Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Reading: Luke 2:22-40

Last week, I had to submit Christ Church’s order for Palm Crosses for distribution on Palm Sunday. We are already in the Church beginning to look forward to Easter. Last week, in our Gospel reading, we started looking at our Lord’s ministry, as he returned to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue there. This week, we need to rewind and go back in time to the time before Jesus first went to Nazareth as a child!

We are thinking this week of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is a feast that is commonly known as Candlemas. In some parts of the Church, it is when, traditionally, Christmas decorations are taken down. There is another tradition that if for any reason you don’t take your Christmas decorations down on Twelfth Night, then you have to leave them up until Candlemas. I was all for doing this in the Vicarage, but I was overruled! The name Candlemas itself comes from the tradition of people bringing candles to church to have them blessed for the coming year. At Christmas, we celebrated the Light of Christ coming into the world, and we now pray that his Light will continue to guide us throughout the year ahead.

In his Gospel, St Luke has just told us that Jesus has been circumcised at eight days after his birth as every Jewish boy was and still is. Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take him to the Temple for the rite of purification. Nowadays we celebrate this event, not as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it used to be called, but as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. We are today somewhat sensitive to the idea that women need purifying after childbirth not understanding that ‘purifying’ has to do with ritual uncleanness rather than some moral deficiency, but that is not a distinction we find easy to appreciate.

The first thing to notice about the Holy Family in this passage is that they are one hundred per cent Torah observant. This is important to St Luke, and he emphasizes Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the Law explicitly four times in this passage. St Luke uses four different phrases for emphasis: ‘as it is written in the Law of the Lord’ (verse 23); ‘according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord’ (verse 24); ‘what was customary under the Law’ (verse 27); ‘everything required by the Law of the Lord’ (verse 39). St Luke is expressing in narrative form what St Paul expresses in epistolary form in his letter to believers in Galatia. St Paul writes:

‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law …’ (Galatians 4:4-5)

St Luke is giving here an example of how Jesus ‘came to his own’, as St John puts it (John 1:11). Jesus comes to his own in every way as one of his own. St Luke is also keen to show that not only does Jesus come unto his own, he comes as the Messiah that his own are hoping for. The two people whom the Holy Family meet in the Temple represent God’s faithful people. Simeon is waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’. Simeon has been told he won’t see death until he sees God’s Messiah. Anna, an elderly widow, is also looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’. Anna spends all her time in the Temple, worshipping there.

St Luke will continue, both in the Gospel and in the book of Acts, to describe how the Gospel will be preached not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles. St Luke, however, begins his Gospel by making absolutely sure we understand that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the One whose coming is first and foremost good news to God’s own people, Israel. It will only become good news to the Gentiles because it is first good news to the Jewish people.

Jesus doesn’t just enter life and begin it ‘according to the Law’; his coming itself is also in fulfilment of the Law. In his account of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus, this is something that St Luke takes great care to explain. He deliberately goes into such detail, so that we know how to understand everything else that he will go on to tell us.

It is so we don’t forget this important interpretative key to the Gospel and the ministry of our Lord that St Luke begins his description of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw on the Third Sunday of Epiphany, with Jesus’ proclamation in his hometown that he is the One who fulfils the Scriptures. To make sure we have understood the Scriptural significance of Jesus’ coming, St Luke closes his Gospel, by relating how Jesus, before he ascends to the Father, says to his disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, …’ (Luke 24:44-45)

Something I have stressed many times in my sermons and talks is the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we in the Church know as the Old Testament. Churchgoers, however, are not only ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures, we are suspicious of them, and even reject them, much as Marcion, one of the first heretics in the Church, rejected them. We need to realize that if we choose to remain ignorant of the Hebrew Scriptures or to reject them out of hand, we are rejecting the very writings upon which Jesus understood and based his ministry.

The ministry of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament. It may be old, but it is not irrelevant! It is perhaps this failure to read the Old Testament that, in some way at least, explains why people don’t understand what Jesus came to do and why they see him as just another teacher of morality.

I thought I would try and find an online quiz for people in our Church Facebook Group to do both for fun and for them to test their knowledge of the Old Testament. I gave up. The quizzes I came across were all rather poor. One I tried on a reputable site marked one of my answers wrong, which I was bit surprised about. It turned out that whoever had set the quiz had themselves got the answer wrong. That sort of says it all.

Last Thursday, it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust was made possible by negative Christian attitudes to Jews. Writing off the writings of the people of Israel does nothing to address such attitudes rather it encourages them.

This is not how St Luke approaches the Hebrew Scriptures in his Gospel. Not only are the Scriptures and Israel central to Jesus’ ministry, the Holy City, Jerusalem, has an important role to play as well. This is why the ‘Presentation of Jesus in the Temple’ is so important.

St Luke mentions Jerusalem by name 30 times in his Gospel and 60 times in Acts. Jerusalem is the Holy City; it is God’s city; and, in the purposes of God, it still has a part to play in them. St Luke, in recording Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, implies that God is not finished with the Holy City. St Luke records Jesus predicting that Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24). St Luke begins his Gospel in Jerusalem and ends it there. God has a plan and that plan in St Luke’s Gospel centres on Jerusalem.

As, then, the Holy Family take Jesus to the Temple in the Holy City, the Holy Spirit is actively working God’s purposes out. St Luke does not see events happening by accident, but nor do they happen as if they are pre-programmed to happen automatically. St Luke sees the Holy Spirit as being both in control and actively directing events. Again, St Luke uses several phrases to make this point in the same way he does with the Law. St Luke writes of Simeon that ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’ (verse 25); that Simeon would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died ‘had been revealed to him by the Spirit’ (verse 26); Simeon is ‘guided by the Spirit’ (verse 27). Anna is described as a prophet (verse 36), that is, as someone who speaks by the Spirit.

St Luke is telling us that the Holy Spirit is working according to the Law to fulfil the Law. The Holy Spirit is not opposed to the Law, but works to accomplish what the Law promises and points to. St Paul will again explain this same idea in one of his letters, this time in his letter to the believers in the Church in Rome.

When Mary and Joseph come into the Temple, Simeon, led by the Spirit, takes the baby Jesus into his arms and praises God. While the English translations all have that Simeon ‘took’ the baby Jesus, the sense is that he ‘received’ the baby into his arms. Simeon receives Jesus as his own were meant to receive him. Now, having received the ‘consolation of Israel’, Simeon can die in peace, but not before he has thanked God for giving him this incredible privilege and not before he has warned Mary both of the pain that she personally must face and of the division in Israel that her son will cause.

Mary and Joseph, St Luke writes, were amazed at what was being said about him. But it doesn’t end with Simeon. Anna, a devout, elderly widow, whom St Luke describes as a prophet, echoes what Simeon says. Anna has made her home in the Temple, and when she sees the child, she too praises God, but she doesn’t stop there. She tells everyone who, like her, is looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ that it has arrived in this child.

We would love to know more, but St Luke simply reports that when they had completed what the Law requires the Holy Family return to Nazareth and that Jesus increases in wisdom as he grows up being well regarded, not only by God, but by the people who know him. As we saw last week for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, that will one day all change.

I want to comment on this story of our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple by highlighting three phrases from what Simeon says when he receives the baby Jesus into his arms.

1. ‘Simeon took him in his arms and praised God’ (Luke 2:28)

The words of praise that Simeon utters as he receives the baby Jesus into his arms are known as the Nunc Dimittis after the first words of the hymn in Latin. This is a hymn, or canticle as it is popularly known, that is said or sung daily in many churches in the service of Evening Prayer. It is also sometimes used at funerals.

