This last week there has been the terrible killing of the M.P. Jo Cox that has led to a pause in all the argument and debate over our place in Europe. This coming week on Thursday there’s the referendum. And today we are baptising Charlie. These are all in quite different ways, hugely significant moments.
The death of Jo Cox has been a profoundly tragic killing and it feels as if as a nation we have been deeply disturbed by it. Then there’s the outcome of Thursday’s referendum hanging in the balance – we’re holding our breath, not knowing which way it will go. Deep unease surrounds both these events.
Christening Charlie, making Charlie Christ’s as we do in baptism this morning, is in contrast a complete, unambiguous delight! As I shall say in a moment:
‘Christ loves him and welcomes him into his Church.’
And so do we!
In our first reading from the letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul uses a striking image for baptism; he writes:
‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.’
From the earliest times in the life of the Church, someone newly baptised has sometimes been clothed in a white robe. In Charlie’s case, knowing what small children are like, it probably wouldn’t stay white very long!
But it expresses vividly this picture that Saint Paul gives us, an image without parallel in antiquity, that when you are baptised you have clothed yourselves with Christ. Your new identity transcends all the divisions that we experience of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – we are all now one in Christ Jesus.
The theme of clothing is reflected in our Gospel reading too. It’s a terrible description of this man that is gone into in some detail. He’s a man not in his right mind, violent, uncontrolled, shouting, consumed by destructive passions, who lives isolated from human company and who for a long time has worn no clothes.
The language used to describe this man, of demons and unclean spirits, is not what we would use to describe such a person, but even so it’s recognisable. For instance over the last few days, when we’ve been reflecting on the tragedy of Jo Cox’s death, we’ve heard fears expressed about the tone of the language used in the recent political debate and the way passions have been stirred up; we’ve heard phrases used such as ‘wells of hatred’; and we’ve heard people referred to as in the grip of forces that they cannot control. The fears expressed are not dissimilar even if the language used is different.
I know that troubling for some is the fate of the swine in this story. The swineherds too find their livelihoods destroyed. It hardly seems fair. Remember of course that swine were unclean animals for the Jew. And the purpose of this description is to show the finality of the action taken and the power of Jesus over the demons to send them away, for them never to return.
Leaving to one side these aspects of the story that seem to reflect the world view of the time, the picture of this man before and after his encounter with Jesus could not be starker – remember how he was described at the beginning? And at the end he is sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
It’s a very typical description that Luke uses in his Gospel on a number of occasions to describe what someone is like when they have been transformed by the love of Christ.
Two other stories in Luke’s Gospel come to mind and both these stories only occur in this Gospel.
The parable of the Prodigal Son tells the story of the younger son who takes his inheritance and goes off into a far country and squanders his money in the way he lives. He runs out of money and so to earn a living he gets work on the land feeding some pigs – again remember that pigs were unclean animals for the Jew. The story goes on to describe how he is so hungry he would gladly have eaten the food that the pigs are eating. Then comes the turning point in the story. Luke’s describes how the son ‘comes to himself’ or ‘comes to his senses’ and now in his right mind he makes the journey back to his father where he is welcomed with open arms.
It’s a deeply moving story! The life of faith, suggests Luke, involves waking up; coming to your senses; being in your right mind!
The other story in Luke’s Gospel, that has echoes with the one we’ve been thinking about, is the story of Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha are sisters who live together and they welcome Jesus into their home. Martha is busy about the place and complains to Jesus that her sister Mary is not helping her: ‘Tell her to help me’ she says to Jesus. Jesus replies that in fact Mary has chosen the better part. So what is Mary doing while Martha busies around the place? Luke writes:
‘She sits at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he is saying.’
I know – this story can be deeply infuriating! But this is how Luke portrays the life of faith.
Between all the horror of the last week and the uncertainties of the next, we come here as Luke would want us to: to sit at the Lord’s feet, clothed and in our right mind, listening to the love song Christ sings.
Today we welcome Charlie to join us.
In baptism he too will be clothed with Christ just as we are.
Our new identity in Christ transcends all the divisions that we experience of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Leave or Remain.
We are all one in Christ Jesus.