Jesus took a little child in his arms and said – whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me ….
May I speak in the name of …..
That’s quite a good verse for a baptism Sunday – here we are welcoming children – Ayrton, Jasmine and Nathan – and all in Christ’s name – and so, Jesus says, here we are welcoming Christ himself. That feels pretty good!
But as all parents know, not everyone welcomes children quite so easily – I remember a very dramatic moment when my son – aged about three at the time – knocked over an entire carafe of red wine in a rather upmarket french restaurant in Calais – the waiters didn’t blink an eyelid as they changed everything, but I bet they had something to say back in the kitchen!
But welcoming very young children into church is not just the temperamental difference between those who think children should be seen and not heard and those who think children should be seen, heard and enjoyed – some Christians ask themselves a much much deeper question: which is this; is our Christian faith first and foremost a religion of ideas and beliefs – a grown-up religion for grown-up people – something you join when you are old enough to understand and make that decision for yourself – a bit like joining a political party – in which case children should surely wait until they are old enough to understand and make their own decisions,
or is Christianity a family and a community kind of religion, – a bit like moving home to live in a new neighbourhood – in which case children, adults, the elderly, the wise, the foolish, the good and the bad alike, can all create a new life inside a new place and can believe their ideas and beliefs at their own pace and in their own way.
Anglicans – like Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches tend to think that christianity is more like moving into a new community. Reformed protestant churches, especially churches like the Baptist church which doesn’t baptise babies, tend to think it’s a bit more like joining a political party – you have to be old enough to make up your own mind.
But Anglicans and Roman Catholics, unlike the Eastern Orthodox Christians – like to have their cake and eat it – and so, over the centuries, we developed a curious system where babies are welcomed into the new religious neighbourhood at baptism, but don’t actually get to join the party until they are old enough to make their own mind up as teenagers and be confirmed. One of the duties of you godparents are taking on is to encourage Ayrton, Jasmine and Nathan to be confirmed when they grow up. And if you are not yet confirmed yourselves you might like think about it before your godchild is old enough to ask! We do a very good course here!
The Eastern Orthodox Churches, by the way, hold a different view. They baptise, confirm and then give communion to babies all at the same time at the same service. The catch comes at about age 12 when they invite children to make their first confession – that, for them, is the adult sign of membership and commitment.
So does what we believe about our faith matter? It is quite obvious that Ayrton, Jasmine and Nathan can be welcomed in Christ’s name into our Christian community – and it is also quite obvious that they have very little understanding about what it means to be a disciple of Christ. They cannot recite the creed. They cannot yet give an account of why they are a Christian.
About 30 years ago when individual churches and synods debated whether or not to allow young children to receive communion before they were confirmed – the usual objection was that they would not understand what they are doing. And indeed, it is true, many of them may not understand – in an adult kind of way – what they are doing. It became a sticking point for some.
Although never explicitly said – we were back to the old question – is Christianity more like a community neighbourhood in which people grow up, or more like a political party which people believe in and join.
Over the last ten years bishops and archbishops have been trying to push the Anglican Church more and more into the political party kind of mode – There was an attempt to create an Anglican Covenant – a set of beliefs which all Anglicans believe – it was, an attempt to define us by what we believe rather than by who we live with.
And, if we are honest with ourselves, I think we still prefer the ‘what do you believe’ kind of question. What exactly is a Christian then? What exactly do Anglicans believe? It would be so neat if we could give clear and simple answers to those questions – Christians, Anglicans believe the following 1: 2: 3: – but even when it ought to be really obvious – Christians believe in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit: for example – there are always people on the edges who call themselves Christians and yet believe something else: Quakers, Unitarians,
And what about the Bible? – I was taught ’66 books has God’s Holy Word’ – except that if I were a Roman Catholic then the bible would have 73 books in it, and if I were an Orthodox Christian then it would have 78 books in it. If a person ceases to believe in the Virgin Birth, – do they cease to be a Christian? Some would say so – some would not – If a person ceases to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, should they be cast out from the community? Some would say yes: others would not.
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”
You see, I think wanting to be right is a big craving. And yet, perhaps being a disciple of Jesus is less about being right, and more about doing and being in the right place. – read the epistle to St James.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
So, for example, I believe that Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King were very great Christians – and I yet I believe they were wrong about many things. I believe that Pope Francis is a very great and holy Christian, and yet I believe that he is wrong about many things as well – I’m waiting for the day when he proclaims infallibly that he is might sometimes be wrong.
And yes, I believe that I may be wrong about many things – and that you may be wrong about things as well – and yet I am a Christian, and you are Christians, and together we are disciples of Jesus.
People who have chosen to live together in the same spiritual neighbourhood, not people who have all signed up to believing the same things.
And so as we baptise Ayrton and Jasmine and Nathan this morning we do not know what is going on in their minds. We do not know what they believe about God, or faith, or prayer or Jesus. We – as a community – do not even know what you, parents and godparents actually believe about all those things, you probably don’t know what we think about all these things – and if we are honest, we probably do not even know ourselves what we believe about all these things – and yet we are here. You have chosen to bring Ayrton and Jasmine and Nathan to this cathedral to be baptised this morning – you have chosen to say that you belong here, in this place – that you are a christian, and you have chosen that name for your children. Out of all the possible pathways in this world you have chosen Christ.
And we have welcomed you in the name of Christ – we have welcomed you as one of us – as people who belong here – and in welcoming three infants, Jesus tells us that we have welcomed him as well.
Do this in remembrance of me – said Jesus, on a different day, and in a different place – and so it is in our generous doing together, rather than our fragile and at times peculiar believing, that we find the real presence of Christ.