St Luke gives us three such hymns in the first two chapters of his Gospel: the Magnificat, said by Mary at the annunciation of our Lord; the Benedictus, said by Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist; and this one, the Nunc Dimittis said by Simeon. All three have become an integral part of the Church’s liturgy. They recount the history of salvation, rooting it in Israel’s history and Scriptures. Sadly, they are sung today by a church that all too often forgets that history and is deaf to what they say.

The Magnificat celebrates the God who casts down the mighty from their seats, but which is now sung by the mighty in their seats. The Benedictus praises the God of Israel, but it is now sung by people who think he is no longer Israel’s God. The Nunc Dimittis celebrates God’s salvation, and yet it is often sung by people who don’t think they need saving.

These amazing hymns celebrate the salvation of God. They are radical statements of the plans and purposes of God, but they been domesticated by us, so that we can sing them without having to think about them or be too worried by them.

Harsh? Unfair?

Ask any Anglican, for example, to write down the theme of each. I doubt if there are many who can do so.

At the heart of the Church’s liturgy and worship are hymns celebrating the God who not only acts in history, but who controls it and who works through it to achieve his purposes for his people. They are radical statements of the disruptive and uncompromising power of God. It should be impossible to say or sing them without being deeply challenged by them. They remind us that our first response as God’s people to what God has done for us should be praise.

But our praise should be a thinking praise. We need to know and understand what it is that we are praising God for. And singing these hymns should not be because we like the tradition of which they are a part or the musical setting that accompanies them, but because we want to affirm the truth they celebrate. Our worship is not just a verbal response to what God has done for us in Christ, but a participation in and an identification with it. We are telling everyone who is looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ that God has accomplished it in Christ and that he wants all who repent and believe the good news to share in it.

2. ‘For my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Luke 2:30)

Simeon receives the baby Jesus into his arms and as he looks at the child, he sees God’s salvation. God’s salvation is a person. Not a dogma, not a set of doctrines, not a list of demands, but a person whom we too must receive and take into our lives if we, like Simeon, are to see God’s salvation.

Anna, seeing Jesus, praises God and speaks about the child to all who are looking for the redemption of Israel. This is not something that we can keep to ourselves. Not only must we receive the child for ourselves, we must speak of him to all who will listen.

As both individuals and a church, this is something that we can be reticent about. We are self-conscious, hesitant, and even embarrassed about doing so, and we often don’t know where to begin. This, at least, is all understandable. We are not all naturally outgoing and able to share what is important to us. More serious and more worrying, though, is that increasingly we don’t think we should speak. Instead, we think we should respect people’s views and opinions. We should affirm them in their own faith and religion rather than trying to convert them to our own. God forgive us!

It is ironic that many who believe it wrong for us to try to persuade others to share our spiritual beliefs, don’t think it wrong for them to try to persuade people to believe in various political or social ideologies.

Those who campaign for various causes do so because they believe them to be important, not just for themselves, but for others too. They campaign because they believe in what they are campaigning for. It matters to them.

But those who have seen God’s salvation believe that nothing matters more than what God has done for us in Christ. How can we remain silent? How can we not share it? Simeon describes Jesus as the light, a revelation, how can we keep quiet about something that God himself has revealed? Of course, the way we share our faith is important and we should do so with respect and gentleness, but we fail both God and those among whom we live if we fail to witness to God’s salvation.

We are the Church of the martyrs, of those who died because they believed they should witness for their faith in Christ and that nothing, not even the threat of death, should be allowed to stop them. As Christ was presented in the Temple, so too we must present him to people and give them the opportunity to receive for themselves the salvation of God.

3. ‘Now let your servant depart in peace’ (Luke 2:29)

Both Simeon and Anna’s lives were focused on one thing: waiting for God’s salvation. Nothing else mattered to them, but this. But we don’t have to wait. God’s salvation has come, but, now it’s here, how important is it to us? The writer of the letter to Hebrews warns those to whom he writes to take their salvation seriously and ‘not refuse the one who is speaking’ (Hebrews 12:25). St Peter describes the good news of what God has done for us as ‘things into which angels long to look’ (1 Peter 1:12).

So why aren’t we as keen as the angels to look into these things and why do we treat them all so casually? Partly, because we have never had their seriousness explained to us; partly, because we have other things we feel the need to take more seriously and which make more immediate demands on us; partly because we enjoy doing other things too much and don’t want to give them up. But we also don’t take the good news of what God has done for us seriously because we don’t take God himself particularly seriously, certainly not so seriously that we would be willing to spend night and day like Anna in the Temple praying to him.

‘This child’, said Simeon to Mary, ‘is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’. But not only in Israel. Jesus is still a sign that is opposed. Many, quite simply, refuse to receive him or to entertain any serious thought of him. We don’t want to see God’s salvation. We have our own lives to lead.

In any case, we reason, God, if he exists, would want me to be happy. He wouldn’t want me to miss out on the delights and pleasures of this life. Surely he would want me to enjoy myself, live my life to the full, and follow my dreams? God wants me to live a fulfilling life, doesn’t he?

So, let me ask: how’s that going for you? Is living your life for yourself proving to be as fulfilling as you thought it would be?

When you have been to the 100 places to see before you die; when you have read the 100 books, been to the 100 restaurants, and done the 100 other things that apparently we must all do before we die, do you think you will be ready to die in peace? Somehow, I doubt it. Most of us if we are honest with ourselves find it hard enough to live in peace. Simeon can depart in peace because he has found fulfilment in God’s salvation.

Today, we see the Lord coming to his Temple, and in Mary’s child we see God’s salvation, and those who see it and receive it can experience the peace of God in this life that gives them the peace they need to look forward to life in the next.

Don’t depart this life without experiencing it!


Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: Luke 4:14-30

St Luke introduces his Gospel with a Prologue addressed to a person called Theophilus in which he explains his reason for writing (Luke 1:1-4). St Luke wants Theophilus to know the ‘truth concerning the things about which he has been instructed’. St Luke then begins his Gospel by giving an account of the births of both John Baptist and of Jesus himself together with a description of the events surrounding them (Luke 1:5-2:20). St Luke continues by writing of the circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:21); Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40); and his visit to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover when he was twelve (Luke 2:41-52).

After this, St Luke fast forwards some 18 years, and describes the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20) and Jesus’ own baptism by him in the River Jordan (Luke 3:21-22). Before beginning his account of Jesus’ work, St Luke gives Jesus’ genealogy (Luke 3:23-38), a genealogy St Luke traces back from Joseph through David to Adam.

St Luke, in describing Jesus’ baptism, relates how the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus ‘in bodily form like a dove’ (Luke 3:22). It is the Spirit, St Luke tells us, who after Jesus’ baptism leads Jesus into the wilderness, and St Luke records the testing Jesus undergoes there by the Devil before Jesus begins his work (Luke 4:1-13). St Luke then summarizes what happens next as Jesus begins the work he has come to do, again emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit. St Luke writes:

‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.’ (Luke 4:14-15)

In all the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ public ministry begins in Galilee. St Matthew and St Mark both begin their accounts by focusing on Capernaum (Matthew 4:13; Mark 1:21). St John begins at Cana with the story of the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine, but continues to describe how, straight after this, Jesus goes with his mother, brothers, and disciples to Capernaum (John 2:12). We know from both St Matthew and St John that, after his baptism, Jesus made his home and base in Capernaum, a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

St Luke, having given a general description of Jesus preaching in Galilee, begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a description of Jesus’ visit to his hometown of Nazareth. This is a very deliberate decision by St Luke as he is well aware that by this time Capernaum has become important in Jesus’ ministry, and alludes to it in what he writes of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (Luke 4:23).

