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A list of ingredients isn’t good enough… and neither is a recipe! 8 January 2011

Posted by Dr Moose in Church, Faith.
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Blogging daily is part of the proof, to me as much anyone else, that I can, do and will write daily. So apologies to my Facebook friends, and to any parishioners who are reading, but here’s the sermon for tomorrow, Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Christ.

OT reading: Isa 42:1-9 NT Reading: Acts 10: 34-43 Gospel: Matt 3: 13 – end

Have you ever cast your eyes over a food packet, and found yourself reading the ingredients? On even the most straightforward of foods there’s often something unexpected. Have you ever noticed too that you can’t work out quite how much of a given ingredient is there, even some others are helpfully labelled as being such and such a percentage? Glad I’m not the only one!

I don’t watch much TV, often by choice, but one programme I did see over Christmas had a chef looking at what was in some children’s foods, how they were made, and where possible recreating them in his barn. He couldn’t do the mini-rolls, but he did create both marshmallows and fish fingers from first principles.

The whole thing wasn’t just entertaining, it was enlightening. It unpacked things and made them visible. And that’s the purpose of the readings in the Sundays after Epiphany – to make things visible, or manifest, in slightly older language. After all that’s the purpose of a party manifesto – the document that states intentions… for what they’re worth, which, like a bare list of ingredients, might not very much without some interpretation!

After all, our first reading today is a bit like an ingredient list. You might have noticed over the course of the Church year quite how many readings we have from the book of Isaiah. That’s because in many ways it’s like a recipe book. It lists the ingredients and paints word-pictures, and leaves you hungry. But it can’t feed you itself, only point to the one who can.

Our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit-centred history of parts of the early church, isn’t new to us either. It comes out quite often. It’s a summary of the earliest years of the faith, a theological review, looking back over the experience of the past and giving something of the implications for the future.

The Gospel account though, is a key part of the demonstration of God’s plan in Christ. Part of showing how the ingredients come together, making clear something more.

Maybe the first thing to note is that Jesus comes of his own free will as an adult to his cousin John. He clearly knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, even if they are not necessarily clear to us.

John’s baptism is described as a baptism of repentance – a symbolic washing away of sin and a declaration of a new start. Since John has some pretty definite ideas about his relationship to Jesus (who he described as one whose sandals he wasn’t fit to untie) this makes the process a little sticky. “Surely if anyone needs to be cleansed it must be me!” says John.

Of course, John’s baptism isn’t Christian baptism. But does provide something of a template and a precedent. It’s an informed act, and it’s a public act.

It doesn’t happen in a private ceremony, away from the eyes of the world.

It doesn’t happen as part of the Temple worship, a comforting ritual, slotted into the liturgy.

It happens in the open, at a familiar place on, and in, the River Jordan.

It’s visible and accessible.

And it also has consequences.

Normal recipients of John’s baptism would have gone away resolved to live a life better than before. Of closer obedience and deeper faith – which in the cultural environment of the time should have been clear and visible.

But the Gospel writers speak of a different occurrence for Jesus. It’s difficult to speak of a changed life after baptism when we have no prior story to build upon! Instead we have something of a change of status. Matthew describes the descent of the Holy Spirit “like a dove” (although it’s unclear whether anyone else saw it) and a voice from heaven affirming his status: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Large amounts of ink and hot air have been expended over the centuries discussing the Baptism of Christ – but the key point is simple enough. The early church understood this as a turning point, marking the public start of Jesus’ ministry and his recognition and empowering by Almighty God.

It is unhidden, unhindered and unprecedented.

The Baptism of Christ is the start of his manifestation to the wider world as a grown man. He is made known, revealed and shown to be part of God’s bigger plan for salvation, healing and redemption, initially to his own nation, and thence to all a nations.

If Jesus was truly the Christ, it was impossible for him to live as an anonymous one. His life revealed his nature, and his nature revealed his life, firstly to his place and times.

If we are called to be Christians, in this time and place, it is impossible for us to be anonymous either. Faith is not a private matter, no matter what some politicians and pundits would have us believe. Our inward beliefs should be reflected by our outward actions, and our outward actions reveal what we believe, sometimes despite ourselves. In a week that has seen an MP disgraced and imprisoned, basically for greed, we are forcefully reminded of this. Saint Paul regarded himself as the greatest of sinners – and we do well to remember our frailties. But they shouldn’t be used as an excuse for marginalising the outworking of faith. Christian faith isn’t a mental exercise, but a lived experience. If it’s not visible then it’s not Christianity, merely a philosophy or school of thought.

Visibility of faith isn’t about militancy or extremism, either, although there are times we may feel obliged to object or act. For example, praying five times a day and wearing the hijab is seen as an obligation by the faithful Muslim sisters I meet as University Chaplain. It is a statement of their faith, and sometimes that faith flies in the face of accepted liberal thought. But liberal thought isn’t necessarily the same as Christian thought, and woe betide us if we uncritically think it is!

To manifest our faith is a lot harder, as we live in a post-Christian society; there’s no denying it. For many people the majority sub-Christian thoughts and ethics of society are understood as being the same as Christian ones, which makes it difficult, maybe even tempting to collude, for the sake of a quiet life.

We don’t have to all go round knocking on doors sharing our faith. But at the same time we need to know what our faith is, so that we can share it when the opportunity arises. Neither need we stand in the marketplace handing out flyers of dubious relevance to those who pass, but we do need to able to communicate what makes us tick, to those we know and meet.

Maybe, the best approach is to go back to that list of ingredients that we started with. To take the common principles of Christian faith that we state nearly every week about loving God with all that we have and are, and loving our neighbours as ourselves, and then follow the recipe in our lives. Take for example, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel). It is an ancient exposition of the moral and ethical teaching of the followers of Jesus. It speaks about how to deal with anger, temptation, swearing and retaliation. It teaches us to love enemies and to give to charity, how to pray and how to fast. It outlines ways of dealing with wealth, obedience, worry, self-image and how we deal with others.

If you and I follow the recipe and put it into practice, guided by the same Holy Spirit, rather than simply read the list of ingredients, we won’t need to shout about our faith, because like Jesus it will speak for itself. And it, and he, will likewise be manifest and shine light into our lives and the lives of those around us. Amen.

Bonus points will be awarded for discerning the author’s thoughts on the adult vs infant baptism debate, Christology, the inspiration of scripture and the price of marshmallows.

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