What does baptism suggest to you? Give me some words:
(Being cleansed, welcomed, under the protection of God, known by God by name, water the sustainer of life).
I often think how cocooned we are here against the realities of the world for many people. Yes we have as a community suffered at least two family tragedies in living memory which have come to the eyes of the world through the press, but normally, day to day, we don’t see much of struggle or difficulty do we, except for what we hear on the radio and see on the television screens and we have become immune to most of that. I have to admit when Hugh Edwards says “some viewers may be upset by the images you are about to see” I’m often not even when it is dead and mutilated bodies – why because I’m removed from it, it’s on the television so it isn’t real, because it actually doesn’t affect me.
The very person of God who we come here to meet each week began life as a refugee in a foreign land because the ruler of his own land feared him and set out to persecute him and as a result many families’ lives were wrecked as their young boy children were systematically murdered. Well Jesus, Mary and Joseph escaped and- in time returned home and for 30 years lived a relatively normal life before we come to the place in history we remember today – out of the barren wilderness of Hebron comes John the Baptist, and he begins to baptise people in the name of Jesus, and then he and Jesus meet and Jesus offers to be baptised himself I guess to cleanse the world as he is of course already very well known to his father, but it gives his father the opportunity to bestow the gift of the spirit on Jesus and to proclaim “you are my Son and I love you”.
But he was a refugee. If we lived across the channel in Germany, in France, Greece, Italy and other Eastern European countries as well as in Scandinavia we would now be surrounded by refugees. Here we have absolutely no idea what that is like for either the refugee or for those who live in those places. Only days ago there was the issue of mass violation of women in Germany by a large crowd of men who seem to be mainly identified as refugees. But even without that atrocity what must it be like to suddenly become hosts to tens, hundreds or even thousands of people who have arrived with just what they can hold. What do you do – do you shut them out or welcome them in? The rest of Europe, possibly through circumstance appears to have been far more welcoming than we have here, although many are now closing their borders, but they are doing so because they claim to be over-run not to keep everyone out. The plan to accept refugees here over 5 years is a fraction of what the rest of Europe already has. Our government says it is more concerned to make it possible to enable people to stay where they are – which is all very noble and quite logical, but in the present situation, let’s be honest, it’s not going to work is it? Libya, Syria, Eritrea, are all violent places and as yet the western powers and their allies have failed to make any of them any more safe, in fact they we, may have made them more dangerous. The current refugees cannot go home.
But what has that to do with the Baptism of Jesus? Well, I suggest everything. I’m guessing, because we know little of what happened to his family whilst it was in Egypt but there is no suggestion that they were not welcomed and clearly when Joseph was given the message in a dream that it was safe to go home they were allowed to leave Egypt and return to Galilee. And one would assume they were then welcomed back into that society when they arrived. Baptism is a cleansing from the past and a welcome to the present, and an acceptance of who you are in the community in which you live.
Of course the refuges now in Europe are of many faiths and none and some will settle in places where their faith is very much in the minority. Just imagine for a few moments that 100 refugees were going to arrive here later today, and that we weren’t sitting here in neat rows but had turned this place into a welcome centre with food and clothing at the ready. We know they are of another faith which we may not understand – what will we do? Well in true British spirit we will do the best we can for them today, but would we welcome them into our homes to use our spare bedrooms until something more permanent was available, would we welcome them living in our community in the house next door or round the corner? Would we say, come on share our building here for worship? Or would we be too afraid of the consequences?
John baptised all those who came to him, as did Jesus, and they came to him because what he said appealed to them – he was preaching Christianity, not Judaism. I’m not suggesting those 100 people should only be welcomed if they are prepared to be converts but what I am saying is that those people of other faith must have felt sufficiently welcomed by Jesus, accepted by him, to trust in his faith.
Donald Trump has said we have no go areas in the UK, which is as with much of what he says, sensationalist and out to provoke reaction, but, he is right to the point that we are a segregated society – all our big cities have groups of ethnic communities who live in a certain isolation within much bigger communities – why, because we haven’t integrated them and sadly to a large extent that must be because when they first arrived we as a nation didn’t make enough effort to integrate them. Jesus spoke openly to the Samaritan woman living outside the morals of the Jews, he healed the son of the invading Romans, he brought those from his own society back from isolation because of their past actions – Zacchaeus for example – shunned by his own because he was both working for the enemy and robbing people blind for his own benefit. No one was beyond the love of Jesus – “you are welcome here”, “I love you”.
By our own baptism we have become part of a family, each one known to God by name and if we are true to that gift then it is my opinion that we should welcome those who seek safety amongst us, not into a ghetto, but welcomed into our midst and respected for who they are and what they believe, and then the rest is up to God.
I hear of so many people daily who visit foodbanks and they cannot understand why people want to volunteer to be there to meet them, or stand outside supermarkets in the cold collecting food, or spend hours in a chilly warehouse sorting that food – and these are our own people – and because most of those foodbanks are led by Christians those volunteers can reply – “because I am called to look after you and to love you. It doesn’t matter if it is your own fault you are here or just circumstance, we are here for you”. And that response can often lead to tears flowing from the strongest and initially surliest of people who in their time of trouble have not met anyone that has said to them “come inside, we will help you”.
So there will be issues like that in Germany on New Year’s Eve, and there are no excuses for them, but if we can extend the generosity of care to them that we receive through baptism we can change their attitudes and their actions, not by threatening them that they have to comply or else, but showing them compassion, mercy and love. Am I just a woolly liberal, maybe I am but I don’t recall Jesus turning anyone away, even the murderer who hung beside him.
Being welcomed in and loved is the greatest gift we are given and it is the greatest gift we can share. I don’t know how we do that for the refugees of Europe here in Fordingbridge, – salving our consciences by having a clothing collection isn’t really the answer because it is just a gesture – maybe we should ask Mr Swayne back here 18 months after the husting he came to and say to him, please arrange for some people in need to be offered the option of coming to this community and we will welcome them and love them and respect them.
But I do not think being cleansed by God and accepted into his family and being given the gift of the Holy Spirit allows us to sit idly by. Amen.