THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST: TRANSCENDANCE & IMMANENCE

A Sermon given by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christm, Sunday, January 12th, 2020.

Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17

I’ve got a fairly simple plan this morning – I want to reflect briefly on the Baptism of Christ, to talk about two theological terms, and then to discuss two or three particular issues for us as Churches this year.  I shall be around at the end of the Service if anyone has further comments to make.

The Baptism of Christ – We’ve jumped very quickly from the visit of the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus at Epiphany last Sunday to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry today – a leap of about 30 years.  And we’ll stay with the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel Readings for the next couple of weeks, before returning to the baby Jesus in the Temple for his Presentation, at what we now call Candlemas, on the first Sunday of February.

But there is a common theme through all of these readings in the Epiphany Season, and that is Jesus being revealed to the world for who he is.

Last Sunday, the revelation, the manifestation, the Epiphany, was to the Wise Men, Gentiles, non-Jews.  Today, in his Baptism by John at the River Jordan, the revelation is to those around him, those who ‘Saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove… and a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’’ [Matt 3:16f.].  From his Baptism Jesus is propelled into the wilderness, where he has a period of reflection and temptation, which we’ll commemorate in Lent, beginning at the end of next month, and when he returns from the wilderness he calls his Disciples and begins his public ministry.

This period of Epiphany focuses on making Christ known to the world.  That is our primary task as the Church; more important than caring for Church buildings, as wonderful as a Church like this is; more important than having fine liturgy, as beautiful and uplifting as I hope our Services are; our primary task as the Church is to make Christ known to the world.  As we heard in our reading from Acts, ‘He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead’ [Acts 10:42].  The Baptism of Christ urges to look upwards to God, inwards to the Christ who has promised to be with us; and outwards to the world around us, which needs to hear the Gospel message – upwards, inwards and outwards.

And that brings me on to my two theological terms.  Where do we think of God as being when we worship?  Where do you imagine him, when you pray here on a Sunday morning?  Do you think of him as being out there [point Eastwards], high and lifted up, as distant from up as he can possibly be?  Or do you think of him as here in the midst of us [point to the space in the middle], made real in the words of Scripture and in the sharing of bread and wine?  Now, both of these are truths which have been discovered through Scripture, and expressed in Christian history – God high and lifted up, God distant from us; and God in the midst, God closer to us than our own breathing.

And the theological terms for these thoughts are transcendence and immanence; transcendence and immanence.

Transcendence, God above us, often expressed in the Old Testament as a God who is dangerous, a God not to be messed with, God of awe and majesty.  In the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, the High Priest could enter only once a year into the nearer presence of God, and it was a risky thing to do.  When the Ark of God’s presence was being carried to Jerusalem, the bier wobbled, someone put out his hand to stop it falling, and was struck dead – he had touched the presence of the living God.  The Old Testament often expresses God’s transcendence, his distance from us.

But remember, at the Crucifixion, the veil of the Temple was torn in two [Matt 27:51].

The New Testament often expresses God’s immanence, his presence in all things, his closeness to us.  Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them’ [Matt 18:20].  And he promised to be with us when we share bread and wine in his name.  Transcendence and immanence.

In the Church of England, I think it is fair to say that our worship has traditionally been more about transcendence in the past, but in the last half century there has been something of a rediscovery of his immanence, which has affected quite a lot of what we do in worship.

How we think of God affects how we worship him, how we arrange our Churches, what language we use, and what we do with our bodies in worship.

It affects, for example, which way the priest faces when presiding at Holy Communion.  Does he or she face East, with his or her back to the congregation, expressing God’s transcendence; or does the priest face West, facing the congregation, expressing God’s immanence, his presence with us in our celebration?  One of the biggest differences between the BCP Communion which we use at 8.00 on a Sunday, and the Common Worship one which we use at 9.30 is how we acknowledge one another.  At the 8.00, it barely matters whether there is anyone else in the congregation – the worship is almost exclusively between me and God.  At the 9.30, we share the Peace, we acknowledge one another to be members of the Body of Christ, we sing together, we are gathered around a table.  It’s a very different theological statement of what we are as a Church.

