In a few minutes we will be baptising Harry and Tyler into the Church. But why are we doing it? What's it all about? I mean, its a bit of an odd thing to do isn't it...to pour some water over someone's head in the name of God?
Well, perhaps the first thing to say about baptism is that it is a very ancient practice. We know that for 2000 years, Christians have been doing this simple thing to each other. It stems out of a command that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them to carry on his work: "Go into all the world and make disciples - baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:18)
Jesus himself was baptised, in the River Jordan. So baptism is something that we do out of obedience to Jesus. We do it because he told us to...even though we might not understand it very well.
The second thing we can say about baptism is that it is a sign, a symbol - of something much deeper than what we shall see on the surface. (Note for website only: The technical term for this, within the church, is the word "sacrament" - which, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, means something that is an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace".)
We see signs all around us, don't we? On remembrance day, we wear a poppy. On World Aids day, we wear a ribbon. When we drive down a street, we see road signs. What are these things? A flower. A ribbon. Some marks on a circle of metal. But because we know what they mean, these signs have resonance for us. We know that the poppy reminds us of those who have given their lives so that we can live in peace. We know that the ribbon reminds us that AIDS is a disease which millions are suffering from. We know that a circle with the number 20 in it means that we should drive safely.
So what is it that baptism is symbolising? Well, pretty clearly, it's a symbol of washing and cleansing. Christians believe that baptism is an essential part of the process of having our sins washed away.
But what is sin?
Sin is anything that gets in the way of us truly becoming the people that God created us to be. It's the bad stuff, the general rubbish and clutter of our lives, that comes between us and God. It's a difficult word, isn't it? Somehow we have got used to thinking of sinners as being those people who do the very worst things. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and so on. But that's only partly true.
Scripture tells us that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23). We've all 'fallen short'. I'm a sinner...and I hope that you'll forgive me for saying this... we are all 'sinners'. I'm not insulting you...honestly! I'm just using the word in the way it was meant to be used! None of us, if we examine ourselves honestly could ever claim to be perfect. And that's the dividing line. We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners.
But the message of Baptism is that God never gives up on us. God is always reaching out to us, and offering us the chance to become more and more like him. He offers to take away our sin, and helps us to become more and more God-like. More like the people, created in God's image, that God intended us to be.
Baptism is a part of that process. It's an outward sign that God is at work in us. It's a sign of our saying 'yes' to the process of becoming more like God. For Harry and Tyler (who will probably scream when I pour water on their head) - it's a sign that their parents, on their behalf, are saying 'yes' to God as well.
But why would we want to do that at all? Why would we want to become more like God? The story of the Good Samaritan, which we just saw on the screen, might help us to find an answer.
In that story - which Jesus told - a man was going on a journey. While he was walking along, minding his own business, he was set upon by a group of thugs. Various important people walked right on past him. But eventually, a Samaritan stopped and took care of him. The story of the Good Samaritan has all sorts of things to teach us.
Samaritans were generally hated by the people that Jesus was talking to. If he was preaching to us, he might have used a Gypsy or a Traveller, instead of a Samaritan. Or, if he was preaching to the kind of ignorant people who vote for the British National Party, he might have used an African, or a Pakistani man.
We have a young friend who was visiting us last week. At the end of the evening, he set out to walk home, just a few streets away - but accidentally left his keys on the kitchen table. About 10 minutes later, I got a phone-call from him. He apologised profusely, and asked if I would mind coming out in my car to bring him his keys...because he was too nervous to walk back to my house. The reason was that as he had walked down London Road, he had been treated to a torrent of abuse from a group of young people. They shouted and screamed at him that he should go back to Pakistan. The irony is that these young British thugs were too stupid to realise that my young friend is training to be a doctor...someone who would be able to help them if they were ever ill. And worse still, they were too stupid to realise that my friend is, in fact, an African, not a Pakistani! He looks nothing like a man from Pakistan! I really fear for the spiritual health of our nation when our young people show themselves to be that stupid!
The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us about the need to stop judging other people because of their race, or their background. Samaritans were hated. But Jesus tried to show his listeners that such hatred was pointless. A Samaritan was just as capable of being a good neighbour as anyone else.
The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a different way. It shows us that it is possible to live a life that is based on giving, instead of getting. It shows us how generosity has the power to transform lives. The Samaritan in the story simply gave...of his time, his money, his medicine, his bandages... without looking for any reward. Except the satisfaction of simply doing good.
In doing so, he mirrored the way that God acts towards us. God is, by nature, a giver. God gives us his very breath, by giving us life. He gives us an amazing planet to live on, full of beauty and challenge. He gave us his son, to show us what he was like. He gives us healing and forgiveness every time we turn to him. He gives us his Spirit to help us to learn the Truth about who we are, and who He is.
I wonder what our society would look like if all of us lived that way. It's just possible that if more people embraced Jesus' way of living, that this world would be a far happier, far more sharing, far less destructive place for us all to live in. Wars over resources would be solved by people learning to share. Poppies would become a thing of the past. AIDS would be cured because money would get spent on medical research instead of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Ribbons wouldn't be needed anymore.
That's the sort of way of life that Harry and Tyler's parents (and God-parents) are signing them up to today. It takes courage to stand up at the front of a church in the way they are going to do in a few moments. And it takes courage to say "yes" to God's way of living...and "no" to doing things the old way. It takes courage to embrace God, and reject sin. It takes courage to step out on a journey of faith...and that is courage that I welcome and applaud.
Now - let's do some baptising!