The Reverend Dan Warnke
Mark 6.30-34, 53-end
As many of you know I’m Dan, the new Assistant Curate here at St John’s, and it is simply wonderful to be here with you this morning. Some of you I’ve met, others I’m yet to have the pleasure, but I’m so grateful for the kindness you’ve all shown me, particularly for your enduring patience in continually reminding me of your names! As former Archbishop, Michael Ramsey, once said to a group of deacons gathered in anticipation of their imminent ordination, we are called “to be with God with the people on our heart”. And this is my hope: to be with God with you on my heart.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Being the new curate, is no doubt a bit like rafting down rapids; partly exhilarating, partly terrifying, sometimes going where you want, sometimes paddling like mad for your life! And inevitably, you can’t avoid being drenched by the turbulent waters splashing around the boat!
Now this imagination for water seems quite fitting, particularly in light of Stella’s baptism today, as we celebrate this milestone together with her parents Sara and Toby, and all their supporting friends and family. There are many stories involving water throughout the scriptures, and our gospel reading this morning is no different. We hear of Jesus and the disciples teaching and healing many, yet they are exhausted, and in need of rest, so in the midst of the chaos, they take to the water to find peace. This balancing of chaos and water is something we see over and over again throughout the narrative of scripture. We read about it in the story of creation, as the Holy Spirit broods over the waters, bringing order from the chaos, and again with the parting of the Red Sea to free the Israelites. And again when a storm strikes over the Sea of Galilee and the disciples fear they’ll drown. Peace from chaos, life from death, and freedom from the grip of fear.
Now, when I was a child I had a lot of energy, I created my own kind of chaos. I was inquisitive; I asked a lot (a lot!) of questions, I wondered how things worked. Mechanisms fascinated me. In fact, my curiosity of mechanisms resulted in many appliances finding their untimely end, with their innards spread out all over the lounge floor… who knew that when you take things apart, it’s not necessarily the case that all the parts will be used when putting it back together (there might just be a few bits left over).
So, I broke many things in hope of learning how they worked. Some I discovered, others simply remained a mystery.
The baptism we are about to witness today could seem like some kind of religious mechanism. No mystery involved: someone passively gets dunked, or drenched in water; they simply stand there, and it’s done tothem. But that’s not the case. Baptism is active, and is the very stuff of faith, and mystery. And as a sacrament it helps us imagine (and glimpse) at what God might be doing in our midst. It’s a creative symbol, an outward sign of an inward reality. Like shadow theatre, where you don’t actually see the actors but you witness the wonder of their flowing and silhouettes.
And what’s really going on in baptism is this kind of movement, a connection of the chaos of our lives with the kingdom of God and His life-giving Spirit. The gift of baptism is the Holy Spirit at work here and now. And beingbaptised is like becoming the house where the Spirit dwells. When we see a child play, or someone fully alive, expressive, expansive, productive, where life seems to bubble up and over-flow, this is the in-dwelling of the Spirit of God. The fabulous stuff of life! This is not religious control, but the freedom to truly be alive. This is the freedom of the Spirit. Much like Jazz, there is structure, but it only exists to enable spontaneity and improvisation. The gift of baptism is an intimacy and a tenderness to know that despite the messiness of real-life you are loved, and can love in return.
And we cannot do this sort of thing alone; Jesus was with the crowds, with the disciples in the midst of the chaos, in the action with the Father. Baptism is a public act, because following Jesus is not something to be hidden. It would be easy to think that all of this is about private belief – ok for a Sunday – but the rest of the week it remains hidden. That would miss the point entirely. That would be something mechanical. Being baptised is about living with others in the visible community of Christ, with the mystery of grace working within us together. It’s a mystery, not a mechanism.
And whilst we might look at these sorts of things and think that nothing is actually going to happen – “after all it’s just some water” … “it’s just a religious thing” – but as we wait here together we witness something wonderful happening in the life of the church. Perhaps we could think of it like bird watching: The experienced birdwatcher sits still, is attentive, watchful, not tense or fussy, but waits patiently knowing that at any moment something quite wonderful is about to burst into view.
And so it is with us today, we wait with Stella, with Sara and Toby and all the family in watchful expectation as she, along with us, comes to realise that we are, and always willbe, loved by Christ from all eternity. That’s why baptism is a mystery, not a mechanism. It can never be repeated. Like the dying of wool, once immersed the infusion of the pigment in the fibres cannot be undone – so it is with baptism, a permanent mark of the love of Christ at work in our lives.
So as we prepare to witness this today, may we know that despite the chaos many of us have come from, and will return to, in Christ there is life, there is peace from the constant demands and pressures we face. And as we wait on him, may we hopefully anticipate something quite wonderful bursting into view.