SERMON: Naming The Places of our Strength

Signposts on the Journey — the relationship between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist

Revd David Barton’s Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 9-March-14

When I first started teaching in London in the early seventies, we lived in a flat in North Paddington.  It was an area that had been scheduled for redevelopment, and short distance away there were several streets of derelict houses waiting to be pulled down and made into flats. Inevitably they were occupied by squatters, and (this was after all the seventies) there was a drug problem. It was all rather sad.

Shortly after we moved in, a young Franciscan lay brother came to live in one of the derelict houses. He simply wanted to be a Christian presence in the place.  It was a brave thing to do.  But before too long a string of people were knocking at his door, to talk or to find refuge.   After a while I used to celebrate the Eucharist with him.  He  made a little chapel out of a room in his house, and there, sitting on cushions, we would read the scriptures together, pray for our neighbourhood and break the bread and share the cup.    And then I would leap into the car and go off to teach for the day.

As the weeks passed I became more and more aware of how much those celebrations meant to him.  I knew that he was often woken in the night by someone asking his help.  But he was always there, never missing.   He was so clearly renewed by this gift of word and bread and wine. It was the place of his strength.   And I too learned a new depth to this service – a sense of being grounded in a depth beyond my own resources.

This is a sermon about the sacraments, and the most important thing I want to say is simply that – the life and the vitality that is there in the reading of the word, the breaking of bread, and the water poured in Baptism.  This is the way God chooses to share God’s life with us: printed word, bread and wine and water.   And I think that the most important thing we can do as Christians is to learn to see this, and to let the life it brings work its way in us and renew us.

What exactly is a sacrament?  Well, I guess you remember the Sunday School definition:  “A sacrament is the outward sign of an inward and invisible grace.”  It is about something material, solid, that nevertheless reveals God.  This is very distinctive to Christianity.  The Christian faith is not a “teaching”, not a “philosophy of life”.  Christ showed us God’s love through wood and iron, and nails driven into flesh. We would not know the depth of God’s love if it was not for that.   And that is what we share in, time and again.   In a few minutes we’ll recall that last meal of Jesus with his disciples.  It is an extraordinary thing.  80 of us here, our minds being pulled back, week by week, to an event 2,000 years ago in the upper room.

The last supper is basically a very ordinary meal.  But at this moment Jesus knew what would happen next, and he was not going to avoid it.   So when he comes to distribute the food to his disciples, it is as if the whole of himself – that constant giving of himself in healing and teaching over the past three years – is summed up in this action.  The broken bread anticipates the breaking of his life on the cross.  The wine poured is the pouring out of his life. He literally and symbolically gives his life to his followers.   Perhaps we should translate the words: “This is my body, this is my blood. as: “This is me.  This is what I am like.”  A whole lifetime poured into a single action.

But that was not the end of this supper.  Because when two disciples break bread with a stranger at Emmaus a few days later, they discover it is Jesus.   Then they have breakfast on the shores of Galilee and they realise the stranger who gives it to them is the risen Christ.  And the disciples are changed by it.  This morning we do the same: we do as Jesus asks us – we remember the night before he died, and in bread and wine we taste of the new life Jesus gives in the resurrection. Something that slowly has the capacity to change us.   That coming together of the gifts of God and material things is what we call sacrament.

Now today’s Gospel gives us the model for those other sacraments – baptism and confirmation.  We baptise because Jesus was baptised and commanded us to do the same.  But notice something about that passage.   Jesus is baptised into his ministry,  and then he is endowed with the Spirit in the symbol of the dove.   From the beginning Christians have always put Baptism and Confirmation together like that.  Essentially two things, bound together.

Ten years ago I went to Africa to stay with a friend who had become the bishop of a remote Diocese in Western Tanzania. I spent most of my time with him on what he called “Safari” – Baptism and Confirmation safari!  The Diocese covered a huge area and there were no roads.  It meant hours of driving down very bumpy tracks!  In one area there was a strange spirit religion – though it was less about religion and more about exploiting peoples fears.  People were threatened with magic and their lives made a misery.   In one village a group of people had had the courage to break free from it all, and they came forward to join the church.  They were prepared by their parish priest and my friend came to baptise and confirm.  It was a moving moment.  They were, literally, stepping out of darkness and fear into freedom and light, and the service had that quality about it. They were baptised, confirmed and, along with their new Christian family, shared in communion.  The singing and the drumming were unforgettable.  It was possible there to see how the Christian church grew in its early decades and why baptism and confirmation became such a powerful and important sacramental rite.  For those who joined it was a new life, a new way of living.  What Paul calls “a new creation.”I wonder, do we see baptism like that?  Baptism is is a gift.  It remains for the rest of our lives.  Do we dig into the resource it gives us?  Live in its power?  Its a question we all should ponder.

And do so while we think about this other issue we face:  how we relate confirmation to baptism, and both of those things to communion.

In the early days of the church, baptism and confirmation always went together, for both adults and children.   And in the orthodox churches of the East that is still the case.  Babies are baptised in the font, anointed with oil blessed by the bishop, and are given communion.  That unbroken tradition from the earliest church has served them well – some have been under of Muslim rule for centuries, others long hard years under Communism.  But their churches today are alive – indeed full.

But in the west, from the third century onwards, baptism and confirmation became separated.     Parish clergy baptised. The bishop came later to confirm.  And that is the situation we, as Anglicans inherited at the reformation.  But I have to say, over the centuries it has not been very satisfactory.  Both before and after the reformation Bishops have often found other things to do, and there were times when confirmation became rare, even dropped out altogether.

Most of us here have experienced good confirmation practice.  From the end of the 19th  Century Bishops were regularly visiting their parishes to confirm.   And it fitted with the way society worked.  Certainly by the time I was confirmed confirmation for 13/14 year olds was a kind of teenage rite of passage for many families.

But that is not the sort of society we have now.  Things are much more fluid.  Teenagers do not come forward as they once did.  And, I am sorry to say, quite a number of those that do, once confirmed, fall away from the church very quickly.    It is not really very satisfactory.    Many of our sister churches – Canada and Scotland to name but two – have faced the same problem.  Their solution has been to affirm the faith of the family.  They now admit children to communion at the age of about seven – solemnly and with proper ceremony – and confirmation is reserved for an older decision about full membership and commitment.  And that is what is suggested for us.

But before we start, let me say:  this is not just an organisational question.  It is about welcoming children into the place from which the church draws its strength, and allowing them to find the meaning of that intuitively.  And we should not underestimate the instinctive capacity of young children to learn about what is important.

You can read more about the issues surrounding
Communion Before Confirmation by clicking here.