The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
This morning we celebrate an exciting event, the baptism of three brothers.
Baptism is sometimes described as becoming part of the body of Christ, the Church. We here witness these new ‘members’ being made part of the wider Church. In Genesis, Abraham was promised descendents by God.
He had no children, his wife was Barren and he was old, so he doubted God’s promise. God responded by promising that his decendants would be equal in number to the stars. Abraham continued to have faith and his descendants became the people of Israel. God made a covenant with Abraham to provide him with a land and a nation. In Baptism we as Christians join into covenant with God. We become descendants of Abraham.
God’s Covenant with Abraham is a promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they will be God’s people. A promise which is ongoing and unending. The Israelites will have a relationship with God, and will be held together as a nation, living in relationship with each other, as Children of Abraham.
When the Old Testament tells us the Israelites turn from God, when they fall into idolatrous practices, they rely on human systems to save them. They forget the God who created and sustained the world, the God who made a covenant with them. They fail to worship Him, to care for each other, to act as if they have a relationship with God. But God does not turn away from his people, or from his promise.
Even when things are going badly, when the Israelites are rejecting God, God continues to maintain a special relationship with them. God blesses them and works to help them to live up to their promises to be God’s people. Abraham’s doubt and the turning away of the Israelites cannot get in the way of God living upto the promises made in the covenant.
This special relationship between God and the Israelites isn’t a result of Abraham being a great and pious person. This relationship is a result of God’s grace and is maintained because of God’s grace.
Grace is easily misunderstood. The way we use the word sells it short. We sometimes talk about being a graceful winner, by not bragging in front of the person we’ve beaten in a race. Or being a graceful loser, by congratulating the person who won.
But Grace is more than that. Grace is foolish, excessive, unexpected and Joyful.
Grace is responding to somebody throwing a brick through your window by baking them a cake and giving it to them with a smile on our face, not grinding your teeth. Grace is giving up everything for somebody who has just rejected you. Grace is God becoming human and living among us. Grace is what Jesus does in dying on the Cross. This kind of Grace doesn’t punish somebody for what they’ve done. This kind of Grace transforms them by offering them an alternative way of life.
It is this kind of grace which opens up the covenant of God to all of us, so that we can be counted as the Children of Abraham. The Covenant given to the Jewish people by the Grace of God doesn’t end, but in following Christ we find a new way to enter into covenant with God through the gift of Jesus. This is what we acknowledge when we come forward for baptism, and when we state our faith in the words of the creed each Sunday.
According to Paul, “... faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] It is by faith that we can perceive of God’s Grace.
Abraham had faith that God would do as he promised. That he would give birth to a nation. But what do we hope for? Peace? Love? Happiness? Friends? Inclusion? Involvement in something bigger than ourselves?
By being baptised, and, by agreeing to support those being baptised, we are stating a faith that God wants to have a relationship with each of us. That through relationship with God we can participate in something bigger than ourselves, that we can be included in the people of God that we can find love and peace and joy through relationship with each other and with God. That hope is for eternal life, not that all this will come to pass in the short years we live on earth, but in the fulness of time.
Baptism, the participation in God’s people, is given by God. It is not earned or made possible by passing a test or doing good works, or not doing bad things, or reaching a supreme level of piousness or spirituality.
I wouldn’t be here if it was. It is by God’s Grace and God’s Grace alone that we are each called on to become part of the community of Saints.
Receiving that Grace, we are encouraged to respond in kind. By the way we live. According to the service book, “Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God.... the first step in response to God’s love.” This is an ongoing thing, we are baptised once, but we continue to respond to God’s Grace throughout our lives. By coming here to worship as part of the people of God, but also by the way we live our lives every day. We respond to God’s grace by acting with Grace.
Over several weeks, in Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been reading about the dangers of greed. How greed for riches can make responding to God challenging. How if we cherish earthly things too much, responding to people with Grace, can become difficult. If we cherish our belongings more than we cherish other people, sharing what we have, can become impossible: Paying people justly, caring for people in distress, can become nothing more than a burden on our wealth. But in receiving God’s grace we are challenged to give gracefully, to love joyfully, to relate to each other in the way God wants us to relate to God.
In today’s Gospel we are reminded that our response to God’s grace is continuous. Jesus tells of slaves who are waiting for their master. The slaves who remain alert are blessed by their master. The master has them sit down, and feeds them. It’s not enough for the slaves to have the house ready, and go to bed. The expectation is that when the master arrives they will be waiting for him. When to expect him is not known, so they need to be remaining alert continuously. So we don’t just get baptised and forget about it. We need to continuously remain alert, to continuously respond to God’s Grace.
Remaining alert isn’t easy. It’s easy to forget to act with Grace, to slip into idolatry, where we assume that greed can make us happy. Where we put ourselves before God and others. To forget that we are part of the Body of Christ, the Church. To act as if our actions have no impact on others.
But we have the benefit of coming here, in this place to worship God as a community. We are reminded each time somebody else is baptised, of the Grace of God, of our relationship with God. We are reminded of our own Baptism.
As part of this ongoing Grace, we are nourished in the Eucharist. Each week we gather around this altar, we stand in the presence of God, we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we eat with each other, and with all those who have gone before us. In doing this act we are renewed, refreshed by God’s grace, made visible to us in the bread and wine, a gift freely given for us, regardless of how we are feeling, or what we have done. We respond, we worship joyfully, and we are sent out to live in the way God has demonstrated for us, with love, joy and grace, in service, not of our own idols, but of God, and of each other.