I’d just quickly like to re-read our first reading from Acts…..
“Many were baptized and added to the community”.
It’s certainly true that nearly 2000 years later many, many people – usually as infants – are still being baptized, certainly in our part of the country. In our own Parish of Monkwearmouth we have between six and ten baptisms every month. On Palm Sunday, when, at St Peter’s, I repeated my half serious invitation that if anyone knew anyone who might like to be baptized in the North Sea at our Easter Dawn service, someone came up to me afterwards to say that he did know someone who might like to be baptized in this way. I had to do a quick calculation of the tide times to add to the calculated time of the sunrise that morning! Although there were other reasons why we didn’t in the end go ahead, there appears to be no shortage of interest in baptism. Which is actually great good news for the Church.
So, just thinking back to our reading from Acts, if it’s still patently true that many continue to be baptized it’s the being “added to the community” bit where things don’t don’t seem to be working – not in the way that Luke reports in the vivid, exciting picture he paints of the early Church. Of many hundreds of people, lives transformed by the power of the resurrected Christ and his Holy Spirit, being baptized and beginning a new life of membership in God’s family, a people, Christ’s body here on earth, the Church. Where great things were beginning to be done in God’s name, offering the world new hope, new life, new joy, new purpose.
If the “being added to the community” bit were happening in our day there wouldn’t be room enough in our churches to hold everyone. Think of it. Between six and ten baptisms a month in our Parish. Times twelve that would be between 60 and 100 newly baptised members a year – up to 500 every five years – without including parents and godparents.
Now I want to say straight away that this is nothing new to many of us here. That over the years and continuing into the present there have been many across the Parish who have been working hard and faithfully – visiting families, helping with baptism preparation, meeting and greeting baptism enquirers at Surgery on Wednesday evenings, being present at services, welcoming and assisting.
Heart and soul dedication, warmth of welcome, prayerfulness – it’s second to none and I want to say thank you. Thank you if you have been involved in baptism ministry – and it is a ministry (in other words a service in the name of Jesus) – thank you for your hard work and faithfulness. And I am quite sure that God in many ways has been able, through you, to bring blessing to the great numbers who come our way asking for baptism for themselves or their children.
And yet. And yet. Despite the hard work. The warmth of the welcome. The precious time given up in already busy lives – despite all this – the “added to the community” bit still doesn’t seem to be working. Many still come requesting baptism, are welcomed, greeted, visited, attend baptism preparation – hopefully – ……and then we don’t see them again. Or at least not until another child is born and another baptism is requested.
Dispiriting it certainly can be. And it does seem strange, at least from our perspective. Baptism in the Christian understanding, marks the entry point, the start point of discipleship, the beginning of membership of the Church: “a family currently numbering two and a half billion members world-wide, of which your children are the very newest members”, I sometimes say at a baptism service. We do our level best to try and explain this. The baptism service is very plain. It invites parents and godparents to help the newly baptized person take up their rightful place in “the life and worship” of God’s family, the Church.
And yet, after which service we often never see our new family members again. I sometimes think it’s a bit like being given a season ticket and never joining the other supporters and going to a match. Or the keys to a fantastic car – a Ferrari or whatever – or the title deeds to a lovely house, or tickets to a wonderful holiday and holding these things for a few moments – making an occasion of it – and then putting them to one side. Not enjoying the great gift that has been offered.
And what is this gift? Nothing other than God himself. In Jesus, the one who gives us strength in all things, peace beyond measure, forgiveness, wholeness, purpose. Life in all its fulness. It’s not simply about “going to church”. But maybe that’s the problem. The thought that some people perhaps have that that’s all it is. Coming to a big stone building each week and singing hymns. If that is the case, if it is what people think, including those many who come for baptisms – even if it’s wrong – but if it’s what people think – then a whole load of obstacles begin to stack up:
Unfamiliarity with services and the worry about feeling awkward or foolish; a ready assumption that it must be boring or irrelevant; that it’s impractical on a Sunday morning; “I’m not good enough”, believe it or not, I’ve heard being given as a reason for not coming to church. Above all else, a belief for many who do, perhaps quietly, struggle for meaning and purpose – look for answers to the big questions in life – that coming to church will not provide them with what they are looking for. And that’s a challenge to us always to work hard to try to provide every opportunity to show people that it can and does.
