David Barton’s Sermon for Sunday 10-August —
Last week Soozy and I went to Italy, not for a baptism, but for another equally delightful rite of passage, a wedding. It took place high in the Apennines, in a beautiful mountain valley, with pine woods and chestnut woods, and alpine meadows filled with summer flowers. The church where the wedding took place is built on a rock, dominating the valley. We went up a long flight of steps to get into it and the guests packed the nave and the little chapels and transepts to watch. And there, in the middle of the crowd, the bride and groom made their promises to each other under the watchful eye of the parish priest. And that was what really mattered about the wedding. Not the setting, amazing as it was, but those vows and promises where two people pledge their lives to each other, for better for worse, for richer for poorer – and they reach for a lifetime in doing it: till death us do part.
I never cease to be moved by that. It’s so open, so bold, so risky. Two people pledging all for the love that is between them.
And something of the same belongs to baptism. We pour the water of God’s love onto Aurelia’s head. But will she know, will she understand the momentous promises made in her name at this moment? Perhaps, perhaps not. What we all have to learn is that the gift of God’s love is free of all constraint. We are free to accept, free the reject. Nor is this a brokered deal: if you do A, B and C, then you will get all the gifts of God. In many ways it would be a lot easier if it were – we would at least know where we are!
Ben and Rachael, standing in front of the altar, there in that mountain church, with the Italian photographer clicking away over the shoulder of the parish priest, said in effect to each other, I love you so much I will take you, whatever it is the future holds. God in baptism says, I love you, and I will go on loving you – whatever. The gift of love is unconditional.
We should remember this, because it is always the way of faith. Love and risk going together.
And the water of love, what is it? Today’s readings fill out what we understand by it all.
That passage from Joshua is really an echo of that other great crossing, over the Red Sea, as the gaggle of slaves escape with Moses from Egypt. Now, forty years later, they emerge from the desert and there is another river to cross. And this time the emphasis is on presence. It is the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant that keeps them safe. It is quite a picture. The river is in flood. As the priests carrying the ark put their feet in the water it banks up on one side, and drains away on the other. A really terrifying moment for desert people, most of whom would never have seen water in this quantity before. Over they go to the promised land, trusting that the presence of the ark in the middle of the stream will keep them safe from the towering waters to their side. No wonder John chose exactly this spot for his baptism and Jesus came here to be baptised.
But it is the Gospel story that takes us to the heart of the risk of faith. In a remarkable miracle, Jesus has just fed five thousand – a kind of declaration of the gifts he is bringing to us all. But it is becoming clear that both the Pharisees and Herod are seriously worried about this young Galilean preacher, and begin to plot against him. Jesus responds to that by sending the disciples across the lake while he himself goes into the mountain to pray. But on the lake a storm suddenly blows up. The boat is in peril. The disciples fear for their lives. At the worst moment, just as dawn is breaking, and from the very eye of the storm, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. At first they think it is a ghost, but his response reassures them. And then Peter, impetuous as always, makes an immediate switch from fear to enthusiasm. This is a great miracle and he Peter, wants a share in it. Lord, command me to come to you, he says. It’s as if Jesus decides to let the enthusiasm run. Come he says.
So Peter steps onto the water. He had expected the water to hold him like a road, and the wind to create safe cocoon around him. He had expected to tap into the miracle as if it were a commodity, a power game he could share in. But it is not like that. The water is water, the waves as dangerous as ever, and wind as powerful. Jesus walks on the water simply because he is who he is, Lord and creator of the universe. It is not magic. It is nature responding to her maker. And Peter in that moment learns he cannot get close to God by sheer willpower, but only by risking everything. He puts out his hand for the hand of Jesus. On that one gesture his whole life depends.
In the end it is the disciples in the boat who get it right. Truly you are the Son of God they say. They have come to the point their terrified ancestors reached as they crossed the Jordan. They trust the presence. And the boat rocks on the waves, as safely as if it were in harbour.
The early church never forgot this story. It is in all four gospels. Faith always needs an image, a story to remind us that the risk of faith in the worst of times will not fail. The story told them, and tells us two things that go together. First, that we are never, ever, away from the presence of God in Christ. If we put out a hand to him, even in the worst of times, we will be safe, no matter what. But also: that love is energy and life. Life not merely for us but for the world. After the resurrection the disciples scattered across the world, with this story in their minds, sharing its good news, changing lives.
One of the touching aspects of the wedding last week, was that both the bride and her husband referred in their speeches to the work she does in East London with some of the most vulnerable families – those who have slipped through every other net the welfare state provides. God’s gift of love is dynamic in just that kind of way.
As Aurelia is baptised in a few moments, it will be, as it always is, a renewal of the baptism of all of us. So as we give thanks for her, we can also give thanks for all the love God showers on us. And wonder to ourselves perhaps, whether we let its power flow into us and through us in the way God longs for.