First Sunday after Trinity with Baptism
Readings: Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Cor. 4. 13-5.1; Mark 3 20-end
Hymns: All things bright and beautiful; Lord be thy word my rule; Be thou my vision; Sent forth by God’s blessing
We are preparing to share in God’s two fundamental sacraments, those tokens of trust and intense meeting-points between God and all people of God: Christ’s Body and Blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and the Baptism of Henrietta, who joins the Body of Christ, that world-wide multi-labelled church represented by each and all of us here. Whatever our church background, we probably all see sacraments as intentionally set aside times of openness to grace flowing from and linking us more closely to God than usual. Our hope is that as Henrietta is publicly committed to God today, and received into loving, forgiving fellowship with God and all people of God, she will learn to receive from and later pass on that loving kindness to others in her life.
Presiding at baptism and Eucharist today, and at a marriage near Bruchsal next weekend, let me explore sacraments further. They are not ‘now you see it now you don’t’ magic nor trivial items on an event management programme, but rather food for the journey of faith, the journey of life. Discussing marriage with a long-retired Roman Catholic priest near here shed helpful light; ‘a marriage isn’t a sacrament on the day of the wedding: we can only hope the couple will one day realise, in five, ten or fifteen years, that they are living a sacrament.’ The wedding service is but the first food, hopefully nourishing an honoured embrace with each other and God. Like breakfast, which nourishes long after the last crumb, a sacrament is not completed when the chalice is cleaned, the font emptied, but offers a light to our feet, today and in the months ahead.
However, there are differences between the sacraments. A marriage is solemnised for the couple, and infant baptism for the baby. Henrietta will not take in the words, and indeed when I was ordained priest, although more actively involved than Henrietta, I was too overwhelmed to take in much. Likewise at a marriage, the couple saying and hearing the words are commonly so exhausted and anxious that the actual words fail to register fully.
Why then, if the key people are not old enough, or calm enough, are most sacraments public? Easy: for the benefit of the congregation! All attending are witnesses to the profession of faith of or for others, and as part of that witnessing all should be hearing and professing their faith and reflecting on their individual understanding and practice. At today’s baptism, we shall hear godparents making promises on behalf of Henrietta: how do we stand regarding any god-children we may have, or our own children, in terms of their faith and our own? At a wedding, all can reflect on their parents’ marriage and its positive and negative effect on them, and married people should remember the vows they made. Does their experience of and conduct in their own marriage reflect the promises they made to honour and love their partner with mutual respect, mutual submission, mutual kindness and fairness? If not, why not?
Unlike the usually once in a lifetime sacraments of marriage and baptism, ordination and confirmation, the Eucharist, or Great Thanksgiving, feeds us repeatedly on the journey. And again unlike baptism and marriage, each person is directly witnessing to their own faith in that process, not reflecting on it through what is happening to baby or bride, confirmand or priest. Each person receives tokens of trust from God encapsulated in the wafer and wine, the Body and Blood of God. Yet standing together illustrates our sharing of the one bread in Christ, when ‘we are nearest the heart of what it is to be a Christian and to be the Church.’
So there is a commonality between the sacraments we watch and reflect on and the one (along with collective confession if we include that) which we all partake of equally. Sacraments represent the flowing of God into our lives, and through that inflowing, the passing on of that embracing love of God to others. It would be meaningless for us dispassionately to observe a sacrament such as baptism or marriage as if it were a theatre performance rather than a challenge to and support of our faith life. Equally, if we received the gifts of God around this table yet greedily held on to them, preventing the onward flow of God’s loving care, we would make a nonsense of our faith. Sacraments are food to be shared by all people for all people.
Henrietta, first child of Philip and Cecilia, is wonderfully made in the Image of God, endowed with the potential to think, remember, oppose, choose. She is beginning that journey to human responsibility illustrated in our Genesis reading. The snake manipulated Eve with the bait of wisdom, a benefit indeed, as without it humans, like animals, lack the capacity for reasoned choice. Shirking responsibility, Adam’s response to God’s question ‘did you eat the apple?’ was not ‘yes’ but ‘she made me do it,’ and likewise Eve’s response to that same question was not ‘yes’ but the equally irresponsible, ‘the snake made me.’
Before that point, they lived a cosy predictable life in Eden: afterwards, they became both vulnerable and aware, focussing on their own family and long lineage. It is easy to idolise Eden, or puff it up. One outcome demonises Eve, but a bigger problem is irresponsible fatalism – that’s just how we are since ‘the apple’ – ignoring present realities of oppression and abuse which we have a human and a Christian responsibility to assuage. Because Jesus’ abrupt words in the Gospel ‘my family are not my mother, my brothers, nor other religious leaders but anyone who does the will of God’ makes clear that firstly responsibility goes along with wisdom and choice, and secondly, that that responsibility is to all, not just our family of origin or creation. I say ‘not just’ advisedly, because Jesus carefully ensured his own mother would be cared for after his death. ‘Community’ for Jesus is people walking, talking, doing the will of God, supported by their common life in Christ nourished by the sacraments.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, June 8th 2015