St Luke describes Nazareth itself as the town ‘where he had been brought up’ (Luke 4:16). This is important. Nazareth itself was an unimportant little place. The word ‘town’ gives entirely the wrong impression. Nazareth at this time would have had a population of under 500. Small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Jesus had lived and worked there for some 25 years, and he and his family were well-known. St Mark, in his account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, writes of how the people of Nazareth all know Jesus. St Mark records their reaction to Jesus’ sermon. They ask:

‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3)

It is worth pausing at this point for a moment. We move on quickly to the outcome of Jesus’ visit with the result that we miss something important. No-one in Nazareth while Jesus was growing up had thought of Jesus as anything other than a normal Jewish boy belonging to a normal Jewish family. Nothing about Jesus or his behaviour had made them think he was anything special. It was this very normality that made what was happening in his life now and the reputation he was acquiring so surprising. We learn again, from St Mark, that even his family shared this surprise (Mark 3:21).

By the time Jesus returns to Nazareth, he has already been engaged in ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem, and his reputation is growing. His return to his hometown is as something of a celebrity; he is a local lad made good. The people there have all heard of the things he has been doing and want to know more.

On the sabbath, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue ‘as was his custom’. He is given the honour of being asked to read and preach. The passage Jesus reads, whether by choice or because it was the selected reading for the day, is from the prophet Isaiah and speaks of the deliverance that God promises he will one day bring about for his people in exile in Babylon. It was passages like this that led people in Jesus’ day to hope for a Messiah who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth. After reading the passage, Jesus sits down, the normal posture for a speaker, and begins speaking by saying simply:

‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21)

This must have been an unbelievably dramatic moment. Everything they have hoped for, everything that God has promised them through the prophets has arrived here in their little village in Galilee, and it is someone from their village who is announcing its arrival. St Luke’s description of the reaction of people to this is worth quoting in full:

‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22)

The reaction of the crowd gathered in the synagogue is positive. They are with him so far, but there is a sting in the tail. St Luke writes:

‘They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’ (Luke 4:22)

Jesus has spoken well. They are impressed. But they need convincing. Jesus is making big claims that don’t immediately seem to fit what they know of him. Further proof is required. They want him to do what they have heard he has already done at Capernaum. Nazareth is his hometown after all. Jesus knows what they are thinking, but he won’t be pressured by them. He has come to them as a prophet anointed and led by the Spirit, and it will be the Spirit who continues to lead him not them with their demand for signs and wonders to prove his identity. Prophets receive their calling from God, and they must go where they are sent.

Prophets are also rejected by people. Jesus quotes a proverb which says how a prophet is honoured everywhere except where he comes from. Jesus points out that God chooses for himself where he works miracles and for whom he works them, and it is not always where and for whom you might expect. Two of Israel’s greatest prophets were sent, Jesus says, not to the people of God in Israel but to Gentiles outside it.

Jesus is being highly provocative, and his words provoke a violent reaction. Admiration turns to anger as they take Jesus outside with the intent of killing him. It might be the day on which Isaiah’s words are fulfilled, but, as St John might have put it, Jesus’ own ‘hour has not yet come’, and he passes through them and goes on his way, somewhat ironically to Capernaum! Even more ironically, Jesus will perform exactly the sort of sign in the synagogue in Capernaum that they wanted him to perform in Nazareth (Luke 4:31-37).

St Luke in this opening to our Lord’s ministry gives us an important insight into our Lord’s character. From a purely human point of view, Jesus could seem to be a very difficult character to deal with. He refuses to conform to people’s ideas and expectations, doing things his own way in his own time.

St Luke, though, has deliberately begun his account of Jesus’ ministry with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth because he clearly sees Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue to be a summary statement of the work Jesus has come to do. The commentators, using modern jargon, describe it as ‘programmatic’ or as Jesus’ ‘mission statement’. It’s a bit more than that and, hopefully, tells us more than most church mission statements tell us. We need to consider it in more detail.

The passage Jesus reads comes from Isaiah chapter 61 verses 1-2. Jesus leaves out a line from the passage and adds instead a line from Isaiah chapter 58 (that is, Isaiah 58:6). He also stops reading before Isaiah speaks of the Day of Vengeance of our God.

Not only will Jesus not do what people want him to do, he won’t even just read the passage he is asked to read. The line Jesus leaves out from what he does read is about healing. This turns out to be appropriate because Jesus is restricted in what healing he can do in his hometown. And this is not the time to speak of God’s judgement; there will be a time for that, but this isn’t it. Instead, the line Jesus inserts stresses what time this is. In the ESV translation, St Luke writes:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed [the words in bold are the line that is added], to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

The word translated ‘liberty’ occurs in both the passage Jesus is given to read and in the line he adds to it. (In the NRSV translation, two different words are used in English to translate the one word in Greek. The NRSV uses the words ‘release’ and ‘free’.) Jesus, then, adds a line to the reading that expresses an idea that is already there. It is an idea that is expressed using a word that the reading and the line Jesus adds have in common. This would suggest that it is something that Jesus wants to underline and emphasize.

The word itself is an interesting word. It is one of the last words that Jesus uses in St Luke’s Gospel before his ascension and his return to the Father. St Luke writes that Jesus says to his disciples:

‘“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem ...’ (Luke 24:45-47)

That’s a lot of words, but, at first sight, it doesn’t seem to include the word I have just been talking about. That’s because the word translated ‘liberty’ in the passage from our reading in chapter 4 is translated as ‘forgiveness’ in the passage I have just read. In Greek, it’s the same word (Gk: aphesis). It can mean both ‘liberty’ and ‘forgiveness’.

But here’s the thing. The Greek word is translated ‘forgiveness’ in every occurrence of it in the New Testament except in our reading. The normal meaning of the word in the New Testament, then, is clearly ‘forgiveness’. The reason why the translators don’t translate it that way here is that they are influenced by how they understand its meaning in its context in the book of Isaiah rather than its meaning here in its context in St Luke’s Gospel and the ministry of Jesus.

‘Liberty’, ‘release’, and ‘free’ are all perfectly reasonable translations of the word in English, but it does mean we miss connections. St Luke, for example, has told us that John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the ‘forgiveness’ of sins. The word translated ‘forgiveness’ here is the same word as the word in the passage Jesus reads from Isaiah.

So, when Theophilus heard St Luke’s account of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue, he would have immediately recognized the link between what Jesus says he is doing and what John was baptizing people for. Jesus tells the people in the synagogue at Nazareth that what people were hoping for when they were baptized by John has now arrived. God has sent Jesus to proclaim forgiveness. Jesus stresses this by adding a line about forgiveness to the passage he reads. As we will see as we read through St Luke’s Gospel, offering people forgiveness is to define Jesus’ ministry. Making forgiveness possible will define his death.

The prophet Isaiah, in the words that Jesus read, was speaking to a people who had suffered greatly. Their nation and their place of worship, so central to their life, faith, and identity had been destroyed by a pagan imperial power. This was a people who had seen their families and those dear to them murdered and tortured, and who had been utterly crushed and humiliated. They had been taken into exile in Babylon and separated from everything they loved and was important to them. Psalm 137 captures some of the pain and loneliness felt by those in exile. The Psalmist writes:

‘By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’ (Psalm 137:1)

Why had this happened to them? The prophets spell it out. It happened to them because of their idolatry and their rebellion against God and his Laws; it happened because of corruption, injustice, and their exploitation of the poor and weak; it happened because of their sin. And because of their sin they were poor, captive, spiritually blind, and broken.

