This is for Lauren. It’s something quite unusual in these days of e-mails and text-messages: it’s a letter! You remember - pen, paper, writing. But there will be no envelope or stamp, because this is a letter I’m not going to post, I’m going to read it out loud - in place of the sermon, you’ll be pleased to know! And, Lauren, I’ll give a copy to your parents, so you can read it for yourself when you’re a bit older. It goes like this.
What a great day in your little life! You’ve been baptised! Cause for real celebration! Not that, for the moment, you understand all the fuss that’s being made of you today. Indeed a lot of grown-ups might not understand it either, particularly those who are only really interested in “wetting the baby’s head”. That’s because our society is now, at best, only nominally Christian. Hence the story of the woman who arrived on the doorstep of the local vicar, handed him her baby, and demanded, “Could you have him done, please, vicar, while I do some shopping?” Not to worry though, Lauren. Your parents know better, and the people here at Bethel know better, and one day, we pray, you will know better too. A famous French philosopher named RenÃ© Descartes once said, “Cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am.” Our consumer society has changed that to Tesco, ergo sum - I am because I shop. But Christians know that we are, not because we think, and certainly not because we shop, but because God made us and loves us. We are because we belong, belong to God. That’s what your baptism proclaims, Lauren - that you are not an idea that can be thought, or a commodity that can be bought, you are a child of the Father of Jesus and a member of his family the church.
In the olden days, Lauren, at her baptism, a child’s grandmother often gave her what’s called a “christening mug”. It was a mug you couldn’t use until you were big enough to sit at the table with your parents. But the day would come, and the child would then ask her mum and dad where the mug came from. And they would tell her that Grandma gave it to her, as a sign of her love for her. And the child would think, “Golly, Grandma loved me from the time I was born?” And that is so, from the time she was born, and before the time she was born. “So love comes to the child as a beautiful thing, an unseen and mysterious thing, a thing that was about her from the very beginning, even when she wasn’t aware of it. So the gift of the mug speaks of Christian baptism. It is a sign of the grace of God that precedes us, comes to us, goes with us all our life long without our ever asking or deserving” (adapted from A.M. Hunter, after P.T. Forsyth). Have you “done” while you mother is out there shopping, or even in here among family and friends on a Saturday afternoon? Never! Have you christened, have you baptised, and only on a Sunday morning, while we’re all here in church worshipping, celebrating what we’ve been freely given in Jesus, what can’t be merited, earned, or bought - or ever taken away.
But it’s true, Lauren, that the world will do its darndest to reduce you to an economic unit, giving you a pricetag but valuing you only insofar as you are productive. And, ironically, even as grown-ups are becoming more and more infantile in their habits, they will try to steal your childhood from you and turn you into an adult before your time. They will try to work you to death, though they’ll allow you to binge on evenings, weekends, and holidays. What a way to live! And if you object, if you refuse to conform, if you dare to suggest that life is more than business or fashion or celebrity, no, they won’t attack you, they’ll simply ignore you. But don’t let that fool you, Lauren: Christians have always thrived under persecution, it’s indifference that’s the real threat. They’ll insist that you hitch your faith to the wagon of establishment, or they’ll tell you to keep it to yourself in private, as a form of personal therapy, but they’ll turn their backs on you if you make it public and interfere with the system of domination and control that is our daily reality. It’s not the infliction of terrible pain but the saturation of trivial pleasure that contemporary Western Christians have to fear.
Which is why I’d be lying, Lauren, if I told you that being a Christian is going to be easy. Indeed it’s going to get harder and harder to swim against the stream, particularly as many churches themselves become shrines to the banality of feel-good religion. But our Lord Jesus did not call us to be self-centred yes-people, our vocation is to have a firm but interrogative faith, questioning ourselves and the status quo, exposing self-deceit and public delusion, begging to differ with the virtual reality of the politics of spin, and the horrible reality of povery, war, and terror. Every day of your life you will have to sort through the various options of identity on offer - money, power, fame - and to claim and re-claim your identity as a follower of the man from Nazareth, who fit no formula and lived not for himself but totally and transparently for others. And you are going to need courage, lots of courage, Lauren, to stand up and say “No!” to the superficiality, the mendacity, the violence of the world, and, to the contrary, to explore the depths of life, to speak the truth of God, and to walk the path of peace. And for that courage you will always need to be going back to basics, back to the beginning, back to today, to your baptism, to remind yourself that in this event you have died to the world’s ways and been raised to a new kind of life, and that you have been give the Holy Spirit to make you safe and free.
A famous Christian named Martin Luther suffered from terrible temptations to give up his faith as he stood against a decadent world and a corrupt church. But when things were at their worst, when he had all but given up and in, do you know what Martin would do? He would sit down calmly at a table and take a piece of chalk and write on it: Baptizatus sum! - I have been baptised! He would remember that he was God’s, and that (as he put it) sin, death, and the devil had no power over him, and because God was on his side, victory was assured. Did he expect, asked an opponent, that any force on earth would come to his aid? “No,” Martin replied. “Then where will you be?” thundered the opponent. And to that question Martin answered with words that go to the very heart of the matter. “Where will I be? I will be where I have always been - in the hands of God.” And if you ever think, “I’m not Martin Luther, I’m too insignificant,” well, remember the band of little men in The Lord of the Rings: “Even the smallest person,” wrote the book’s author, “can change the course of the future.”
Of course, Lauren, your church and your mum and dad will have a crucial part to play in nurturing your Christian faith, and no small part of this nurturing will be to encourage you to be your own unique self, and to help you to discover and develop your own special God-given gifts. And it will be tough for them, so do be patient with them. They will have to wrestle with the dilemma of protection and freedom. Too little protection too soon will expose you to danger, while too much protection too long will stifle your initiative, independence, and self-confidence. It will be like teaching you to swim: they won’t want to throw you in at the deep end, but one day they will have to let you out of the padding pool.
So do be patient with your elders - but also don’t be afraid to pester them. Challenge our answers with your questions, our laziness with your energy, our cynicism with your idealism, our hypocrisy with your candour, and our fears with your resolve. A writer named George Bernard Shaw once said that “It’s all the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.” To which I say, “Amen!”, for turning people inside-out and upside-down is the will of God. And Jesus himself said, not that children must grow up, but that adults must grow down, and re-discover the child within them.
So be tough-minded, but be careful not to become hard-hearted. And perhaps most important of all, make sure you keep your sense of humour and laugh a lot, lest you take yourself too seriously and become an old sourpuss! Your baptism proclaims your redemption - so act redeemed, and look redeemed too. Let your face express what your heart knows - and so bear your witness.
I think that’s enough for now. Preachers can go on a bit - even when they’re reading a letter! Perhaps we can talk again some day. I’d like that very much. Until then, I remain the minister who had the privilege of baptising you, and a friend who will always pray for you.