This Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and we were to have had three baptisms in church, before we had to close down again because of the darned omicron variant. Xander, Nola and Annika would have been brought to church by their parents and godparents today, and welcomed through baptism into the family of the worldwide Christian Church, in its particular incarnation here as St Aidan’s. It was to have been a really special day of new beginnings for these three children. And I know there are many young families at St Aidan’s who came to our church initially because they wanted a child to be baptized, and so the journey began.  

In my years in ministry it’s always a thrill to meet a family (or sometimes an individual) for the first time because they’re inquiring about baptism. I usually do a home visit so that we can chat, get comfortable with each other, and I can tell them a bit about what baptism means and how the service goes, and also tell them what the church they’ll be coming to has to offer and is busy with. I explain that baptism is the beginning of a journey, the start of a special kind of belonging. And it’s about entering into a particular faith community where the child and the family can grow and develop in their faith. I encourage them to come to our services before the baptism, so that they can get to know us and feel they’re already part of the community.  

Not every family returns after the baptism and gets involved. Some we never see again, because they hold onto the view that it’s just important to “get the baby done,” and that’s it. They’ve often internalized a belief that if the child should die unbaptized some terrible fate would await it. So it’s the baptism itself that’s vital to them, not the faith journey afterwards. I’ve done all I can to teach folks that that’s not what we understand baptism to be: it’s not about inoculating the child against hell; it’s not about getting God onto the child’s side. But for a very long time churches taught just that, and encouraged people to bring their babies for baptism as soon as possible.  

In the New Testament it’s clear that baptism is just the start of something. It’s a radical moment in a much longer journey. When John was baptizing, he had a lot to say about how people should shape up and turn their lives around after baptism. It wasn’t meant to be a single dunk in the water and goodbye.  

In today’s reading from the book of Acts we hear how some Samaritans, a group traditionally ostracized and looked down on, became Christians through the preaching of the apostle Philip. First they were baptized, and then later they were given new spiritual gifts through the Holy Spirit, when Peter and John laid hands on them. It was a process, an unfolding, a journey.  

When Jesus himself was baptized and was praying afterwards, he had an experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon him and he heard God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved son. I delight in you.” And in the very next verse in Luke’s gospel it says, “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work.” He went from baptism into a 40-day retreat, then started his ministry. Clearly his baptism was a pivotal moment.  

Baptism, ours just like Jesus’, is an affirmation of what is already true: that each of us is beloved. As the reading from Isaiah said, God has called us by name, loves us, and is with us through all of life’s trials. When a child is brought for baptism, or an adult presents him or herself for baptism, we affirm again that they are “Christ’s own forever.” It’s a sacrament of belonging and belovedness.  

And it’s the start of a journey. That’s why in our baptism services we not only say what it is that we believe, but also commit ourselves to live our faith out in various ways: through gathering together to worship and pray; through striving for justice and peace; through respecting every human being; through working to sustain and renew the life of the earth. Our baptismal covenant, this relationship between us and God through Jesus, not only calls us to faith but also calls us to action.  

Our faith is rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. We inherit a living tradition that has flowed from Galilee 2000 years ago to the present day. Our actions will differ in specifics according to the context and needs we live in today. Respecting the dignity of every human being for the first followers of Jesus meant welcoming non-Jews into the community as their equals. Respecting the dignity of every human being for abolitionist Christians in the nineteenth century meant fighting for the end of slavery in the Americas. To Archbishop Desmond Tutu in our day it meant denouncing apartheid in S. Africa, and affirming that God is not homophobic.  

What does it mean for us, here, today? We start our services at St Aidan’s by repeating some of the key parts of our baptismal covenant, to remind ourselves that standing for justice, working for reconciliation, caring for the earth are all ways that we live out our Christian faith today. They are essential parts of the journey that begins at baptism.  

When we are able to re-open the church doors and go back inside for the first time in so long, you’ll see that the font is now just inside the sanctuary after you pass through the new vestibule. It’s in its traditional place at the entry to the building, reminding everyone who walks past it that baptism is a beginning on the journey of faith. In some churches there is water in the font at all times, so that people can touch it and trace the sign of the cross on their forehead or heart as they go in – a symbolic gesture to say that you’re rededicating yourself to your calling as a Christian; you’re remembering that you are beloved and named and called by God. I’d like to do that.  

Even though we can’t baptize Annika and Nola and Xander today, we can hold in our hearts and enact in our lives what baptism means: that it’s a step on this wondrous, demanding, life-changing journey as people following Jesus.  

One last thought for you to ponder: Where are you on that journey? John the Baptist used the image of the Messiah sorting the wheat from the chaff (husk), which I don’t see as sorting the good guys from the bad, but sorting the good and bad in each of us. What is God working on in you?  

We all have parts of our lives that are not life-giving, that can trap us in destructive and self-destructive patterns of thought and behaviour, both on a personal level and societally. It’s the Holy Spirit working in us that can free us from those things, and enable us to bear fruit. Again, it’s a journey; it’s a process. We’re all learning, and this community of faith, this family of St Aidan’s, is where we practise and grow together.  

You don’t have to be perfect to be a Christian. You don’t have to have it all together, or know the Bible inside-out, or be certain about all aspects of your faith. You just have to trust that you are beloved, and God is working in your life. And then this journey, that for many of us began at baptism years ago, is an adventure that lasts a lifetime.  

What is God working on in you? If your faith journey had a chapter heading now, what would it be? I know someone who is working on trusting God as she faces a terminal illness. I know someone else who is working with God on forgiving a person who did him great harm. For myself, God is teaching me how to let go of anxiety and a desire for specific outcomes, and trust that the future is in God’s hands.  

There’s a lifetime of learning, as God’s Spirit works in us. Thanks be to God that we’re on this path together. Amen.