Isaiah, speaking for God, promises a day when they will know God’s salvation, when their suffering will end, and they, the exiled people of God, will be restored to their land and to fellowship with him. For that to happen though, something else has to happen; they not only have to repent of the sin that caused their suffering, they have to experience forgiveness for it.

In 538 BC some at least of the exiles had returned to the land and eventually the Temple had been rebuilt. At the time of Jesus, Israel was still oppressed and under pagan rule. The Kingdom of God that the prophets had spoken of had not yet come. Still God’s people longed for the salvation of God, the redemption of Israel, and for all that the prophets had promised to be fulfilled.

When John the Baptist is born, his father Zechariah speaks a psalm of praise that we now know as the Benedictus. Zechariah says that John will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. He continues:

‘ … to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ (Luke 1:77)

John will preach a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, but the age of forgiveness cannot begin until the One who baptizes with the Spirit comes, and God’s Spirit is given.

Now, in the synagogue in Nazareth, the forgiveness Isaiah promised is offered. Jesus pronounces absolution for all who seek it. Jesus is the One, St Luke has told us, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), who was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 3:22), was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested (Luke 4:1), and who, filled and empowered by the Spirit (Luke 4:14), now speaks by the Spirit. The One whom John spoke of, the One who baptizes in the Spirit (Luke 3:16) has come, and he is speaking in the synagogue where he grew up.

Jesus presents himself to the people he grew up with as the Spirit anointed prophet of forgiveness, who, by his preaching and presence, realizes all the hopes of Israel. The crowds are impressed by him but doubt his claims for himself. We can understand that. How can Joseph’s son be the One they were looking for? Jesus’ refusal to give them any sign to go on, while at the same time likening himself to the prophets Elijah and Elisha, would, of course, upset them, especially as he is prepared to do such signs in Capernaum. The other Gospels tells us that the irony is that it is their very unbelief that Jesus is who he claims to be that prevents Jesus from giving them the signs that they want.

‘He came unto his own’, St John writes in his Gospel (John 1:11). Here, in his hometown of Nazareth, we see him coming unto his own. They had grown up with him; played in the streets with him; attended the same synagogue with him; worked with him; ate, drank, laughed, and cried with him. They were his people, his relatives, and his friends. They could not be more his own. But, St John also writes, ‘his own received him not’. And here in Nazareth, his own attempt to do to him what eventually on the Cross they will succeed in doing. And by killing him, the forgiveness they now refuse to accept for themselves will be made freely available not just to his own, but to all. ‘Repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ will be ‘proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’.

Today here on YouTube it is proclaimed to you.

Our task as a Church today is to continue the work of Jesus. Although doing it may be difficult, understanding what the task is would seem straightforward enough. At least we know what it is we have to do today, don’t we? Apparently not. For while all are agreed on the importance of what is generally known in the Church as ‘mission’, what all are not agreed on is what mission is. Today this will be illustrated all too clearly in the sermons that will be preached on this passage from St Luke.

Jesus’ words will commonly be interpreted as a political manifesto or as a charter for social action. They will be understood as an encouragement for the Church actively to campaign and work for change in society and the world in which we live. There are many reasons why people will interpret Jesus’ words like this, even though Jesus himself didn’t do so, one of which is that we hate to think that people may think the Church irrelevant. We want to be involved in the affairs of this world and thought relevant to it, and, although we do not like to admit it, we also want a seat at the tables of power and influence in this world. We need, then, to demonstrate that we have something to bring to them.

There is a real determination among church people to show that they are concerned about more than people’s souls and their life in the world to come. Church leaders, in particular, fear being thought of as having nothing meaningful to say about people’s physical and bodily welfare and the conditions in which they live in the world here and now. While that may have been a justified fear once – though I doubt whether that the Church in the past was ever only concerned about people’s souls – it certainly isn’t a justified fear now. It is clear to anyone willing to listen that getting church leaders to talk about political and social issues is not difficult. The challenge is getting them to talk about God.

Over the past few decades, we have seen taking place in the Church what St Pope John Paul II called the ‘secularization of salvation’. Salvation is now understood very much in this world terms. It is seen to be about changing people’s economic and social conditions and helping them to discover their identity and purpose in this life. God, inasmuch as he is a factor at all in this, is there more as a facilitator to help people find their true selves and to offer them encouragement in their attempt to create a better world in the present.

We live in an age which sees everything in material and economic terms. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the church itself, in thrall to the spirit of the age, sees salvation in predominantly material terms. It will be taken for granted by many preachers on this passage that the ‘poor’ that Jesus was sent to preach the good news to are the materially poor and that the good news is good news socially and economically.

Jesus unambiguously condemned the rich who ignored the needs of the hungry and who trusted in money rather than God. But ironically, our strategy in mission is often to put a similar trust in money, seeing it as an essential part of the answer to people’s needs, so that it is near impossible for the to be a church meeting without the conversation ending up discussing money. Clearly money matters, but should the church spend so much time on finance and fundraising and focus so much energy on social and political activity?

Jesus’ message is indeed for the poor, but not only for those who are poor economically. The poor in the Gospels are those who have reached the end of their own resources, who are broken and know themselves insufficient to do anything to change the situation they find themselves in. We often describe people who are injured, suffering, or are in trouble as being in a ‘poor condition’. We use the word ‘poor’ in this context to refer to their plight not to their bank balance. Jesus’ proclaimed good news to the poor, that is, to those in need who knew their need. This included the materially poor, but it also included the tax-collectors who were anything but.

Jesus, on occasion, asked those who were materially rich to become poor, so they could receive eternal life. He challenged people not to sacrifice life in the world to come for the pleasures of life in the present. He warned against trusting in wealth and seeking power. The salvation Jesus offers is not from the burden of paying taxes, but from the burden of sin. It is a salvation that we receive not by finding ourselves, but by finding God and losing ourselves, for it is we ourselves, whether we are financially rich or poor, who are the problem. The good news of Jesus comes to those who know their need and who seek first the Kingdom of God and trust themselves to him.

In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus presents himself not simply as the One who announces the good news of forgiveness, but the One in whom forgiveness will be found. In his use of the passage from Isaiah, it is on the person announcing forgiveness that the emphasis falls. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ ‘He has anointed me.’ ‘He has sent me.’ As Jesus preaches, the promise of God that he will grant forgiveness to those who know their need of it is fulfilled. It is in our preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ that the church fulfils its mission.

Like those in the synagogue, people find it hard to accept Jesus and the forgiveness he offers. ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ The advantage for churches of adopting a social and material Gospel and focusing their mission on this world is that people can relate to it and understand how a son of Joseph could bring it about. What is more, it means churches don’t have to centre their message and mission so exclusively on Jesus himself, but can include other religious teachers like him.

But other teachers are not like him. Jesus comes to us not simply as one of us, not simply as a teacher or as a social reformer, but as the Spirit-anointed son of God, who is not only one of us, but the One who challenges us and calls us to repentance and commitment to him, for in him alone is there salvation and hope. As St Peter puts it:

‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12)

Joseph was told he should call Mary’s son, Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). It was the people of Israel’s sin that had brought judgement on them. It was their sin that had caused the destruction of their nation and resulted in them being taken into exile. It was their sin that had made them captives, caused their spiritual blindness, and which had left them broken and apparently forsaken.

