This is the sermon I preached on a very special occasion at Putney Methodist Church on 13 February, 2022. It was a triple baptism: one baby, one child and an adult, who was also confirmed. The latter two were baptised by full immersion. We think this was the first time we have had such baptisms in this church. The texts were: Matthew 18:1-5; 19:13-15; and Matthew 3:13-17.
Baptism is central to the Christian faith. At its heart is the symbolism of the water: you can baptise people in lots of ways but you always have to have water. You also always have to have the same formula of words, invoking the Holy Trinity: “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19). Words recorded at the end of Matthew’s gospel and used by all churches everywhere ever since. Baptism tells Christians something profound about us and about God – the one in the three and three in one – and I think our three baptisms today draw out those three persons of the Trinity.
First, the water of baptism tells us about the abundant grace of God the Father. Water is the ultimate symbol of God’s creation: without water, there can be no life. We may moan about rain (and often do!) but we all recognise how vital it is for all of nature, and the dreadful effects when it is lacking. This makes water a wonderful metaphor for the grace of God: it’s free, it reaches every corner of the globe somehow, and it comes indiscriminately without being deserved or merited. As Jesus observed, “your Father in heaven … sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Today, we have a lot of water for our baptism. The most we have ever had in this church, we believe, which has apparently never seen a baptism by full immersion in its 150-year history. It is a stark contrast to my first baptism, when as a trainee minister on placement in a township outside Durban, South Africa, I had to baptise three teenagers with a glass of water! Today, arguably we have too much water – and I think all of us are wondering how we will get it out afterwards! I believe that over-abundance is vitally important, though.
Too often, Christian act as though grace is rationed. At holy communion, I carefully dole out a morsel of bread and a thimbleful of wine to everyone. But our baptisms this day, especially of this young baby, remind us forcefully that the grace of God flows in super abundance from a Creator who is desperate to give it away – even when we can do absolutely nothing for ourselves. It cannot be limited or rationed, it cannot be earned or even deserved, it is simply given in overwhelming abundance. Those wonderful words in our baptism liturgy are, to me, one of the best summaries of all Christian faith and theology: “all this for you before you could know anything of it”. Grace, truly, abounding.
Second, the water of baptism tells us about the offer of new life in God the Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Like all parents, I am sure that ours today have learned the incredible amount of washing that a little person creates – we certainly have! When the water goes or when the washing machine breaks down, we all suddenly realise how important water is for cleaning. We also all know how much better we can feel after a hot shower or a warm bath. For Christians, baptism symbolises a far more profound cleansing: the offer of new life. The offer of leaving behind all that we regret, and especially all the evil, and all that denies God and God’s Kingdom.
In baptism, we are invited to share in Christ’s humanity and immortality: to die to sin and to join with Christ in the promise of life, and life in all it fulness. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) This may seem strange but that is what is what the symbolism of the baptism by full immersion in particular brings out: we sink below the water, just as Christ sank into the tomb on Good Friday, and by God’s grace and infinite love, we are offered the opportunity to join in his resurrection and be born again in the Spirit. As the Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem neatly put it, “This saving water is both tomb and womb.” That is why I was so keen – despite all the fuss and bother – that our second baptism, in particular, was performed by full immersion.
This week I got rid of a very elderly computer and passed it on to a recycling company. I was surprised a few days later to receive a ‘certificate of data wipe’ confirming that they had made sure all my files were completely eradicated. Baptism is not like that: even if we could, we would not wish to completely wipe away anyone’s memories or past – for even the painful ones belong to that person and have made them who they are. Baptism, though, especially baptism performed like this, symbolises that, in Christ, the past has no power over us anymore. Baptism reminds us that, above all else, in Jesus we see a God of second chances, of third chances, of fourth chances, and however many more chances we need. We see that there is ALWAYS the opportunity of a fresh start, of a new beginning, of turning away from all that denies God’s Kingdom of Love and Grace, and of embracing life in all its fullness. In the symbolic ‘womb and tomb’ of baptism, we are forcefully reminded that the love of God reaches us wherever we are, that there is no power in heaven or earth that can keep us from God, and that there is always the hope of a brighter future.
Finally, the water of baptism tells us about the power of God the Holy Spirit. We may think of water as a fairly insubstantial element until we encounter it in its full force, like a flood. So it is with the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is often depicted as a dove or something ephemeral. Even the word ‘spiritual’ can evoke smirks and rolls of the eyes – very unimportant compared to the real business of life. Yet the Holy Spirit changed and continues to change our world every day. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit that marked out Jesus’ baptism, and the baptism which he in turn passed on to his disciples, from the baptism offered by John, the baptism of repentance, which needed to be repeated time and time again. Jesus’ baptism was the baptism of the Spirit: the empowering Spirit of God which filled Jesus and sent him on a ministry that would change the world forever. It was the same Spirit that filled the apostle at Pentecost and sent them, and their successors, to every corner of the globe proclaiming the good news of Christ crucified and resurrected. It is the same Spirit that has filled women and men ever since and has given them the power to challenge tyrants, liberate the oppressed and give voice to the voiceless. It is the same Spirit which we shall invoke on our final candidate this morning in her confirmation in a moment, the Spirit of truth and grace and love. The Spirit which offers us all true freedom, and the power to break every chain that binds us, and become the people God wants us to be.
In the waters of baptism, therefore, we encounter the true fullness of God: Father, Son and Spirit. The Creator God, whose overflowing love is poured out to us in limitless abundance. The Liberator God, whose cleansing sacrifice offers us all the chance of new life through Christ. The Empowering God, whose mighty Spirit gives us the opportunity to change ourselves and God’s world in ways beyond our imagining. Three people were baptised today but the promise that its waters offer is open to us all – brothers and sisters – today and always. The promise of life in all its fullness. The promise of hope in every situation. The promise of the true liberation that God offers to all. I pray that we may all encounter that God in these waters this day. Amen.