There are two things going on this morning: baptism and unity, all sauced with a serendipitous clerical joke involving the family names of those being baptised here and at St Luke’s. Here, two Bishops are being baptised, while at St Luke’s a Crockford is being added to the family of God. Why this is hilarious, you may well ask, but the reason is simple: if you want to know where your bishop went to university, or what her middle name is, you can look them up in Crockford’s Clerical Directory – and yes, there is a direct family link to that most influential of clerical printers – enough to make us all weep with laughter, were our lives not a whole lot richer than the purveyors of clerical humour.
Now, baptism and Christian unity are unlikely bedfellows, as one of the causes of division in the Church over the centuries has been two radically different attitudes to baptism – is it a sacrament that allows God to work for the rest of the individual’s life, or is it the public acknowledgement of a faith that has already been growing for some time before? Anglicans, of course, hold both views, but that is only to be expected. What we are doing today is very much the former – a public sacrament that puts God’s Holy Spirit directly into the lives of these children who are being baptised this morning, after which their knowledge of God will grow through the help and support of their parents, godparents and this worshipping community. But catch-up baptisms are not unknown – the oldest person I have ever baptised was 81, and she had just never got round to being baptised, even though she had encouraged many others to take that path, and baptism after conviction by faith is still an option.
For us this morning, what we are about is a combination of what John the Baptist had been doing in Israel prior to Jesus appearing on the scene, and Jesus calling his disciples. John’s baptism was one of repentance, a washing clean and giving a fresh start – we are doing that this morning. Jesus’s call to Peter & Andrew and James & John was a life-changing shift in direction – from the business of fishing to the business of soul-catching – and we are doing that as well this morning, for from today on, these children’s lives will never be the same – they have been called by God, this morning, by name, and God will never let go of them, and will keep on calling and chivvying and nudging and teaching and leading them all the days of their life.
And that is why Paul is so adamant that no one in the church in Corinth should be claiming to belong to a different or better grouping because of which person had baptised them. The person who did the baptising was merely the agent of God the Holy Spirit, Paul insists, and not a cause for either boasting or judging others.
This could go on still, if we wanted to. I met one of the Barn Ladies Group members who had been confirmed by Archbishop Cosmo Laing, who was standing in for the Bishop of Southwark because he lived in Kew at the time. There are some others around here who can claim to have been confirmed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at St Luke’s, a good few years ago – are such people more spiritual than others, or is their confirmation a bit more special than ours, carried out by just a Diocesan bishop or his suffragan? Of course not, but that was the sort of thing that was messing up church life in Corinth at the time, and Paul had to intervene to sort it out. Likewise, our baptism ought to be our great unity in Christ, and for many different strands of Christianity it is, but for others it has become a barrier, and we must do all we can to cross over that barrier, by love and mutual understanding.
One of the ideas we are going to be exploring as Christians together in Kew on Wednesday, up at the skool at 10am, is this idea of crossing barriers that we create ourselves. The Corinthian Church had created those barriers, we could so easily do it, but our calling at our baptism ought to lead us away from such thoughts and words, to actions of grace and generosity, where we love and include others rather than try to keep them out because of difference.
That having been said, our calling comes at a price. Peter & Andrew, after they are called to follow Jesus, leave their business, their livelihood behind. James & John do the same, and leave their father and workmates too. Now, I am not saying that these children will do the same to their parents, I am simply flagging up the nature of Christ’s calling – he calls us to be active in sharing his love, in demonstrating what God is like, and sometimes that is easy and wonderful, and sometimes that is hard and costly. May these children know only joy as they share Christ’s love through their life and their deeds, but we do have to be realistic. And it is in the field of Christian unity that some of the hardest acts will have to be performed: deeply held convictions that create barriers will have to be worked through so that those barriers can be crossed together, for the sake of Christ; entrenched positions and years of history may have to be compromised, for the sake of Christ.
Today’s baptisms are causes for joy and celebration, let there be no doubt. It is a wonderful thing to baptise children, and to share in the family’s joy. It is a wonderful thing to share in those children’s development as children of God, and may we all play our part in welcoming them, praying for them and encouraging them to grow in the faith. May our example of worship and teaching stir up Christ’s call in them, and may they know the fullness of Christ’s love, in their own lives and in their family life, all their days. Amen