What was their problem is our problem, for we too have sinned, and our sin corrupts and affects everything we do and extends to every aspect of our life. It is structural and cultural; it is social and financial; it is personal and individual. The good news that Jesus offers is to those poor people who know this, who know their sin, who know their lives are being destroyed by it, and who know that there is nothing they themselves can do about it. Jesus does not offer a programme of reform; he offers forgiveness and with it the chance to become new and to belong to a new society of people whose lives are being transformed by his Spirit.

Many are suffering in pain, broken and captive to forces they can’t control. They are trapped in destructive behaviour they can’t free themselves from; but Christ can. And as the Father sent him, so he sends us who have experienced his liberating power to proclaim the good news of forgiveness in his name to all those who know their need.

For the good news of Jesus is not for those who believe they have no sin, who think that they only have to believe in themselves, who are proud in their accomplishments, or who trust in their power, position, or possessions. It is for those who know they are poor and without any power in themselves to help themselves.

Today, now, the good news for the poor is that in Jesus of Nazareth there is forgiveness.

Make today the day you experience it.


Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

In last week’s sermon, we began to look at the importance of baptism in the New Testament and in the early Church as the God-given way for a person to respond to the Gospel. We saw how the New Testament stresses the importance of receiving the Holy Spirit. We also made a distinction between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the sermon yet, it is still available on YouTube and as a podcast. The transcript of the sermon is also available for those who would like to read what was said.

In our reading this week, St Paul writes:

‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all given to drink of the one Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 12:13)

I want, then, this week to explore in more detail what happens both when a person comes to Christ and is baptized in water and also when they are baptized in the Spirit, and then to look briefly at what St Paul tells us in our reading about the work of the Holy Spirit.

Describing what takes place when a person to comes to Christ is not exactly simple! Firstly, so much happens when a person comes to Christ in faith that it is all too easy to focus on just one or two aspects of what takes place to the exclusion of others. This leads to an incomplete picture of what belonging to Christ and following him means. Some, for example, will focus on how Christ forgives us our sins. Others, on the new life the Spirit enables us to lead. Still others, will focus on the peace and security belonging to Christ brings. We need, however, to see the full picture of all God has done for us in Christ and not only focus on a part of it, even if it is our favourite part!

Secondly, related to this is the problem of understanding the meaning and significance of the language that the New Testament uses to describe what God wants for us and of us. What, for example, does Jesus mean when he tells us that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5)? What does St Paul mean when he writes that we are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1)? What does St Peter mean when he writes that we are being protected by God’s power through faith ‘for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Peter 1:5)?

The New Testament writers wrote in Greek. As with any translation from one language to another, when the New Testament is translated into English, the words and phrases used in English may sometimes actually distort the original meaning of the words they translate. It is particularly a problem with the words used in association with coming to Christ. This can, in turn, result in a distorted understanding of what it means to come to Christ and to belong to him.

In translating the New Testament into English, the English word ‘believe’ is often used to translate the Greek word that is used in the New Testament to describe what people must do in response to the preaching of the Gospel. So, for example, in the book of Acts, when the Philippian jailer asks Sts Paul and Silvanus what he must do to be saved, they reply:

‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.’ (Acts 16:31)

In Greek, the verb ‘believe’, the noun ‘faith’, the adjective ‘faithful’, and the adverb ‘faithfully’ all belong to the same word group. You can tell the words are related and have a common meaning because they contain a similar sound. In English, you know that the words ‘faith’, ‘faithful’, and ‘faithfully’ are related to each other as soon as you hear them spoken, but the word ‘believe’ sounds completely different.

To complicate things further, the word ‘believe’ in English is often used in the sense of what we think about something intellectually. It refers to my assent to an idea, a creed, or a proposition. So, when someone says ‘I believe in God’ this may mean simply that I think that there is a God. It is all too easy, then, when someone encourages us to ‘believe’ something, to understand what is being asked of us in a predominantly intellectual or theoretical way, that is, as a command to think that what we have heard is true.

Now the way the New Testament writers use the word translated ‘believe’ does require that we think what they have said is true, but there is more to it than that. ‘Believing’ requires a decision and commitment that involves the whole of our being, including our intellect and our emotions. To put it another way, to ‘believe’, in the New Testament sense of the word, is about the heart as well as the head. In many cases, the word ‘trust’ more accurately catches the sense of the New Testament word than the word ‘believe’.

I personally think the intended meaning of the New Testament word, normally translated using the word ‘believe’, is better conveyed in English by translating it using the phrase ‘have faith’. There is nothing wrong with using the word ‘believe’ as long as we realize that it involves trust and commitment and not just intellectual assent.

So, for example, imagine someone lost and in danger. They meet a stranger who, seeing that they are lost, tells them he can help them get to safety. If the stranger says ‘believe in me’, he is not saying that the person who is lost needs to believe in his existence; that is assumed. What the stranger is asking is for the person who is lost to ‘believe in’ him in the sense of trusting in him or, as we may say, in the sense of ‘having faith in him’. The person who is lost is being asked to trust that the stranger can help and do what he claims.

Now I realize that this may all sound very theoretical, but it does make a very real difference to our understanding of how we should respond to Christ and the Gospel. Protestants, for example, often single out the phrase ‘justification by faith’, which is used especially by St Paul, and see it as expressing the heart of the Gospel and of how we should respond to it. What matters, they argue, are not any ‘good works’ we may do, but that we ‘believe in Jesus’. We are saved, they argue, by faith not by works. This, however, is all too easily understood as meaning that we are saved by ‘believing in’ certain things about Jesus. Worse still, sometimes, the need for us to ‘believe’ will be understood as the need for us to ‘believe in’ certain doctrines and ideas as well as certain things about Jesus himself.

What, though, St Paul is telling us when he uses the phrase ‘justification by faith’ is not even that we should simply ‘believe’ certain things about Jesus, but that we should ‘trust’ in Jesus. Put like this, we can see that the way faith and works are often understood as being in opposition to each other is a false dichotomy.

So, to come back to the stranger and the lost person: suppose the person who is lost says he does ‘believe in’ the stranger, but then ignores what the stranger tells him to do. By not doing what the stranger tells him to do, the lost person is demonstrating that he does not in fact ‘believe in’ the stranger.

Equally, if the person who is lost really does trust in the stranger and does everything that the stranger tells him to do, when he gets to safety and escapes the danger, the person who was lost doesn’t say, ‘I saved myself by what I did.’ He tells people the stranger saved him.

Before we have faith in Jesus in this way, before we trust ourselves to him, we will, of course, want to assure ourselves of the truth of what he claims for himself. We will need to be convinced that the New Testament writers are right when they tell us that there is a God who created us and who loved us by sending his Son to die for us. We will have questions that we will want answering. There will, however, come a point when we will have to make a decision. We will have to decide whether we will have faith in Jesus, that we will both trust him and trust ourselves to him. This is what the New Testament means by ‘believing in Jesus’.

Yes, we are saved by faith and not by works, but we are not saved by faith without works. Our works on their own cannot save us no matter how good or well-intentioned they may be. Nor are we saved by ‘faith and works’, if faith and works are thought of separately and a distinction is made between them. Rather we are saved by a faith that works. This is what St Paul is getting at when he writes in his letter to the Ephesians:

‘For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10)

To put it another way: we are justified without works by a faith that works.