Do we use traditional language, the language of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, or perhaps even Latin, expressing a very formal relationship with God, who is far away and far above us; or do we use modern language, emphasising God’s closeness to us, a more intimate relationship?

The Baptism of Christ urges to look upwards to God, inwards to the Christ who has promised to be with us; and outwards to the world around us, which needs to hear the Gospel message – upwards, inwards and outwards.  And the ways we experience God are likely to be a mixture of transcendence and immanence.

Which brings me on to the particular issues I’d like us to think about today,

The first is Simplification – at present, the Avon Valley Churches comprises seven Churches in four Parishes – and each of the four Parishes is a separate legal entity.  We had a Joint Open Meeting of the four PCCs last November to think about whether we could simplify our structures – essentially, to become one PCC, which could deal with budgets, Safeguarding, policy issues, good governance, and so on, and with Local Church Committees to look after the day-to-day running of the Churches and their worship and mission.  When I was ordained in 1986, each of our four Parishes had a priest to look after one PCC – that is no longer the case, and the amount of regulation, much of it good, which has been imposed on PCCs in the last few decades has increased enormously.  It no longer makes sense to have all of this regulation repeated four times, and I’m hoping we’ll end up with a much better structure in the coming year or so.  The first meeting is tomorrow evening, so keep us in our prayers – some of the Parishes are more eager for this than others, so there will be a good deal of delicate negotiations.

The second issue is the Benefice Worship Review.

We haven’t reviewed our pattern of worship for some years, and certainly not since Hyde became part of the Avon Valley Churches just over two years ago.

At present, we are reasonably well-staffed – although 4 ¾ of the seven members of the Staff Team are volunteers, and a sixth one, Mike the curate, is time-limited.  But while we are not in crisis, now seemed to be the time to look at our pattern of Services across the seven Churches of the AVC.  Last September, this was discussed at the Avon Valley Churches Co-ordinating Group, the ACG, comprising Wardens and Officers from the four Parishes, and the ACG tasked the Staff Team with carrying out the Review.  We began by identifying some basic principles, and they were that Our Future Pattern of Worship should be:

In October we shared these principles, and invited members of all of our congregations to respond, and about 30 people did so.  All of the very varied Responses we had can be seen on our website.

In November, the Staff Team met, reviewed all of the responses, and made some proposals which have been shared with the four PCCs, and made available to everyone else.

Fordingbridge PCC has agreed in principle to the proposals made in the review, and there are one or two questions still to be decided – the Worship and Pastoral Care Committee of the PCC is meeting early next month, when a decision will be made.

For this Church, the main proposals are:

As we looked at the overall pattern, one of the things we were very aware of was the number of Communion Services happening at overlapping times – as Services of Holy Communion can only be led by priests.  Two of our Parishes, Breamore, and Hale & Woodgreen, already have a mix of two Communions and two Morning Services each month, and the new pattern proposes that for Fordingbridge and Hyde as well.

This pattern can only work if we are able to identify and train more Lay Worship Leaders and preachers across the four Parishes.  This is a really important part of the proposals, because if we don’t, we’ll find that the number of Services were are able to sustain will decrease over time.

So, as part of our Year of Pilgrimage, which I’ve written about in Partners last week and this – if you missed last week’s Partners, you can find it on the website – as part of our Year of Pilgrimage, could you think and pray about whether you might be being called to be a Lay Worship Leader or Preacher.  We’ll be running training here in the summer for the former, and the Diocese is running the one-year Bishop’s Permission to Preach Course later in the year. 

If you think you might be being called to this, or just want to know more, do have a word with any of the Ministry Team. 

And if you’re not yet ready for that, you might find the new Alpha Course, beginning on Thursday, might be helpful on your pilgrimage.  Heidi will say a bit more about that later on.

If you’d like to discuss the Worship Review, Lay Worship Leading, or anything else I’ve mentioned this morning, I’ll be around over coffee – we could gather with our coffees at the front of the Church.

As you think about these things, keep in mind my earlier point: our primary task as the Church is to make Christ known to the world.  It’s not about what we like, or about what we’ve always done.  It’s about making Christ known to the world. That should be our guide in all that we do, both in Church and in our daily lives.

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