No, being baptised isn’t just about joining in the traditions of the Church: particular, locally inherited styles of worship or whatever. Of course not. When people say or think that they’re quite right. But neither is coming together for worship an optional extra: a choice. And “choice” is something which speaks very strongly into people’s lives today, and can be another issue as to whether people become part of the Church.
Look again at our reading from Acts: “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people”. It actually sounds wonderful. Hugely attractive to want to join. These are the first communion services. The first Christians – men, women, children – in communion with one another and, together, in communion with God. Fellowship, prayer and broken bread shared in the name of Christ.
It is in God’s great wisdom that he instructs us to come together – for as long as we are able physically to do so. It is meeting together – in enjoying being together – that we are strengthened for service in his name. It is the very best way that his Spirit is enabled to breathe life into his people, the Church, and, though sent out often in our separate directions, through shared active service, give hope to the world.
It may be tempting to get a little tetchy with baptism families and the many friends they bring with them – “they just want the occasion” (and they do certainly want to celebrate); “they don’t take it seriously”; “it’s just a family tradition” or whatever; “they don’t know how to behave in church” (and some big baptisms can certainly get a bit rowdy!); “they get dressed up like they’re going to a nightclub”. And it’s true that none of this makes it particularly easy for us to share with them the profound gift God is offering in baptism.
“They” do this, or “they” don’t do that or whatever. “They”. “Them”. Well, Christ died for “them” too. Perhaps many simply have never had the chance to know it yet. Nobody’s told them. Nobody’s shown them. They simply don’t know what God is like. Have never yet known the transforming friendship to be found in the person of Jesus Christ – his incredible grace and all embracing, unconditional love.
The scary thing is that it’s us – and only us – that can show them.
I have to say that in visiting families who come to us for baptism – young mums and dads – I have only ever encountered real human beings: anxious to do the right thing for their children; often a little nervous that the vicar is coming to see them; sometimes stressed and tired from a busy day, yet often full of energy and ideas and imagination; wanting to take the whole business of life (including the baptism of their children) seriously; vulnerable; gracious; shy; hospitable; struggling with pressures of various kinds, not least the demands of young children; demonstrating all kinds of wonderful potential.
How do we do it? How do we enable the many who come to the churches of our parish for baptism to move along from the opportunities we have with them for the encounter, engagement and involvement I mentioned a couple of Sundays’ ago to discipleship and active membership of God’s great family? Well, of course, firstly, it’s not ultimately up to us to try to work for “a result”. It is God’s Spirit which ultimately prompts the human heart and it is for the owner of that heart to respond or not. But we still need to do what we can.
Perhaps we feel that the task is just beyond us. The cultural gulf between Church and life lived in contemporary secular society just too big. The issues too complex. The challenge insurmountable. The sheer numbers overwhelming. Then I do invite you to pray about it. Shortly, there will be available the names of all those who have been recently baptized. Please pray for them and their families.
And also, please, pray regularly for all those of us who are engaged directly in baptism ministry, whether on Wednesday evenings at the Parish Office, the Baptism Preparation evening on the final Thursday of the month, during home visits and on Sunday mornings in the baptism services now held each week. Consider, too, staying around for baptism services, to meet, greet and welcome, get to know the many who come to us.
There is no task too big, too challenging for the Spirit of God. Let’s call on him to help us. Imagine if all those many hundreds of baptized children, with their families really did begin to be added to the community of Christ, just in those first days of the Church. Let’s allow our imagination to excite us, and then see what, with God’s help, we might do about it. Perhaps we need our own thinking challenging, too. Maybe for too long we have expected not to see baptism families again rather than wonder why it might be that they don’t return, or what we might do that might, just might, encourage some to come back.
Just a final thought about our reading from Acts. Yes – God was doing something very specific at this point: he poured out his Holy Spirit in the most dramatic, extraordinary way in Jerusalem at Pentecost in order to kick-start the Church; we might well expect there to have been mass conversions – just as, indeed, in our very own Parish little more than a century ago in the time of Alexander Boddy, the Holy Spirit, likewise, was poured out at Hall of All Saints’ Church.
But in both these defining moments – as though sending a current through an electric lightbulb lighting up every corner in a room – God was showing what the Church could and should be like. A vision for us to pray and work for. When all might hear clearly the voice of the Good Shepherd Jesus and “have life in all its abundance”.