The relevance of all this to baptism is that in the New Testament it is by being baptized that a person declares their faith in Christ and commits themself to Christ. After his resurrection, Jesus gave this commandment to his first disciples:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)

By being baptized, a person is making a decision to become a follower of Christ and is committing themself to trusting in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. This is a trust that will be expressed in a life of obedience to Christ and to his teaching. As the old hymn has it:

‘Trust and obey,
for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus,
but to trust and obey.’

Baptism is an excellent way for someone to declare that they want to trust and obey Jesus as their Lord because baptism expresses in a physical way what the Gospel requires of us. Baptism isn’t simply a choice we make; it is a command we obey. But no-one baptizes themself; everyone is baptized. We have to decide to be baptized, but baptism itself is something that is done to us. For our baptism to happen, we need to submit and trust as the baptism takes place.

In this way, baptism expresses the truth that the phrase ‘justification by faith’ seeks to convey: it’s not what we do, but whom we have faith in that matters. There is, however, so much more to coming to Christ and becoming Christ’s than can be described using just one phrase or idea. ‘Justification by faith’ is an important metaphor that describes one aspect of the process. Nevertheless, there are other equally important metaphors that describe other equally important aspects.

Part of the problem is that some believers are like Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sauron wanted ‘one ring to rule them all’; they want one metaphor to rule them all! They seek one idea that is central to what it means to come to Christ and belong to him. St Paul, however, in a letter to believers in the Church at Corinth describes what God has done in their lives using several metaphors and ideas that are all equally significant.  St Paul writes:

‘Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? … But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Belonging to Christ is a multi-dimensional experience and describing it is like describing a diamond. A diamond has many different facets each beautiful and an essential part of it. While it can’t express all of them, baptism expresses some of these different facets of coming to Christ and becoming his.

When a person was baptized in the early Church, they first took off their old clothes and entered the water. They were fully immersed and soaked in the water. They were then clothed with a new robe. So too, when we come to Christ, we leave aside our old life; we are washed and cleansed from past sin and guilt; we are clothed with Christ himself. The New Testament writers constantly use this imagery to describe our life in Christ. St Paul famously uses the imagery of baptism in his letter to believers in the Church in Rome. St Paul writes:

‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ (Romans 6:2-4)

Baptism, then, brings together some of the metaphors that the New Testament uses to describe what it means to belong to Christ, but baptism is itself used by St Paul as a metaphor to describe the baptism in the Spirit that a person also experiences when they come to Christ.

So far in this sermon, I have not spoken much about the Holy Spirit. Last week, I spoke briefly about the charismatic movement. The charismatic movement began as a movement that was convinced that not only did the church at the time not talk about the Holy Spirit, the church had, they believed, forgotten there is a Holy Spirit. Those in the charismatic movement not only spoke about the Holy Spirit, they believed the Holy Spirit could be experienced, often in a dramatic way.

The charismatic movement began as a movement that was positive and optimistic. It promised much and hoped for more, but despite the good that came from the movement, the Holy Spirit still remains the unknown person of the Holy Trinity for many in our churches. Whatever we may think of the charismatic movement and movements like it, the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament, is central both to following Christ and to being a member of his body, the Church. St Paul writes in our reading:

‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ (1 Corinthians 12:7)

Our Lord likened the Holy Spirit to the wind, which blows where it wills (John 3:8). Jesus said that we can hear the sound the wind makes and know it’s there, but where it came from and where it is going is not something we can grasp. In other words, you cannot pin it down. So, too, how a person experiences the Spirit cannot and should not be stereotyped or limited, and that can all too easily happen amongst those who value experiences of the Spirit. It was happening at Corinth. No one experience or manifestation of the Holy Spirit should be treated as normative. The Holy Spirit cannot be limited in that way. What is clear in the New Testament, however, is that the Holy Spirit is real and that we need to know his reality in our lives and in our churches.

Jesus said to his disciples that the Holy Spirit dwelt with them and would be in them (John 14:17). John Calvin, the sixteenth century theologian, wrote:

‘First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us.’ (Institutes III.1.1)

The way Christ ‘becomes ours and dwells within us’ is by the Holy Spirit. For St Paul, whether a person has the Holy Spirit living in them is what defines whether that person belongs to Christ or not. St Paul wrote to believers in the Church in Rome:

‘… you are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

Baptism in water expresses an individual’s faith in Christ and their desire to become his follower as a member of the community of faith. But how is someone to know their application to become a follower of Christ and join the community of faith has been accepted? Nowadays, we largely expect them to take it on trust. We point to the promises of God in the Bible and to our understanding of God as someone who would in any case never reject anyone. But this is not good enough.

In answer to the question, ‘How do I know that I belong to Christ?’ We would answer, ‘By whether you have faith’. The New Testament answer is, ‘By whether you have the Holy Spirit’. As far as St Paul is concerned, for example, a person would know that God had accepted them by the experienced presence of the Holy Spirit in their life. St Paul describes believers as having been ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit who acts as a ‘guarantee’ (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30).

Something I have done for many years now is to put my signature in any book I buy together with the date I bought it. By giving us the Holy Spirit to live in us, God is putting his signature on us to show we are his. Equally, the fact that we have the Holy Spirit living in us is God’s guarantee to us that one day he will bring his work in us to completion and fulfil his promises to us. The New Testament writers all attribute the benefits we receive in Christ to the work of the Holy Spirit. What is promised to us in baptism, they see as being made real and given to us by the Holy Spirit.

The problem is that God giving us his Holy Spirit as a guarantee only works as a guarantee if, like any guarantee, we know we possess it. But most people don’t know they possess the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may be written on them, but if he is, he is written in invisible ink! This is not to be unkind, quite the reverse.

The unkindness lies in the way so many are missing out on the reality of the Holy Spirit and remain ignorant of who he is and what he wants to do in our lives both individually in us who have faith in Christ and corporately in us as the community of faith. In our reading, St Paul writes of how the Holy Spirit gives gifts to enable us to serve one another and build up the body of Christ. While we, as individuals, continue to remain largely ignorant of the Holy Spirit’s work, we all, as a Church, suffer as a result.

There is much more that needs to be said about how belonging to Christ unites us in a community of faith with all those who also have faith in Christ and belong to Christ. In this community, we are called to unity without uniformity, diversity without division, and equality without the elimination of difference. It is a community in which by the Spirit every member has a part to play and a contribution to make.

As followers of Christ, what we believe, how we live, and the way we organize as a church all matter. They are all important. But all too often, we become so focused on different aspects of our life as his followers that we forget that what matters most is our relationship with him and our commitment to him. This is not entirely surprising given our neglect of the Holy Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ real to us both as individuals and as a community.

As Christ’s followers, we face many challenges to our faith from an increasingly hostile world. We will only be able to meet these challenges by the renewing power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The biggest challenge to us, then, turns out to be coming not from the world around us, but from our own spiritual poverty and the church’s failure to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ We each need to share what the Spirit gives us to help build up the community of faith, so that together we will have the strength to witness to Christ and bring people to know him. But for this to happen, the Holy Spirit needs to become real to each of us and to be allowed to move freely among us.

There is today a resistance in churches to the idea of conversion. We prefer process to crisis, that is, we see coming to faith as something that happens gradually over time, even over a lifetime, rather than suddenly in a moment of time. We distrust dramatic stories of people finding faith and prefer not to use the language of decision.

