Sermon for Sunday 26 September 2021
Trinity 17 Year B 2021
“Both epic and intimate”
Those are words from the Financial Times’ review of Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt. It is currently running in the West End and I saw it last week.
It’s a terrific play and a first rate production. It recounts the tragic history of an extended Jewish family living in Vienna from the golden age of the end of the C19th through to the appalling catastrophe of the Holocaust.
There was indeed some both epic and intimate about the story. Epic in that the play’s backdrop was some of the most significant events of modern European history. But intimate too – intimate in that it revealed the effects of those forces made known in a series of individual lives in an individual family.
We gather today to celebrate the baptism of Aslan Rose Juniper. And as we baptise her, there is something both epic and intimate about her baptism too.
Epic, in that baptism roots us in the big picture of the story of God’s saving action in human history – from his rescuing of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to his defeat of death in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But intimate as well, in that it unites one particular person with Christ. It washes Aslan’s sins away, and pours Christ’s grace into her heart as a personal gift that places her on the pilgrimage of faith that leads to God.
One of the things at the heart of that new play of Stoppard’s is the idea of identity, and how complex a notion it is amidst the shifting politics and opinions of the world we live in. It explored how a range of different people related to both Jewish and Christian identity in an array of circumstances.
The play raises many questions. Is our identity a given that you can’t change? Is it something imposed from outside ourselves, or something each individual can define for themselves? Is it something we can create or change or alter?
One of the things at the heart of baptism is also identity. In the life we live in the secular world, identity is a constantly shifting thing. We all of us change who we are and present a subtly different self in the scenarios we find ourself in. It all depends on what we want to project or achieve.
Yet in baptism, we discover God gives us an identity that cannot change or shift or alter, for the very simple reason that it is an identity rooted in his love.
When we are baptized we become a child of God, and are made one with Christ. No matter how wealthy we become, how famous we are, no matter what difference me make, or how insignificantly we live, nothing can change the fact that our first identity, the primary sense of who we are, is that we are a beloved child of God. That identity reaches beyond time, and culture, and history and genetics. It is more powerful than money or status or ambition.
Baptism is quite simply the gift of God, to know we are loved in Christ and can live in him.
The consequences of that gift are obvious and significant for Christian parents and godparents as they bring up a child entrusted to them by God. It means we learn gradually to live not for ourselves but for others. It means we place the worship of God at the heart of our lives and make time and room for it. It means we profess our faith in Christ amidst the changing ideas and fleeting ideologies of our age. And it means we live in the hope of eternal life, that human existence is not just some arbitrary accident but something we are promised continues into eternity after our death.
Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the C4th puts this mystery very well. He said,
“We who are reborn through the sacrament of baptism have the greatest joy, as we perceive within us the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit, as we begin to understand mysteries; we gain knowledge of prophecy, speech full of wisdom, security in our hope, and gifts of healing…These gifts, like drops of liquid, permeate our inner self, and so beginning, little by little, produce fruits in abundance.”
As we move to the font in a few moments, let us pray for Aslan as she makes her first steps along the road of faith. Let us pray that, to use Hilary’s words, the graces of baptism drop into her life like precious liquid, and produce fruits in abundance. Let us pray for her as she begins this journey of faith – an adventure that is both epic and intimate, and which one day will lead her home to God, from whom all love and all compassion and all identity comes.