I wonder how much you know about your baptism. I assume that like me, most of us were baptised when we were too young to know much about it. I was baptised when I was 3 and a half months old on 13th December in a year I am not going to confess to in St Andrew’s Church, Chilcomb which is the church in which my parents were married. Photographs show that my parents look ridiculously young and I was enveloped in the family Christening gown. The cards which I received were put in a scrap book so that I have been able to see them and read the good wishes of the people who came. My baptism certificate is also there which meant that it was relatively easy to find when I came to be ordained. In fact, I was always aware of my baptism and when it was because my godmother sent me a little book each year to mark the anniversary and inscribed it with the date and number of years since my baptism. She faithfully did this every until I was confirmed which meant that an exciting parcel arrived in mid- December to remind me of my baptism, an idea that I have since adopted for my own godchildren. What I do not remember is the service itself. I do not remember what the vicar said. I do not remember whether he used lots of water or just a drop. I do not remember being baptised. However, I have since had the privilege of witnessing the baptism of others and of course now I have the joy of conducting baptisms so I know the promises which my parents and godparents made on my behalf. These promises were about how I would grow up to be a follower of Jesus; promises that I would take my place in the family of God; promises that I would be a member of his Church. These were promises which I then made for myself when I was confirmed. They are promises that I made afresh when I made a commitment to follow Christ at University. These baptismal promises are ones that I have sought to keep ever since.
I wonder if you ever think about your baptism; whether you ever ponder what it meant then and what it means now.
In our first reading from Colossians, Paul seems to have baptism in mind as he writes to the people of Colossae about new life in Christ. The person being baptised goes through water to symbolise that they have died and been reborn. They have died to their old life of sin and been reborn as children of God. They have become members of God’s family and therefore are welcomed into the family of the Church. In the early Church – and in some churches today – baptism candidates took off their old clothes before they went into the water and then were dressed in new white robes when they came out. We did this with my youngest goddaughter Annabel: she was stripped of her babygrow and nappy, put naked into the font where she was fully immersed in the water and then dressed in her Christening gown. It was deeply moving, especially as this was done by her father who is a vicar. The symbolism was as clear as the water: as Paul puts it in our reading ‘you have stripped off the old self…and clothed yourself with the new self’ (3.9-10)
Death and new life are at the heart of baptism and at the centre of Paul’s message in this part of his letter to the Colossians which we have been looking at over recent weeks. In the joy of baptism, especially of babies, it is easy for us to overlook the enormity of what is happening and see baptism as some sort of rite of passage, an excuse for a family gathering but the words of the baptism service…the words Paul uses… make clear the extent of the transformation involved.
Most of us know that we have been baptised but do we ever think about what it means to be baptised. The fact that we are baptised should be as significant to us as the fact that we were baptised. It is a bit like marriage. For those of you who are married, you can look back to a day when you were married. There was a service in which you made promises to each other and you were given a certificate to prove that your marriage had taken place. Afterwards, there was probably a party to celebrate your union…but your wedding marked the beginning of your marriage and the fact that you are married will go on to have an impact on every aspect of your life. In the years of your married life; you will have been exploring what it means to be married; you will have been working out how the reality of being married affects different aspects of your life; you will have been discovering what it means to be a member of the new family that was established when you got married. The truth is that most couples would admit that getting married is relatively easy. Being married however – as sadly the divorce rates show – is altogether more difficult. For a marriage to flourish and survive, the fact that you are married will be as significant as the fact that you were married. For those of us who are not married, we will have seen enough from our friends and family who are to understand what I am saying. The same with baptism: when you were baptised there was a service in which you made promises (or promises were made on your behalf) and you were given a certificate to prove that your baptism had taken place. But that is only the beginning of a life long journey of being baptised, of being a member of God’s family. Just like being married, being baptised should have an impact on our lives and how we live them.
In our reading from Colossians, Paul gives us some practical ideas of areas of our lives in which being baptised should make a difference. Our baptism will have an impact on our relationships with other people, particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul speaks about three ways in which our personal relationships will be different because we are have new life in Christ: it will have an impact on how we regard other people, on how we speak to other people and on our sexual relationships.
Sadly, the sexual mores of the world in which we live would be very familiar to Paul. Then as now, society has moved far from God’s teaching about sexual ethics. Society has misused God’s good gift of sexual relations between husband and wife and in the process cheapened it and distorted it. Sex is now used to sell everything from cars to chocolate bars. The use of pornography of varying kinds is at catastrophic levels. Our children and young people are growing up in a highly sexualised society which encroaches on their lives at an ever earlier age. As Christians, how we regard sex and conduct ourselves in this area of our lives is one way in which we can clearly show that we have sought to obey God and live in accordance with God’s will as new creations.
Another area in which we are to seek to eliminate sinful behaviours and cultivate Christian virtues is in how we speak to each other and about each other: ‘But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another’ (3.8-9) writes Paul. Words are potent things and our tongues our powerful weapons; too often we forget this and use both carelessly or intentionally to cause much damage. Too often, we use our words to pull people down and puff ourselves up. Too often we use words to tell half truths or untruths and to seek to justify our lies as being for the best. These words belong to our old self which has been put to death. White lies are just that…lies… and they have no place in our conversation for both big lies and small lies destroy trust and break relationships. As Christians, we are called to speak the truth and use our words to bring life and encouragement to each other. We are called to guard our tongues and use them only for good.
Changing our speech is part of the process of ‘being renewed in knowledge according to the image of [our] creator’ (3.10). As we continue on our journey with Christ, we will cease looking at the world with human eyes and increasingly see with God’s eyes. This renewal will have an impact on our speech and on how we see other people.
When we meet people – whether friend or stranger – ally or foe – we make judgements about them. We tend to make these decisions on all sorts of bases but they boil down to whether they are one of us or one of them. Paul explains that as we are renewed, as we become more like Christ, it will affect how we view other people: ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!’ (3.11) As we become more like Jesus, the barriers which we erect between people – barriers from birth and nationality, barriers from ceremony and ritual , barriers between the cultured and the uncultured, barriers from class – will cease to determine how we see other people and we will see instead that they are all made in the image of God, that they are all loved by him, that they are all equally precious to him. The categories of them and us will cease to make sense and instead we will see other people as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As people who are baptised then we are called to put off our old self and clothe ourselves with the new self. We are called to put to death the ways of earth and seek those things that are above (3.1). Although we have this new life in Christ and are reborn when we acknowledge him as our Lord and Saviour, the process of renewal is lifelong. We all know that we continue to be susceptible to temptation and that we often fall short of God’s standards in our moral and ethical behaviour. The truth is that we are dead and raised with Christ, but not yet perfect. However, if we are to live true Christian lives, our proper focus needs to be on Christ. If we are raised in Christ, it should make a difference to how we live our lives; it should affect every area of our lives and in particular it should affect our relationships with one another. When we become children of God, our identity changes. We are called to bring our behaviour into line with our new identity. Day by day, minute by minute, decision by decision, action by action, word by word, we are called to live out what it means to be baptised, what it means to have new life in Christ. We do so secure in the knowledge that our life is hidden in Christ, we have forgiveness in Christ, we have eternal life in Christ and if we trust in him, one day what is hidden will be revealed and we will live forever with him. Amen.
For those of you who said you want to see them, here are a couple of pictures from my Baptism…sorry that the quality is not great but they were slides.