It is right that we should see following Christ as something that is far more than a one-off commitment to him. Following Christ involves a constant giving of ourselves to him. We need continually to be renewed by his grace, and change is something that should happen in us moment by moment as the Spirit enables us to become more Christ-like in our outlook, character, attitudes, and behaviour.

But this process needs to begin somewhere, and the emphasis on process rather than crisis can mean that the process never starts. Baptism originally was the way a person committed to this process. It was a moment of personal decision and a declaration of commitment to a lifetime of service. For some, the change that came about as a result was immediate and clear for all to see; for others, it was outwardly slower and less obvious. But for all who were baptized the actual change was equally real and dramatic as, in that moment of decision, they died to self and drank of the lifegiving Spirit whom God gave to them.

Years of history and the different social and church contexts in which now we find ourselves mean that baptism is no longer like it was at the beginning. Very often, it no longer represents a time of decision and a declaration of faith.

Furthermore, in the New Testament church, while the giving of the Spirit was distinct from baptism, it usually took place at baptism. As many rightly point out, the teaching of the New Testament is that everyone who belongs to Christ has the Holy Spirit living in them. Receiving the Holy Spirit, in New Testament terms, is not a second blessing, or an event or experience subsequent to coming to Christ and becoming his. A person receives the Holy Spirit when they come to Christ in faith and are accepted by him.

The reality is, however, that, as with baptism, the way we now do things means that we experience the Holy Spirit very differently to how the Spirit was received and experienced in the early Church.

As I have said, we cannot limit how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit will work in each age and time as he sees fit. Like the wind, he blows when and where he wills. The question is, however, whether we are letting him work or are resisting and rebelling against his working.

We may not be able to be baptized in the way people were baptized in the New Testament era, but we can all make the same decision and declaration of faith. We will not experience the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way as the first believers experienced him, but we can still experience the Holy Spirit.

Much has changed, and will continue to change, but the challenge to each one of us remains the same: personally to decide for Christ and to receive the Holy Spirit.

Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Come Holy Spirit.


Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Baptism of Christ

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Baptism of Christ.

The Baptism of Christ

Reading: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today in the Church’s calendar we think of the Baptism of Christ and of how Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Last year, for the Baptism of Christ, we read St Mark’s account of our Lord’s baptism. In the sermon, which is still available on both YouTube and as a podcast, I looked at the significance of our Lord’s baptism in the context of his own ministry. This year, I want to look at how today we approach baptism itself as we seek to follow our Lord’s example.

After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, baptism in water became the means by which people professed their faith in Jesus and joined the Church. Simply put, the apostles and evangelists would proclaim the Gospel and those who wanted to respond in faith would be baptized in water and join the local community of believers.

This much, at least, everyone can agree on. After this, however, there are a whole host of questions about baptism over which there is anything but agreement. Three questions, in particular, stand out.

1. Did the early Church baptize young children?

Arguments about whether the early Church baptized infants divide both scholars and ordinary church members. The arguments at times get quite heated affecting as they do how we raise and regard our children. There are references to household baptisms in the New Testament, but no unambiguous statements that these households included children, even though supporters of infant baptism argue that logically they must have done so (see: Acts 16:16; 16:33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15).

Why does it matter so much? It matters because for many baptism is about an individual’s own personal faith. Those who focus on the importance of an individual’s own faith argue that a person must believe for themselves if they are to be baptized in a Biblical way. Infants, by definition, are not able to exercise such faith. Others, however, argue that it is sufficient for the child’s parents to have faith, or even that the faith of the Church makes the baptism valid.

2. What happens in baptism?

Arguments about the relationship of faith and baptism lead to a related and even more fundamental question about what it is that is actually happening when a person is baptized. Is baptism primarily about someone professing their faith or is it something more? Is baptism solely about an individual’s own faith or is the community of faith, the Church, also involved?

Furthermore, is something happening spiritually to a person in baptism apart from what is happening to them physically with water? And if something is happening to them spiritually, what is the relationship, if any, between what happens to a person in baptism and the person’s faith? To put it another way: does what happens in baptism happen regardless of whether a person has their own faith?

3. What is the relationship between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit?

In our Gospel reading, John the Baptist, in answer to people’s speculation that he is the Messiah, says:

‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Luke 3:16)

Following on from the question of what, if anything, happens in baptism is the question of what the relationship is between baptism with or in water and baptism with or in the Spirit. Is baptism in the Spirit same as water baptism? Or are they two distinguishable things, but which happen at the same time? Or are they two separate things so that, even if normally they happen at the same time, a person may, nevertheless, be baptized in water, but not be baptized in the Spirit? Many argue, for example, that our second reading this week suggests that water baptism and Spirit baptism are two different and separable things. The Samaritan believers had been baptized, St Luke tells us, but they had not yet received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16).

Well, there are many more questions surrounding baptism, but these should at least give an indication of how difficult the subject is. There is no end of possible answers and combinations of answers, and different positions are held between the churches and within the churches.

To put it very basically, what I have been saying so far can be expressed in another three simple questions:

1. Is it OK to baptize babies?

2. Does baptism work regardless of whether a person has faith or not?

3. Is baptism with the Holy Spirit the same as baptism with water?

The questions themselves may be simple but answering them is not. The various answers to these questions touch on many wider issues, and what you think and believe about the wider issues will in turn affect how you answer the questions and vice versa! Some, perhaps most, are content to follow the practice of whichever church they happen to be in and leave the questions to those who take an interest in such things. For others, however, these questions and others like them cause a great deal of personal angst and heart-searching. These are questions that are anything but theoretical, and they simply cannot be ignored.

It was questions like these that kept me when I was young from becoming an Anglican and nearly prevented me from seeking ordination in the Anglican Church. So, when it comes to baptism, as the saying goes, ‘This time it’s personal!’ I hope, then, you will forgive me talking a bit about my own personal experience.

I was born at a time in the UK when most children were baptized as babies. Large numbers of people may have stopped going to Church regularly, but most people, nevertheless, thought of themselves as ‘Christians’, even if they had little idea as to what that meant. The phrase’ cultural Christian’ perhaps best describes them. They considered themselves Christians because they were born into what was still seen as a Christian country. It followed, or so they reasoned, that anyone born in a Christian country should be baptized. Baptism, then, was as much a cultural practice as a religious one, and most babies experienced it. I was myself baptized when I was just under two months old.

The UK was, however, in common with many western nations, going through a process of secularisation, a process which was only to accelerate in the years following my baptism. Not only did people no longer go to church, they were in the coming years increasingly to abandon Christian morality and to question the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. This abandoning and questioning was happening, it has to be said, within the Church as well as outside of it.

All this, in turn, led to many in the Church asking what it meant to be a Christian and whether it was right to baptize babies of parents who clearly had no intention of bringing them up as Christians ‘within the family of the Church’. It led some to ask whether we should be baptizing children at all.

To add to the confusion, many, especially many who had themselves been baptized as children, claimed to have experienced a baptism in the Spirit. This was an experience which had changed their lives and transformed how they now looked on the Christian faith and belonging to the Church. A movement known as the ‘charismatic movement ‘was now underway.

Many who joined the movement stayed within the traditional mainline denominations. They believed that they should stay and work for renewal from within. Others disgusted by what they saw as the formality, traditionalism, and lifelessness of the established churches left to form new ones.

As someone who was part of all this, I can say that it was both a confusing and exciting time. It was also strangely a time of hope as those caught up in the charismatic movement sincerely believed that renewal was coming to the Church and to the nation.

