Sunday, 26 July 2015

Every Family: a baptism sermon

Today we baptise Evelyn Eleanor Mary. It’s a day of happiness for all who love her. For them, for all of us, she is and always will be, a gift beyond price.

There’s a big word for today in our first reading from Ephesians. The author speaks about ‘the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. In the original, it’s ‘every fatherhood in heaven and on earth’, every patria. It’s what Horace said it was right and proper to die for, pro patria mori. ‘That great lie’ exclaimed Wilfred Owen in his famous war poem, meaning not that you wouldn’t lay down your life for your friends, those you love, but the narrowing of patria to mean no more than your national tribe. So what does Ephesians mean by this patria that takes its name from the Father?

I think we can allow it to include our human families, those communities of love and goodness where we first glimpse how the kingdom of God becomes real and tangible to us. But I doubt whether the author has the modern western nuclear family in mind. Much more likely it means the extended family of kinship and affinity into which our infants are conceived and born, and over the years are drawn into ever larger circles of human nurture and care. All this is patria because its loving shape and character reflect nothing less than God’s own infinite love and care for all his creatures.

But in Ephesians, the word takes on a far broader aspect. If we read on it becomes clear what the author is getting at. He prays that ‘you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’.  It’s true that this is our longing and our prayer for every human association and society. But there is one community that the author has particularly in mind, and that is the church of God, whose flourishing and blessing is the great theme of this epistle.

Baptism is Christening, en-Christ-ing, incorporating a human being into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (Why do people take against that beautiful word Christening?) In baptism, we die to the old life and are born again to the new, ‘by water and the Spirit’ as St John says. Evelyn’s baptismal names are not just forenames or first names. They are her Christian names imparted in this holy sacrament. As the old Prayer Book catechism reminds us, every time we are asked ‘What is your name’ we recall our baptism when our names were given. And because we the church are the community of the baptised, we should rejoice to speak to one another by our baptismal names. I may be Mr Dean in the formality of a Chapter meeting, but my God-given name is Michael and it’s how I want to be known.

And this is the family Ephesians has in mind, the patria that takes its name from God. The author isn’t thinking of a cathedral or even a parish church. He has in mind the household Christian communities that met in Ephesus and in every great city of antiquity, each of them a ‘family’ beloved by God. In the New Testament, every such family is part of a worldwide household, united in Jesus as his body dispersed across the world.

Evie’s baptism is at one level such an intimate act. What could be more tender than parents presenting an infant at the font, just as Joseph and Mary presented their Child in the temple so that Simeon could take him up in his arms and bless him? But at the same time, baptism is something global. Today, Evie becomes a member of a universal family, a catholic community of believers that is not limited by the constraints of city or tribe or nation. In an age when angry nationalisms and bitter tribal dogmas threaten the peace and wellbeing of our entire planet, the church remains one of the few worldwide that transcends nationhood and all the other limits we place on our belonging. The universal church stretches the narrow boundaries of our perspective and imagines a humanity that is reconciled with itself and at peace. There is no such thing as a national church, only a catholic church that is the sign of a new humanity. The Christian denominations and territorially organised churches are expressions of this in particular places and times. But baptism points to the largest and most noble vision of humanity and summons each of us to play our part in building it. This is Evie’s vocation as a citizen of earth and of the church of God.

There is more. The phrase ‘every family in heaven and on earth’ suggests to me that the author has the departed as much in mind as the living, for to God, all are forever alive through Jesus’ resurrection. Each local family takes its name from a family that transcends all the boundaries of time and space. So once again, the consequences of baptism are momentous. Today, by participating in the resurrection life of Jesus, Evelyn becomes a member of a community that inhabits eternity, ‘that multitude which no-one can number’ says the Book of Revelation. She is marked with the sign of the cross, not only the symbol of obedience and suffering, but also of a kingdom that is coming, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.

This is the faith we confess with her in this service. It’s the Apostles’ Creed we use at baptism, but had we sung the Nicene Creed as we usually do at this service we would not only affirm our faith in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ but would also acknowledge ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ and ‘look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. These clauses are inseparable. They tell us what family Evie is baptised into this morning. They remind us, as John Cosin’s huge canopy above the Cathedral font does, that baptism is a truly momentous event in the life of a human being. Nothing greater can ever happen to Evie until the day she dies. For today she inherits all that is worth possessing as she takes on the faith of this heavenly and worldwide family, this patria that bears the very name of God, her Father and our Father.  All things are hers, ‘whether the world or life or death or the present or the future’: all belong to her; and she ‘belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.’

What better prayer could we make for her today than the words of the Ephesian letter: that she ‘may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,’ that she ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’  It’s our prayer for all of us on this happy day, and all our lives.

Durham Cathedral 26 July 2015
At the Baptism of Evelyn Eleanor Mary Crawford
Ephesians 3.14-21

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