06 June 2010

Baptism and the promise of new life

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin:

Sunday 6 June 2010, the First Sunday after Trinity

10 a.m.: Baptism and Parish Eucharist

I Kings 17: 8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1: 11-24; Luke 7: 11-17

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Funeral stories and the stories of children being raised to life, like the stories we’ve heard this morning in the Old Testament and Gospel readings, do not always make the best Bible readings for a baptism.

But these are the lectionary readings for this morning, being used not only in the Church of Ireland but in churches throughout Ireland and around the world.

It may only be on a second reading that you realise it, but they are very appropriate for this morning.

The lectionary this year is working its way through the Gospel according to Saint Luke, which is packed full of stories about healing and wholeness. But who did Jesus bring healing and wholeness to in our Gospel reading this morning?

When we look at any Gospel story it is always good to ask a few basic questions, like who, what, where, when and why.

If you want to rent a DVD to watch at home this evening, you would probably ask a few basic questions before you rented it:

● What’s the story all about?

● Who are the principal characters, the main actors?

● In other words, is there anything in this for me?

In a similar way, if we are to find anything in a Gospel story that not only makes it interesting but makes it relevant for me, then I suppose I could approach a Gospel reading on a Sunday morning with the same questions:

● What’s the story all about?

● Who are the main characters?

● Where’s the action?

In this story this morning, there is a lot of action, and there are a lot of people. In fact, there are two large crowds, and the drama is created in the way they meet each other, in an unexpected and unplanned way.

The first crowd is those following Jesus, who has just arrived after a long, 20-mile walk from Capernaum. This group includes not just those who are his disciples. But a lot of other people too – people are there to see what he is doing, what’s going on. Like DVD viewers on a Sunday night, they are looking for the entertainment, looking for the drama, perhaps even hoping for a miracle or too … after all, at Capernaum they have seen him heal the centurion’s servant.

And let’s not be too dismissive of this crowd following Jesus, or their motives. After all, that’s the way a lot of people end up coming to church. They go with the flow, they like what’s on offer for their children, it gives them a sense of identity. And in coming along, they find out who Jesus really is, why it matters to follow him.

Perhaps they were expecting nothing. Perhaps they were just tired, and after a 20-mile walk are anxious about whether there are enough beds in the tiny village of Nain for them all to stay overnight.

And unexpectedly – in a way that no-one could have planned – this large crowd bumps into another, second large crowd. Nain is called a town here, but it was more like a village, about nine or ten miles south of Nazareth. Until 50 years ago or so, it had a population of less than 100 or 200, so we can imagine a tiny place in the days of Jesus.

So, one large crowd bumps into another large crowd. And it’s bad news for the large crowd that has been following Jesus.

The resurrection of the young man of Nain, by Lucas Cranach (1569)

In a tiny place like Nain, to have a large crowd they must have been drawn from every house and dwelling place, every family in the village. If they’re all in mourning, not only are they unlikely to be able to offer anyone bed and breakfast for the night, they probably are ritually unable to do so: a dead body, a corpse, a funeral, a burial, all make a practising, observant Jew ritually unclean.

The disciples and the other people who are following Jesus on the road from Capernaum to Nain must have taken pity on themselves. Where are they going to go tonight? What can they do? Where can they stay?

Perhaps the appeal of following Jesus, waiting for the miracle to happen, suddenly evaporated as this reality dawned on them.

Perhaps they even thought Jesus should have pity on them, pity on their plight.

But instead, Jesus takes pity, not on them, and not even on the poor young lad who has died either. Instead, he takes pity on the boy’s widowed mother. He has compassion on her, he tells her not to weep.

However, having compassion and doing something about it make two separate sets of demands.

The love of a mother for her young son is incomparable, as you should know this morning.

Jesus recognises, Jesus identifies with, Jesus is consumed with, the love of this widowed, probably young widowed, mother.

As a widow, left financially ruined, her only hope of survival in this world may have been in the livelihood her son would eventually attain.

She has already been widowed, now her son has died. She faces not only emotional devastation, but financial destruction and social ruin … she will have no-one to work her fields, no-one to provide an income, no-one to guarantee her safety and security.

Jesus recognises her plight … and he does something about it. First he does something that is shocking in his day, shocking behaviour for a rabbi in those days. He touches the bier, he touches the dead body.

No wonder the bearers stood still. He has identified so much with the widow’s plight that he too now becomes ritually unclean. In Christ, God’s identification with our humanity is so complete that he takes on everything about us. God so identifies with us in Christ that he even identifies with us in birth, in life, and in death.

The miracle is amazing. The fact that God identifies so much with us is even more amazing. God’s compassion should be more amazing than God’s miracles. It is because of his love and compassion in the first place that there are miracles.

No wonder the crowds, the two large crowds, all of them, are seized with fear. It is awesome.

And yet, in telling this story, Luke rises to some of his most poetic language in this Gospel. He looks back to the words of the pregnant Mary and ageing Zechariah in the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, when Saint Luke says they glorified God (7: 16, cf Luke 1: 47-48), when they realised a great prophet had risen among them (cf Luke 1: 69-70), when they said God has looked favourably on his people (cf Luke 1: 48), when they realised a new day had dawned. She has been shown mercy, she has been saved from the hands of her enemies, she has received the tender mercy of God.

Luke looks forward to that moment when the suffering Christ meets the weeping women outside the gates of Jerusalem (Luke 23: 28-29). And he looks forward to that moment on the Cross, in Saint John’s Gospel, when the dying Jesus takes pity on his widowed mother and entrusts her and the Beloved Disciple to the mutual care of each other (John 19: 26-27).

What we are invited to be witnesses to this morning is not some old-fashioned miracle show. That’s what the large crowd was hanging around Jesus for what the large crowd was hanging around the funeral procession for.

What we are being invited to this morning is the realisation that in his compassion, in his actions, in his caring, Jesus shows us that God loves us, each of us individually, as a mother loves her only and precious child.

If you catch a glimpse of, if you begin to realise this morning, the love that little Freddie can expect from his parents, Ruth and Paul, then you can catch, just catch, a glimpse of the love that God has for each of us, individually. God loves you and God loves me as if were the only child in the world that matters … and even more than that.

Like the crowd following Jesus, like the crowd that came out of Nain with that mother and son, you may have come here this morning for a multitude of reasons. But if you go home with just a glimpse, just a snatch, just a tiny taste of God’s love for Freddie, God’s love for Ruth and Paul, God’s love for you, then you will know that God looks favourably on you, God promises you a new life, God loves you beyond words and beyond measure.

That is a new dawn.

That is what the promise of baptism is: it is about dying to sin, to the old ways, rising to new life in Christ, and continuing for ever.

And that is all that matters.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at a Baptism and Parish Eucharist in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin, on Sunday 6 June 2010.

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