There were those in the Church who believed that it was still possible to reverse the tide of secularism and win the nation back for Christ. Those who thought like this could not have been more wrong. There are still believers in the United States who think they can achieve there what their fellow believers were unable to achieve in Europe. The sooner they wake up to the reality of what has happened already in the West and to what is happening there, the better for everyone. But that is a subject for another day.

The point is that what someone believed about baptism came to take on symbolic significance. Those who insisted on faith for baptism to take place, even if it was the parents’ faith, saw themselves as standing for Biblical truth against those who were only interested in tradition or outward show. When I first went to theological college believing myself called to the ministry, I went as one who believed firmly in the need for faith before a person could be baptized. As priests in the Church of England are expected to baptize babies, it meant that I had real problems when it came to being ordained in the Church of England.

Well to cut an already too long story short, I eventually overcame my opposition to baptizing babies and reconciled myself to working in a branch of the Church that I had severe doubts about. But again, that is another subject for yet another day.

My experience, however, does mean that I am sensitive to the issues and problems surrounding water baptism. Hong Kong today may seem a world away from the UK I grew up in, but the questions about baptism remain the same and the issues surprisingly similar.

Because of the past influence of the Church of England in Hong Kong and given the Anglican Church’s involvement here in schools and education, many have grown up seeing themselves as Christians because they were educated in Christian schools. Many parents want their children to be baptized because they were themselves baptized or because they want their child to go to a Christian school - or both.

Yes, of course, there are those who get baptized because they have come to a deep and real faith in Christ. There are those who get their babies baptized because they genuinely want their child to grow up knowing Christ as a committed member of the Church. Others come to faith as a result of getting baptized, whatever their reasons may have been for getting baptized in the first place.

The numbers, however, speak for themselves. For the purposes of this sermon, I did a rough count of how many baptisms I have conducted since becoming the Vicar of Christ Church (2,267 to date). If only 10% of those who I have baptized in this time still came to Church, we would have real problems fitting everyone in! The vast majority of those I have baptized, however, don’t come to church as that was not why they got baptized or had their children baptized.

I am not suggesting that it is wrong to baptize people, whatever their age or reason for getting baptized may be. I do, however, want to be realistic and honest about the context in which we, as a church, minister and serve. We also need to appreciate the present social and cultural background to the questions that we have to answer concerning baptism.

So where does all this leave us as we think this week of the Baptism of Christ? As I have talked in this sermon about my own experience, perhaps I can conclude by describing where it leaves me.

Fundamentally, in describing what I personally believe now about baptism, I find myself where I was when I first began this journey. This may seem a strange thing for me to say given that I nearly didn’t get ordained because of what I believed back then. I am not, however, talking now about ordination, but baptism. When it comes to what I believe about baptism, I am still convinced of two fundamental points.

1. Faith and baptism belong together.

The New Testament simply does not allow either for the possibility of an unbaptized believer or for someone being baptized who does not believe. Both ideas are completely foreign to the New Testament. To believe is to be baptized; to be baptized is to believe. So close is the association between faith and baptism in the New Testament that what can be said about one can be said of the other. To put it another way: baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality, but the sign and the reality belong firmly together.

The social situation and circumstances of the New Testament writers was, however, very different to ours. The Church of the New Testament was a new movement starting from scratch. To grow, it had to convince pagans that it was worth them abandoning their religious, cultural, and historical customs and traditions while risking unpopularity, exclusion, and persecution in the process. In a context such as that of the early Church, you would only risk getting baptized if you did believe and took baptism seriously.

The New Testament writers may not have been able to envisage a separation of faith and baptism, they do, however, know of a separation of faith and works. John the Baptist had to warn those who came to him for baptism to bring ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ (Luke 3:8). St James, the brother of Jesus, warns his readers that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17, 20). So, too, we may say, baptism without works is dead.

Leaving aside, then, what ideally should or should not be the case when someone is baptized, what is clear in the New Testament is what should be the case once a person hasbeen baptized. The baptized believer should have a living faith that shows itself in obedience, action, and commitment.

Just because a person has been baptized or claims to believe will not save them. Neither baptism nor faith will work on their own. Baptism and faith belong together, and both should lead to a life of faith and faithful commitment.

On a practical note: if someone didn’t have faith when they were baptized or isn’t living a life of faith, the remedy is simple: to have faith now and start living a life of faith. Make what should have been the case when you were baptized becomes the reality in your life now!

Now I would prefer to leave for another day the question of infant baptism, but I imagine that this would be seen as me dodging the question, so a few words about it here!

What we should do with the children of baptized believers is a problem whatever your view of infant baptism. Those who think that a child’s baptism should be delayed until the child is old enough to decide for themself also have to decide how the child is going to be brought up in the meantime. As I have said, from a New Testament perspective, there is no such thing as unbaptized believer. Does then this mean that our children are not fully part of the Church until such time that they are old enough to make the decision that they want to be baptized? Given how positive our Lord was in his welcome of children, I personally find this hard to accept.

But equally, those who do baptize children regardless of their age need to recognize that, again from a New Testament perspective, we should always look for faith when someone is baptized and for a life of faith afterwards. The idea that a child can be baptized (for whatever reason) and then not participate in the life of the Church is utterly foreign to the New Testament, and it should be to us.

Given that we do baptize children of any age at Christ Church, we need as the community of faith to take a child’s baptism seriously. A child’s baptism is also a commitment on our part to the child to do what we can to support both the child and their family as the child grows up, so that they grow up to know, love, and serve Christ as a full member of Christ’s body, the Church.

2. Baptism with or in the Spirit is not the same as baptism with or in water.

In the New Testament, baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit are closely related, but different. The liturgies we use assume that baptism and a person’s receiving of the Holy Spirit happen at the same time. Ideally, they should, but clearly this is not the case in practice.

In the New Testament, when a person is baptized with the Spirit, they know it. What is more, anyone who is with them at the time they are baptized with the Spirit also knows it. In the same way that there can be no doubt when someone is baptized with water, so too there should be no doubt when a person is baptized with the Holy Spirit.

This is why the apostles knew that the Samaritans had not received the Spirit. It is why St Paul can ask disciples at Ephesus whether they received the Spirit when they believed (Acts 19:2).

John the Baptist said that he baptized people with water, but One was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Clearly water baptism and Spirit baptism are separate events for John. It is true that John’s baptism is not the same as Jesus’ baptism, but there are similarities and connections.

When the crowd on the Day of Pentecost asked St Peter what they needed to do, St Peter replied:

‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 2:38)

Throughout the book of Acts there are four elements to how people should respond to the Gospel. They need to repent, believe, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. St Peter wanted all these to happen together there and then, but the different elements to their response could be distinguished conceptually. As we have seen, they could even be separated chronologically.

St Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth that he was thankful that he had only baptized a few of them because, he tells them, Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:14-17). God did not send Christ to baptize with water either. St John specifically tells us in his Gospel that Jesus did not baptize people. This is not because Jesus disapproved of water baptism. He encouraged his disciples to baptize people during his earthly ministry (John 3:22; 4:1-2) and commanded them to do so after his ascension to heaven (Matthew 28:19). It is rather because Jesus’ role is to baptize people not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. It is only when we are baptized with the Spirt that we have received the gift that faith makes possible and which baptism expresses.

The message to us then as we think about the Baptism of Christ is that we need to take seriously our response to the Gospel. While the questions about baptism are important, what matters most is our response to the Gospel and our receiving of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. On this the Baptism of Christ, we pray that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit those of us who have not yet been baptized with the Spirit and renew the baptism of those of us who have.