Baptism always raises an interesting question for me. Will Ellie be more a child of God after her baptism today that she is right now? Or in other words does God love Ellie quite a lot at the moment, but after her baptism in a few minutes will God love her loads more? Nonsense – obviously.
God loves all people equally – we are all children of God, whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not, and whichever God we think we worship. So what’s going on?
The same question comes up on the feast of Pentecost as well. Is there more Holy Spirit in the world now than there was before that first Pentecost? Was God sort of only half involved in the world before, and then on the day Pentecost got fully involved? And is God only really fully involved with Christians? Again – nonsense, obviously.
The Holy Spirit broods over the face of the waters at creation in Genesis 1, and if creating the world isn’t being fully involved, then what is!
Somehow I think we need to think of a new way of what it means to be and become a child of God or what it means to receive the Holy Spirit without implying that some people are not fully children of God or do not know the Holy Spirit. We need to find a sort of ‘become what you already are’ theology.
Baptism traditionally does two things: it forgives our sins and it makes us full members of the Christian Church. Both of which are problematic when we are baptising a baby like Ellie who hasn’t had time to commit any sins worth talking about, and who hasn’t made her mind up yet whether she wants to join the Anglican Church of Canada.
And Pentecost traditionally celebrates two things as well: The birth of the Christian Church and the power to proclaim the Christian message in lots of different languages. Which might also be seen as somewhat problematic if it means the disciples were somehow not real followers of Jesus when they were – well – following Jesus. And the bit about being empowered by the Spirit to speak the message boldly is also problematic when we look at some of the preaching that has gone on in pulpits for two thousand years.
So we probably need a lot of new theology: new theology about sin, new theology about what the Church is and another look at what preaching is meant to do to us. Quite a lot of new things !
I want to go back to that phrase ‘become what you are’ which might sound like the album by the Juliana Hatfield Three but was said by Nietzsche a hundred years before that, and was probably said by someone else thousands of years before that. I want to say that we need to let go of the idea of the all or nothing kind of theology – the ‘on – off ‘ switch kind of theology. The idea that right now Ellie, for example, has nothing, – because she hasn’t been baptised – but in a few minutes she will have everything – because she will have been baptised. To me that just seems wrong.
I know is says in Ephesians – once you were darkness, now you are light – but it’s hard to think that Moses, and King David, and Ezekiel – for example – were in complete darkness, isn’t it – and I don’t think they were.
So perhaps we can look at liturgies, at Sacraments like Holy Baptisms, as being more of a celebration of what is, rather than sitting in darkness and turning on the light. I think we can in fact say that Ellie is already a child of God, and has been for a long time – and that that is why we are baptising her as a child of God – she is becoming what she already is.
Perhaps we can even say that the disciples were already filled with Holy Spirit, which is why they had to be filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. In fact, perhaps we can just say that we need events, celebrations, ritual gestures in order to become what we already are: that we need a birthday party so that we can be a year older, that we need a ceremony so that we can say that we love one another, that we need a gay pride march, so that we can be proud of being gay – that sort of thing – not that it changes anything, we are already a year older, or in love, or out and proud, – but that it somehow changes everything.
We can say that we need to go through the ritual of baptism together to say that Ellie is a child of God who is being brought up in the Christian Church because Ellie is already a child of God who is being brought up in the Christian Church. That we need a day of Pentecost to say that we are filled with the Holy Spirit and are given the power to talk about it because we are already filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to talk about it.
But – and there is always a but: first of all, if that is true then we need to start living as if it’s true. And secondly, where is God in all this?
The first is easy to deal with – yes – if being a child of God is to mean anything at all – then we have to start living as if it means something to be a child of God – as if our sins have been forgiven, and as if we are members of the Church.
And if it is true we have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then we have to start living as if we had been given them – love, joy, peace, etcetera. A baptism certificate and a Pentecost liturgy are good reminders of that.
The second – where is God in all this – follows on, because it’s actually quite hard to be what we already are – it’s quite hard to live lives as a child of God – so we need some help and encouragement to be who we are, to live our lives as who we are… to be what St Irenaeus calls ‘fully human’ – in fact, we need grace – which is just a fancy church word for the encouragement, care, and love of an encouraging, caring, and loving God, who just like a mother on earth praises what a child does, so that the child can do better in the future what that child is already doing in the present.
Or as St Paul puts that: When we cry ‘Abba! Father ! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. In other words God says : ooh, that’s lovely dear.
I rarely end with a poem, but since Ann put a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins at the end of her weekly newsletter, let me read a few lines from his poem ‘As kingfishers catch fire’
The just man ….
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.