Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Easter, 7 May 2017, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 7th May 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:1-10; John 10:1-10)

If I handed out sheets of paper to everyone here today, and asked you to write five things about yourself that would tell me who you really are, I wonder what sorts of things you would write. It’s important to have a realistic understanding of who we are, an appropriate self-image: but many of us do seem to struggle to really know ourselves, to have a real sense of who we are.
Baptism is a service which focuses on who we are, what our life is all about, where we are heading in our lives. Indeed, it might be said that in this service, Leon’s given name becomes in a sense his “Christian” name. In baptism a person formally says to God, to those present, to themselves, and in a sense to the world: “I am a Christian”.
In the New Testament, it seems that people were baptized as soon as they expressed repentance and faith, as soon as they were converted to Christ: that seems to be what is described in Acts 2 as happening on the Day of Pentecost. The new Christians didn’t have to go through a six-week course, or be a member of an approved church for a year: when they turned to Christ, they were baptised. Baptism expressed in a visible and formal way the beginning of a person’s Christian life.
And that is why I believe that the Anglican custom of baptizing infants is appropriate and helpful. It speaks of new beginnings: it means setting out on the path of life as a follower of Christ. Now of course not even someone as intelligent and good-looking and wonderful as Leon understands all about the Christian faith at the age of a couple of months. Natalie and Brynjar and the extended family and the community here at the family church will undertake to encourage him and guide him and pray for him, so that that his understanding of his faith, his knowledge of the scriptures and their message, and his desire to live as a follower of Jesus will deepen and grow. As Leon grows towards adulthood, he will of course need to own his faith for himself: in a formal way that will be at his confirmation, but all that will need to be integrated with his journey along the path of Christian faith and discipleship and loving service.
A baptism is a very significant event: expressing personal commitment and a setting of one’s life direction. Where are we heading in our life? Perhaps that is one thing you might put amongst your answers to that question: “Who am I?”
If we are going to understand who we really are, we might very helpfully start in the opening pages of the scriptures: the first few chapters of Genesis. These scriptures tell us that we are made in the image of God: we were made to live in relationship with him, and given responsibility over this world. Sadly, these opening chapters of the Bible also tell us that something has gone wrong. Sin, the desire to live our way instead of God’s way, has become central to our human existence. We are still in the image of God: but the image is tarnished. If humanity is like a mirror reflecting something of what God is like, the mirror is still there, but it is badly cracked. And that affects not only our relationship with God, but our relationship with each other.
The story of Adam is in a sense the story of each of us: we are made in the image of God, but we are also sinners, guilty before God, and liable to his judgement, for God is a God who must put down evil. Our sin means that there is a barrier between us and God, but it does not mean that God has abandoned us, or that he no longer values us or loves us.
These opening chapters of the Bible make clear our need to avoid going to either of two extremes. On the one hand, we are not to indulge in excessive pride: “I am in the image of God, I am wonderful, I am invaluable, there’s nothing wrong with me.” No: we are indeed special, we matter, but we are also flawed, we are sinners, we are not what we should be.
On the other hand, Genesis 1-3 will help us not to get bogged down in the murk of sin, and the valley of helplessness and uselessness. Yes, we are sinners, but we are still precious to God, who still loves us, who is infinitely patient, but still calls us to repentance and to faithful service. These chapters give us a realistic and balanced picture of what it means to be human today, as they have always done. And of course, their truth does not depend on whether you understand the account literally, or simply as theological and spiritual truth, which is its real significance.
Don’t be unrealistic about your goodness, but don’t devalue yourself, for you are made in the image of God and precious to him.
But there is another vital message to be found in these chapters. For as soon as Genesis 1 tells us that people are made in the image of God, it tells us “male and female he created them”. Whatever other input comes later in the scriptures, the starting point is that male and female are both made in the image of God.
But there is more to it that that: the implication is that humans in relationship are in the image of God. God says “let us make”, but it will be a long time before the ultimate meaning of this royal plural is revealed: we will eventually discover that Jesus is truly God incarnate, and that God is a Trinity – that within the very being of God there is relationship, there is love.
Fundamental to our humanity is relationship. And in Genesis 2, we find that the first man is incomplete by himself: he needs relationship. And so the Lord provides him with a woman, a fellow human, a companion – in a sense to make him complete.
He gets into trouble when he does what the woman says instead of what God says: she is not is God any more than she is his slave. And so the two of them find themselves living in a world gone wrong – a world where relationships will sometimes be difficult, where there will be power struggles and there will be pain. But the world in which they live will still be God’s world, in which they are called to serve God.
Who am I? One vital truth is that I understand myself not simply as an individual, but as an individual in relationship. Every now and again, I hear of people who walked out on their marriages because they wanted to find themselves: now some marriages sadly are abusive and destructive, and it may be necessary to leave them. But we do not truly “find ourselves” by abandoning our relationships and commitments. I am who I am as a human, but also as a human in relationship. For the same reason I question the solitary life as some sort of spiritual ideal: yes, there may be value in some solitary time for reflection and focused communion with God, and for renewal. However, relationship is not an extra, but something fundamental to our human existence.
Who we are has to do with our creation by God in his image. It also is linked with our relationships. My significance is not just established by what I do, how much I own or how much I earn, or what I have achieved, or what I look like or my personality or a whole lot of other things. Nor is it a matter of what others think of me, or what I think others think of me.
Perhaps I could give you a sense of how I would answer that question about who I am – having of course had a chance to think about it.
I am a human made in God’s image, with a part to play in God’s world.
I am a Christian, a sinner forgiven by God’s grace, and a member of Christ’s family. I am a person connected to my family, who are very special to me: my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my brother and sister. I am a minister in the Anglican Church, and a member of the Anglican community at Epping. I have certain interests and concerns, particularly music which has always had a special place in my life. I could expand, but that would be my starting point. Perhaps you might sometime like to think about how you would sum yourself up!
Our reading from 1 Peter calls us to live the Christian life: turning away from evil, and from unloving attitudes and actions. It calls us to seek spiritual food and to keep growing in faith and spiritual maturity: regular reading and reflection on the scriptures will be an important part of this. It calls us to come to Jesus: the strong and supportive and secure rock, but a rock that can trip people up if they reject the truth about who he is and what he has done for us.
But there is another very important point, which relates to what I have been saying. Jesus came not simply to bring salvation to a lot of individuals: he came to draw together a community of people who are his
people, his family, his community.
Being a Christian, trusting and flowing Jesus, puts us into relationship with God, with the Lord Jesus, but also with his family the church – made up of imperfect and fallible people like us – and sometimes very different from us. Baptism is a way of saying “Jesus’ family is my family”. That’s part of the reason why baptisms here and in so many churches nowadays are not private, but during our regular services. And for us who are members, it gives us the chance to say “Welcome to the family”.
We are, as Peter says, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. We have received God’s mercy through Jesus Christ: we are called to show something of that love and mercy to each other and also to our neighbours, whoever they may be. And we are called to bear witness to the love of God: there is always room for more people in his eternal family.
So welcome, Leon. Stay connected to Jesus’ family, and stay connected to Jesus, who is ready to show you – and all of us – how to live as his follower, and as a member of his family.