The title Ben gave to today’s sermons is “One big family: Baptism”. For many of us here, rather long in the tooth, we have fond memories of the ceremony in Church when our children were baptised into the Church family. And some would say the Church was more of a family in those days, and a more important part of society than it is now. But God’s covenant promises are no less needed today! And hopefully, through learning and worshipping together, our Church family is growing closer, and showing clearer signs of being the family with Christ at the heart. As we brought our children to baptism, we promised to teach them not just information about God and the Bible, but to help our children to know God through prayer, teaching and way of living. Then, in the Church of England, through confirmation, we took responsibility, for our own spiritual lives onto ourselves.
Some people of course did’t know Christ as a child, they may have had no teaching at all, or they may have had teaching but turned their backs on it. Now, before we reflect on Galatians, let’s think a moment about what Hezekiah goes through in our Old Testament reading. Hezekiah was a king in the line of David, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC (so a very long time ago!), and he was the King of Judah when Jerusalem was under siege in 701 BC by a man called Sennacharib. Hezekiah enacted religious reforms, banning all foreign gods in the temple, and instructed that the people were only to worship Yahweh. (As an aside, Isaiah and Micah the prophets were alive in the time of Hezekiah). But Hezekiah went through testing times, both witnessing these very challenging times for the people of Israel, but also through illness. And in these times he prayed and asked God to save him. We hear him in this passage reflecting on those times, he wondered what it would have been like to die or be killed young – he wouldn’t see God in the land of the living, nor would he be able to share life with his family, friends and colleagues. He realised his body would be weak, it would feel like his bones had all been broken, his eyes would be weak. But he asked for the Lord’s healing, and God healed him. Now you may wonder what this has to do with baptism! But in v.17, Hezekiah says of God, “You have put all my sins behind your back” – in other words, he was starting again, a bit like we do when we are baptised. And his response is to praise God, and pass on the good news to his children. It seems akin to baptism, the realisation that through God, he is restored to health, his sins are behind him, and he can go on in the world, living as a child of God. It seems to have a parallel with people who are baptised as adults – they may have challenges in life, or simply asked God for help. God will meet them in their need, assures them of his love and forgiveness, and in doing so, they start a new life – which we then mark in the Church family by baptism, a formal re-enactment of what has happened in their lives when they acknowledge Christ as Lord.
So, what does Paul have to say about this baptism in the Galatians reading? Well, one of the things he is doing is speaking to the Galatians, Gentiles, to assure them that they are sons of God through faith, not just the Jews. This must have been very hard for the Jews to hear, until they had fully grasped the teaching of Jesus, because in the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish prayer book, the pray-ers, all men, used to thank God that they were not Gentiles, or slaves, or women! That may seem very hard for us to understand. But it casts light on why Paul specifically refers to these groups in v 28. And in v 27 Paul talks about those having been baptised as clothing themselves with Christ. There was an early tradition that when people were baptised, they put on new robes when they came out of the baptism water. But the baptism and re-robing are outward signs of an inward transformation from the past actions and point of view to increasingly see the world as Christ sees it, where all are equal, where the differences between people don’t disappear, but are irrelevant before Christ. Faith in Christ is the most important mark, and is what unifies us, all other differences between us are subordinate to that. The whole point of baptism is faith in Christ. We baptise our children because we have faith that God makes his love and forgiveness available to them. As adults, we are confirmed, or baptised as adults, because we want to receive that love and forgiveness directly, for ourselves – it is our active acceptance of the gift God has for us, and the responsibility to share this good news with others through word and/or action.
And as we go on in our Christian lives, we learn more about what it means. We learn of the covenant promises God makes to Abraham, then just Abram, and we hear that God’s covenant is with all nations on earth (Gen. 22.18), not just on those he called his chosen people. In those early Old Testament days, God wanted all those who were his descendents to be circumcised – again, an outward mark of a spiritual condition. But by definition, it excluded women! By emphasising the need for faith in baptism, it meant baptism was available to both men and women. Faith was the now the mark, not circumcision.
For us, our baptism and/or confirmation may seem a long way in the past, and indeed were! But let’s think of Hezekiah, after his healing back to life, he continued to praise God and pass on the good news of what God had done to his children. Paul tells us that if we have been baptised, we have been clothed with Christ. Now if we put clothes on, we make a statement to those around us. Look at a policemen – if we see the uniform, we have certain expectations about how they will act, what they will think. If they take off the uniform, we don’t have the same expectations. For us, if we have clothed ourselves with Christ for all time, our faith should shine in our lives, be even more than just a robe we’ve put on. All our actions should show that we are living up to, or tying to live up to, Christ’s standards, and that we are forgiven when we mess up and repent. So although our baptism may have been a long time back, it is something that is still with us, that shapes our lives, shapes our view of the world around us, and the way we interact with all the people we meet. Hopefully, we are still be keeping our relationship with Jesus fresh and active, listening to him, learning even more about him, which may mean having occasional arguments with him – for there is no end to learning about him! Then we need to share our experiences with the people around us, our family, our children, our friends. As we share the joys and sorrows of all that with our Christian friends too, we build each other up, encourage and support each other, as part of the big family of the present-day inheritors of God’s covenant with Abraham. May we all accept the gift of God’s love and forgiveness bestowed on us at baptism even more tomorrow than we have today. Amen.