It really is great that so many of you have come along this afternoon to support Andrew as he begins his new ministry here at Exning, the historic birthplace of St Etheldreda and so a cradle of the Christian faith in East Anglia. And Andrew, it’s great that you are here as well: we couldn’t be doing this without you, and you and Rosemary are much in our thoughts and prayers as you open this new chapter in your lives.
Thank you to everyone who has worked hard to put today together, and of course to everyone who has worked very hard to keep the church together during what has been a long vacancy.
The last time I was here was for a confirmation, and perhaps this afternoon is a bit like a confirmation too as we pray for the gifts and fruits of the Spirit to be in Andrew and in all who make up the church here as they journey forward together into God’s good future.
The Gospel reading that Andrew has chosen for this service (Mark 1.4-11) gives us the account of another “beginning” event. But it does give us something of a puzzle. Even if an inaugural event was needed, why should Jesus of all people have a baptism at the beginning of his ministry?
I think the answer lies in the very last words of the reading: a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
So many of us don’t hear that voice of love and acceptance, in our family, at work, at school, even in church. That can’t be right. But we know too that we ourselves are just as bad at showing love and acceptance to others even when we desperately need it ourselves. We’re in a bind, and it is not at all clear what the way out is.
We are feeling the force of this bind particularly at the moment as we see hurt and harm spill over so tragically into society at large, even using faith, albeit a different faith than ours, as it’s claimed motivation. Long stories of suspicion and conflict between different social groups are coming to boiling point again, and we can only begin to imagine the alienation and anger that is in the hearts of the individuals who feel justified in wreaking such terror. And we feel powerless in any human way to know what will make a difference.
The Gospel claims that Jesus’s birth and death and resurrection offers the way out from the trap, the way to start the long climb back to a world of peace and beauty and love, the world as it was always meant to be, what Jesus called the kingdom of God.
At Jesus’s baptism he is, of his own pure free will, choosing to identify with us, to be fully human, and to be so as a representative for us (the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Messiah of Jewish thinking) so that his baptism, his righteousness, his death and vitally his resurrection offer a new template for our own lives, a new beginning and new way to the kingdom. In a way that goes beyond the mere mechanics of history, Jesus understood himself to somehow re-establishing the lost connection between earth and heaven and both earthing heaven and heavening earth, providing a place and way where evil in every age and in every heart can both be drawn and defeated.
And so the words from heaven are not just for Jesus but for us too. The same thing happened when, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus was approaching his Passion, declaring that his death would bring a great new harvest of life, and heaven thundered in vindication of him, not for his benefit but for ours. “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
The word from heaven here for us, the word that is at the heart of our ministry and mission as a local church, is that we too are the sons and daughters of God, whom he loves, and with whom he is well pleased. And the deeper we have sunk our own roots into this truth for ourselves, the wider we will be open our hearts and our doors to others.
This is so much more than John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That in itself is a wonderful gift from God. A sign and a promise that the slate can be wiped clean and we can make a new start, the sort of real new start that makes ordinary new year’s resolutions look rather tame.
But what John so clearly and graciously also sees is that this is only the beginning. His job is to point the way to Jesus who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. That first step of confession, of owning up and receiving forgiveness is still needed: but now we see the full story. Because what Jesus offers is a personal identification for ourselves with him, just as he has identified with us, so that we can then draw down not just on our strength but his grace and his gifts, the work of his Spirit alive in us. We not only have the opportunity to begin again, we have the resources to see the story though to the end.
There is a personal call and challenge to each of us here. This sort of coming to Christ is not something someone else can do for us: it is too personal, too individual, too deep for that. It’s also about more than coming to church, though coming to church is important as a first step, and it was interesting to read that going to church more was one of the nation’s top 50 New Year Resolutions according to an unlikely poll by an e-cigarette firm. Going to church, if I can put it this way, gets you to the altar rail. But if you want to be married you still have to hear and say the words of love for yourself.
There is also a call and a challenge for you all as a local church. John had a mission to run, a ministry to perform, a disciple group to encourage: but he knew that deep down his job was to lead others to the Christ. His words were ones of challenge, high principles and practical morality, but he also knew that only the wide-stretched arms of Jesus would be able to draw us all back to God in the end.
So the challenge is, how can our local churches open the hearts and their doors wide enough to allow everyone in, seeing ourselves as gate-openers not gate-keepers, serious yes about righteousness, but always leading people not to our own judgments, which so easily become just another rejection, but to the one who can both judge and save. And the best way to respond as church that I can think of is to encourage you to keep on going deeper in your own exploration of the love of God so that you can keep on going wider in offering that love to others.
In your parish profile you gave as your lead key characteristic in your new minister – so no pressure here Andrew – a personal faith and calling evidenced by the gift of bringing God’s word to life through prayer, action and teaching and making it relevant to all. Absolutely. But I put it to you that that challenge is equally there for every one of you that would count yourself a Christian. Every one of us when we leave the doors of this church has both the opportunity and the obligation to show Christ’s life and love to others in the everydayness of their lives, because only then, one heart at a time, will we really see a new society built in which terror has no place. And will there ever be a better time than now to make that your resolve? For you yourself to renew your own acceptance of the forgiving love of God, and be enabled by him to forgive and love others?
As I’ve been putting these thoughts together the words of an old hymn have been coming into my mind. It sounds as if it is a real revivalist romp, but it was actually written by Father Faber, high-church vicar of a Huntingdonshire parish, in 1862. Let me finish with two of his verses:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Saviour;
there is healing in his blood.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.