The Revd Brutus Green
So Low Sunday. Traditionally the week you take off from religion and have a lie in, especially if you managed the full gamut of foot washing, Andrew Lloyd Webber and struggling out of bed for the dawn vigil, the week before. So you are all to be congratulated for your devotion.
Less so myself, this year, however. My Holy Week at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst revolved around platoon attacks, running through ditches and daydreaming about sleeping. And Easter Sunday at Sandhurst is little more than a footnote to “Colours to Chapel” where the colours - the flags - are brought in to be blessed, and the army sings it’s favourite hymns I Vow to Thee My Country, Jerusalem and, of course, Onwards Christian Soldiers. Still it does manage to get 300 men in their twenties in church, an otherwise unlikely occurrence.
But it is good to be back at St John’s. Your own Lenten austerities in W2, South London, Somerset or Belgium (the baptismal party) are over, and I can stop pretending to be a soldier and return to civilisation, to a place that still feels like home - even six tumultuous months after leaving.
And today is also a baptism, which theologically marks a sort of homecoming - or setting up of home - as the spiritual foundation of a life from which we can begin our adventures.
This is one of the most important things we can give our children and each other. Because it is only when we are in a safe place, where we are confident, where we are comfortably fully ourselves, that we can go out and take the big risks that in turn have the big challenges and the big payouts. Because when life is uncertain we become more cautious; settling for the obvious and easy paths. We retreat to the familiar - like princess Elsa in her icy palace.
On the other hand, it takes great self-assurance to move to Afghanistan, or Pakistan, as John and Gertje have; or speculate in property at the very borders of far off zone 2. Not decisions to be taken lightly or wantonly. And we’ll see in time if Sebastian displays such recklessness in his behaviour.
In the last six months I’ve had to move twice, live in a strange foreign country (Germany), get used to the peculiarities of military culture and in the last three months go through the basic training of a military officer. At times - after the third night on not more than an hour and a quarter’s sleep, leading a squad of Gurkha machine gunners leopard-crawling to the brow of a hill to destroy the enemy in driving February wind and rain, I have wondered what I was doing. There have been the occasional phone calls beginning “Darling, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake…”
But a huge part of what made the decision to take this road, as well as what has kept me going so far, has been the five years I had at St John’s. Coming from a place of encouragement and support can push you much further into places you would not otherwise go.
Now I’m not going to lie to you. Temperamentally, I’m probably not the most natural army person. I got the award at the end of the course for being ‘still the most civvi’. ‘Civy’ - civilian - in the army is largely used as an insult - such as, after a long night out, proclaiming: “Hell’s teeth - this hangover that would kill a civvy”.
The award was probably due to just a few slightly unfortunate incidents. Such as when leading Delta fire team, surging forward in a section attack through a ditch, the Company Sergeant Major asked for a smoke grenade. I reached back to my webbing, found a cylindrical object and was about to throw it to him when he bawled out in colourful language: “that’s a … thermos”.
Wrong pocket it turned out. “More tea Sergeant Major?”
The other most glorious incident was after the Gurka machine gun attack when I was drenched from three hours in the rain and covered in mud, jogging back to rendezvous with the others, an instructor stopped in a Landrover and told me to ‘get my kit off and jump in’. He then expressed surprise when I didn’t stop at my webbing and daysack and started undressing - not wanting to mess up his nice army Landrover.
An understandable mistake, I’m sure you agree.
Still, overall, I did alright and passed out - in the good sense - at the end. Not without the occasional moment, and not without a lot of support and care packages from folk here. Not without the acquired security of having people behind you who believe in you and love you.
Something similar is also happening in today’s Easter Gospel. The disciples are about to begin the next phase. They are about to become the church, apostles sent out to the corners of the earth. But they have just lost their leader and inspiration. They are without confidence and unprepared for what lies ahead. They are locked in ‘for fear of the Jews’, and full of doubt. At best they are sneaking back to their old lives, at worst they are going nowhere.
Jesus first words to them are “Peace be with you”. He then breathes on them the Spirit of God with the words: “Receive the Holy Spirit” and gives them the authority to grant forgiveness. Here then the disciples are given their safe harbour. They have found the risen Christ. They have received peace and forgiveness. They are commissioned. This is the place of confidence from which they can carry the Gospel into the world. This resurrection experience is the bedrock from which they can take risks and make every sacrifice that is required.
It is the place from which the writer of today’s epistle can say “we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” Because with confidence and self-assurance comes a sense of purpose which is the key to a happy life; to joy.
Which brings us back to today’s baptism. Baptisms are happy occasions that bring families together. And, like in the fairytales, we can come together and make wishes for our fairy godchildren - say that they inherit their mother’s good looks and their father’s good luck. And in the liturgy we set the foundation for a good life full of purpose on the groundwork of a faith that has guided Western civilisation for two thousand years. And it’s right that it is parents, family and friends making and witnessing these promises, surrounded by the community, because it is these people who will in their lives and care, give the child the knowledge and experience of being loved. It is they that will sustain an environment which is safe and full of peace. They who will demonstrate to one another and the child the grace of forgiveness, and the confidence to throw yourself into the whirlpool of life.
Baptism then is the sign and promise of a safe place of assurance from which we can go out into the world to take risks and discover who we are. We should also be aware, though, that the reality of these divine promises are often expressed and felt - for better and for worse - by our imperfect human relationships. So for us as family, friends and fellow Christians we take on the responsibility of making God’s love known to one another. As we follow the baptismal liturgy, as we share the peace - like Christ first did with the disciples, - as we break bread with one another we can ask ourselves how are we making this church and this world a safe place for others to have confidence.
And we can also ask ourselves if it’s time we started stepping out in confidence and taking risks to discover what more God has for us. Perhaps we’ll discover new skills, such as ironing and polishing shoes, perhaps we’ll end up with a new house or a new baby. Perhaps we’ll end up shivering in a ditch hoping for the end - but with the assurance of divine love and with the reflection of this love in our family and friends, we will have the strength to endure, and the joy of a life well lived. Amen.