on Sunday 12th January 2020 (The Baptism of Christ)
Isaiah 42.1–9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34–43; Matthew 3.13–end
Fifteen years ago I was sent to my bed following a lecture at theological college feeling both a little unwell and looking more grey than I have ever been known to look. I was taken to the doctor, and he said, ‘Oh, it looks like you’ve strained yourself. Go back to college and rest and if you’re not better next week, then come back’. So to college I returned.
Through the nights which followed, fellow ordinands said they could hear my groaning and crying out chillingly echo through the ancient water pipes of the halls. Then a gentle tap on the door, and Sarah Parkinson, a most wonderful friend and ordinand, came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. ‘John’, she said, ‘we don’t think you’re going to make it through the night. Would you like one last meal?’ I replied, ‘Perhaps steak and some chips?’ Sarah replied, ‘I can do chicken nuggets’.
I fell asleep, and waking a few hours later, found a bowl of cold dry chicken nuggets by my bedside.
Later that night I was taken by another friend, Michelle Edmonds, now the Rector of Warlingham, to hospital, where I was immediately diagnosed with a ruptured appendix which had over the past couple of days been poisoning me. I know I can be prone to a little drama, but I was closer to death than I could have imagined. Just before being rushed into surgery I was told just how unwell I was, I made one last call to Windsor to settle my affairs, lest I went down into the depths of the John Radcliffe and did not resurface.
Following the surgery I was brought round and taken back to the ward, and there in the hole where my bed was to be positioned was no one: no one to greet me, no one to reassure me, no one familiar to even fuss over me. I was, I thought, completely alone.
You can imagine with the chemicals in my body, and even the relief of survival – the emotions were running high, and the upset was immediate. I said to the nurse who was pushing my bed, ‘There’s no one here.’ I wept, and fell unconscious again.
When I woke up, that same nurse was sitting on my bed, holding my hand, and said, ‘I thought I would stay so that there was someone here for you when you woke up.’ Perhaps the greatest testimony to any vocation I had ever seen to that point.
When we think about baptism it is a death to sin that we talk about and not a physical one. But through the waters of the font we are drowned to the old self and brought out of the waters new, refreshed, clean. But what is different between a worldly brush with death and the waters of the font which we have experienced (nearly all of us) is that when we are brought up out of the waters of baptism we are surrounded by a whole host and company of people. There is no abandonment; there is no place where we need think we are alone anymore. For in baptism we are given the Spirit of God, and surrounding the font, and in the seats of this and every church, are the family which can be ours should we accept them, and the responsibility for others which is ours, should we be inclined to take our baptism seriously.
In baptism not only are we theologically given to God and in possession of his blessing, but we are given to one another, just as Mary and John are given to each other at the foot of the Cross. Just as that nurse stayed with me, so through the ordinary but mystical waters we are given to be sisters and brothers of the same heavenly father, we make a commitment to God and to each other so that life is richer, more bearable, less traumatised by our loneliness and feelings of isolation.
But here is the dilemma for the Christian Church: how do we honour one another as family even when we don’t know the names of those around us?
The church is preoccupied all too often with growth and renewal with the people who aren’t in here yet! In our Gospel, John who has known Jesus all his life who is familiar and part of the ritual of Jesus’ baptism is there. In that opening sentence from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter reminds us, that God shows no partiality, and neither should we, for we are children of the same heavenly father gathering to worship God revealed in Word and Sacrament – Jesus Christ our Lord. So whether you are new to St John’s or have been coming here 60 years, you should be as important to each other as you are important to God. So perhaps we might consider a way into a greater and more meaningful relationship with each other. I am often struck that when it comes to our intercessions many of you have no idea who we are praying for. The names fall in and out of your hearing, and the care for the person who is that name falls onto stone, withers and dies so quickly.
Our baptism should encourage in us a genuine enquiry, interest and care to those around us. So find out who Ondina is, or Trevor… and why are we praying for them. Ask… why have Nathan or John been on the prayer list for so long? Or why am I being asked to pray for Bola, or Naomi – people whose names are pronounced and mispronounced.
I don’t want us to overwhelm the sick and the suffering, but to start somewhere – I want us as a community to be concerned to take our baptismal promises seriously on this feast when we remember the baptism of Christ. God through baptism makes a faithful covenant with us, a promise to be with us throughout our entire lives that we die with the hope of God in our hearts. In Baptism, you have been asked to make a promise to welcome one another into the community of faith. To set an example to each other in how we walk in the way of Christ: and to help and be helped in taking your place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church: we have been asked to care about God and one another!
My little story about coming back to life and new life at the John Radcliffe and there being no one there… is not the story of our baptismal life. That nurse reminded of how important a stranger can be, and this feast might remind us that out of the waters of baptism not only is God with us in his beloved Son, but we are given to be with one another. So, let us explore more deeply what this might mean, how we look beyond our own comfort and say to the person sitting alone in a corner or the person whose name we do not know. “I greet you in the name of Christ. Now who in the world’s name are you?”
For in the stranger you will find a sister and brother who cares, who has needs, with a name given to them at their baptism and a story to tell. Come out of your comfort, and into a deeper relationship both with God, and with one another.