A sermon preached by Andrew McKearney
at St Mary’s Iffley on the occasion of Clementine’s baptism
15 October 2017
A few years ago someone whom we know well became a consultant at a hospital. Consultants often have parking spaces reserved for them in the same way that head teachers and many other professions do in the staff car park. Soon after they arrived at the hospital they were surprised to find a note on their windscreen at the end of the day, put there by the car park supervisor. It said: ‘Please do not park here – this space is reserved for consultants only’.
Well, they were a consultant! But the car park supervisor had made an assumption about the type of cars consultants drive, and they weren’t the one this person had parked in their reserved space – an old, rusty VW polo!
Whatever organisation we’re in, there are always little indicators of status. The church is just as bad as anyone else, with what order to line up in processions all carefully worked out depending on your status! No office is free of this, no school, no hospital. It matters to us!
Spin has also been around for a long time – it’s even present in the pages of the New Testament! A feature of Matthew’s gospel that we read from this morning, is that Matthew paints Jesus’ disciples in a much more favourable light than does the earlier gospel of Mark.
The story that we heard of Jesus putting a child in the middle of his disciples is a case in point. In Matthew’s gospel it happens in answer to the question from the disciples about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven – it’s a general question that Matthew puts in the mouth of the disciples for them to ask Jesus.
In Mark’s gospel the disciples are having a heated argument with each other about which one of them is the greatest – and Mark tells of Jesus intervening in their quarrel and placing a child in the middle of them! The teaching is the same, but the context quite different! Time and again Matthew does this, putting a more favourable spin on the disciples’ attitude!
These stories of Jesus placing a child in the middle of his disciples, and his teaching about who is truly the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, they’re a challenge to us.
Unless we change and become like children, we heard Jesus say, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. All claims to status or honour before God count for absolutely nothing!
We then heard Jesus talk about the little ones having in heaven their angels who continually see the face of God. The little ones are not just children but everyone who is marginal or less significant in the eyes of society.
There are three functions that angels have in the Bible.
They people the court of heaven, offering unceasing praise and worship; they also act as the messengers and agents through whom God intervenes in human affairs; and then there are guardian angels, watching over people and nations.
Only a very few angels were thought to have the privilege of continually seeing the face of God. And, as we heard, among them are the guardian angels of these little ones – what a powerful way of affirming their worth and standing in the eyes of God!
‘See what love the Father has given us’ we heard in our first reading, ‘that we should be called children of God.’
It’s a deep, radical truth that is affirmed and celebrated at every baptism:
‘Beloved,’ our first scripture reading went on to say,
‘we are God’s children.’
Today we are celebrating this, and doing so with deep conviction – this is what Clementine is – a child not just of Alex and Ellie, but a child of God.
And then after she’s baptised, David will sign her with the cross on her forehead and say to her:
‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.’
There are no ifs-or-buts hedging this around. The water is poured, the cross is placed – Clementine is a loved child of God.
I’ve mentioned before how I find the story of Justin Welby, our current archbishop, very moving. Some of you will remember when he had to face the media because he’d discovered that the person he thought was his father was in fact not his real father. DNA tests had revealed that his secret father was Sir Winston Churchill’s private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.
In an interview, Justin Welby said with his customary disarming simplicity:
‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
Justin Welby’s story highlights that there are no more precious words than these to know the truth of in our hearts: ‘You are a loved child of God!’
But that’s not all! In the same way as there’s physical and mental growth, there’s spiritual growth too. Being a child of God is something dynamic that changes and matures over the years – faith grows and deepens, spiritual maturity develops.
No sooner did we hear in that first reading that we are God’s children now, than the writer added:
‘What we will be has not yet been revealed.’
But if we are now a loved child of God, how can that be improved on? Where can we go from there that’s any richer or better than that?
Astonishingly, this is how that first reading put it:
‘What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’
The spiritual journey that Clementine is joining us in today has as its goal to be Christ-like. So there really is only this one requirement of us from beginning to end – and that’s a deep and continual commitment to the path of humility.
At the start of the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew gives us, Jesus sits down, gathers his disciples round him, and what does he say?
‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’