Sermon for the Baptism of Christ: God’s Assignment – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 9 January 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Acts 8: 14 – 17; St Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22)
The scorch marks on the walls in the Chancel area are relics of the bitter dispute between the townspeople and the monks as you may know. A small church called All Hallows had been added on to the West end of the Abbey but had no font. Baptism was required in those days but whenever the townspeople wanted a baptism, they had to seek permission from the Abbot to use the font in the Abbey and he made a charge and so increased the Abbey’s income. In 1437 they had had enough of such restrictions and erected their own font in their small church. The Abbot was enraged at this break in his monopoly and sent a stout butcher with a hammer to demolish the font. This led to a riot during which a burning arrow was shot into the east end of the abbey setting fire to wooden scaffolding. The reddened walls are a permanent reminder of this as is the narrowed doorway in the southwest corner of the Abbey – a form of crowd control so that only one person at a time could enter the Abbey from All Hallows church.
The font by the West porch is Victorian but the Bow chapel at the east end of the south aisle also has a font with a bowl that is clearly medieval. The base was discovered supporting a table in the vicarage garden before it was rescued, cleaned and placed in the Bow Chapel. Is this all that remains of the broken font from All Hallows? Normally the font would be at the SW corner of the church but sometimes, so that people could see the ceremony more easily, a portable one would be used at the crossing as is our practice at the Abbey. In one church when such changes took place the announcement was made: “Now that we have acquired an additional font to be placed near the chancel steps it will be possible, in future, to baptise babies at both ends.”!
From the earliest days of the Christian Church baptism was seen as the way in which people joined the church and were made members of it. At the end of St. Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ commands the apostles to baptise people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and the church seems to have done that instinctively from the day of Pentecost. Baptism does not seem to have been used by Jesus or his disciples during his earthly ministry and indeed when Jesus speaks of baptism it seems to refer to his approaching death as for instance when he asks the sons of Zebedee (who were requesting the chief positions in the new kingdom) “Can you be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?”
But at the beginning of his ministry Jesus does undergo baptism at the hands of John the Baptist as our gospel reading today narrates and so that looks like being a significant reason for baptism to become important in the Christian church. Not surprisingly John was not introducing out of the blue the symbolism of ritual or moral cleansing signified by the use of water. Indeed, we have evidence for the use of water baptism among the rites which attended the reception of an adult proselyte into Judaism.
The baptism of John the Baptist relates to this kind of ritual washing. John, though, added two new ideas – firstly ideas about judgement and the Day of the Lord. “The chaff” John says “he will burn with unquenchable fire” which is indeed fiery language. The second new idea was that John treated even Jews of good standing and impeccable heredity as though they were proselytes too. He saw himself as preparing all for the coming Messiah and so all needed to be washed clean spiritually – but this gave rise to a problem as far as Jesus was concerned.
Jesus received baptism and so he became part of a group of people who needed to repent of their sins and be washed clean through baptism. But Jesus, Messiah and son of God must surely have been sinless so that his sacrificial death could be effective. Did Jesus come to his baptism as a sinner with all the other sinners or rather as Saviour who willed to make himself one with his people? Our gospel is from St. Luke who writes that there comes one who is mightier than John and that he, John, is unworthy to unfasten the straps of his sandals. But it is St. Matthew who provides even more of a resolution for he writes that John the Baptist tries to dissuade Jesus from being baptised saying “It is I who need to be baptised by you”. Jesus replies “It is right for us to do all that God requires” a phrase which has been tricky to translate and which could be described as “enigmatic”!
A scrap from a gospel which didn’t get accepted into the New Testament, the apocryphal gospel of the Hebrews, also shows concern about the idea of a sinless Christ receiving baptism of repentance. It goes: “The mother of the Lord and his brothers said: ‘John the Baptist is baptising for the forgiveness of sins. Let us go and be baptised by him.’ But Jesus said to them: ‘Wherein have I sinned that I should go and be baptised by him? Unless perhaps this very thing that I have said is a sin of ignorance.’” Well, we may think that they were tying themselves in knots over all this with complicated theology but it shows that they were concerned and were trying to explain why Jesus was baptised.
But baptised he was and we perhaps see the ceremony as a way of marking the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. It is followed by his time in the wilderness – an opportunity for him to work out his objectives and ways to achieve them and also a time of temptation. Because he was baptised, we feel that our own baptism is in some special way connected with Jesus himself. It seems right that he who is the Head of the church which admits people to its number by baptism, should himself have been baptised and has brought us that forgiveness which our repentance needs.
A writer in one of the church newspapers wrote recently that her daughter had chosen to get baptised a couple of years ago and added: “so I know God has an assignment for her” – which is a rather lovely way of putting it. What assignment I wonder has God in mind for you?