14 August 2016

‘I have a baptism with which to
be baptized … Do you think that
I have come to bring peace?’

The Baptismal Font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford,

Saint Bartholomew’s Church,

Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 14 August 2016,

The 12th Sunday after Trinity.

11 a.m.: Solemn Eucharist

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics over 30 years ago, we all had to do a residential placement in Northern Ireland in a church in a tradition other than our own.

I had a wonderful time with Shankill Road Methodist Church in Belfast, others went to Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Anglican churches

One Anglican student, from Barbados and now a priest in Massachusetts, was placed with the Redemptorists in the Clonard Monastery.

As his placement came to end, there was one experience he had not yet explored. On his last Sunday evening, he went to hear Ian Paisley preach in the Martyrs’ Memorial Church on Ravenhill Road.

It was the 1980s, and you can imagine the problems that created.

When he returned to Clonard Monastery, unscathed, an old priest asked my colleague: ‘Well, did the Big Man give you an old-style Redemptorist sermon filled with hellfire and brimstone?’

‘My beloved had a vineyard’ (Isaiah 5: 1) … a small vineyard near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Well, that’s the sort of sermon some people may be getting in churches with this morning’s lectionary readings.

The Prophet Isaiah, in words that echo the Psalm, speaks of vineyards that yield only wild grapes (verses 2, 4); breaking and trampling down walls (verse 4); vines giving way to briars and thorns (verse 6); bloodshed instead of justice, a cry instead of righteousness (verse 7).

The New Testament reading speaks of mocking and flogging (verse 36), chains and imprisonment (verse 36), prophets being stoned to death, sawn in two and killed by the sword (verse 37), or wandering in deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes (verse 38).

And then, we hear the warnings in the Gospel reading of fire on earth (verse 49), families and households divided and fighting each other to the death (verses 52-53), people being blown about by the storms and tempests of the day verses 54-56).

They are images that might have inspired Ian Paisley’s sermons. But they have inspired too the great creative minds in our culture, from William Shakespeare and William Blake to TS Eliot in the Four Quartets:

This is the death of earth.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.
( – Little Gidding)

If we dismiss these apocalyptic images because they have been hijacked by fundamentalist extremists, for their own religious and political ideals, then we miss an opportunity to allow our values to challenge those ways we may be allowing our lives to drift along without question or examination.

Fire and water were a challenge for me in Longford last Sunday afternoon. After the Choral Eucharist here, three of us headed off on what we have come to call a church history “field trip.” We wanted to see the completed restoration work at Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.

The cathedral was destroyed in a blazing fire early on Christmas morning in 2009, but has been restored and rebuilt so beautifully that it has been voted Ireland’s favourite building.

Outside, it still looks like a grey, classical revival, fortress-style cathedral. But inside it is filled with light and joy. It has risen from the ashes, and its restoration is truly a story of redemption and resurrection.

As I walked into the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful baptismal font that has been placed at the main entrance door to the cathedral.

The font was sculpted by Tom Glendon and the blue mosaic the work by Laura O’Hagan is a creative representation of the Water of Life.

This font is a challenge to those who enter the church and is placed exactly where it should be, for Baptism is entry to the Church.

Baptism is not a naming ceremony, it is not about my individual experience, it is never a private event. It is a public event, and it incorporates me into the unity, the community of the Body of Christ.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ challenges us with three themes: Fire, Baptism and Division.

In the Bible, fire can represent the presence of God – think of the pillar of fire in the wilderness (Exodus 13: 17-22) and the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-4).

It can represent judgment (see Revelation 20: 7-10), and it can represent purification – the prophets Zachariah (13: 9) and Malachi (3: 2-3) speak of the refiner’s fire in which God’s purifies his people, as a refiner purifies silver by fire.

At the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 22-38), old Simeon foresees how the Christ Child ‘is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inward thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (verses 34-35).

The sword that pierces Mary’s soul, the sword that has killed the prophets, the sword the divides families, is a reminder that Christ, who embodies the presence of God, simultaneously judges and purifies.

In the New Testament, Baptism represents both judgment and purification and Saint John the Baptist connects it with fire (Luke 3: 16-17).

In this morning’s reading, however, Christ is referring not to the baptism he brings but to the baptism he receives. He not only brings the fire of judgment and purification, but he bears it also himself.

The Kingdom of God he proclaims is governed not by might but by forgiveness (think of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, Luke 11: 4), not by fear but by courage (‘be not afraid’ in Luke 1: 13, 30, 2: 10, 5: 11, 8: 50, 12: 4, 7, 32), not by power but by humility (see Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55).

But it is easy to be lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power rather than the promises that come with our Baptism.

In the second half of our Gospel reading, Christ chides the crowd for not recognising the signs he bears. They know how to forecast the weather, but they cannot forecast, watch for the signs of the coming Kingdom of God.

We have a fashion in the Church today of ‘fresh expressions of the Church’ that blow where the wind blows. They seek to be fashionable and claim that they are relevant.

Sometimes, you may not know whether you are in a coffee shop or in a church, whether you are in the guiding hands of barista or a priest. The old forms of church have been abandoned, and with it they have thrown out the core content too.

I visited one of these churches recently. Yes, there was a rambling sermon of 35 or more minutes. Yes, there was a time of ‘fellowship’ where people turned around their chairs and were chummy with one another.

There was one reading, but no Gospel reading. There was no confession and absolution, no Creedal statement, no Trinitarian formula in the prayers. The prayers prayed for those present and those like them, but there were no prayers for those outside, no prayers for a world that is divided and suffering, no challenge or judgment for those who have created the plight and sufferings of wars, refugees and economic injustice.

In this smug self-assurance, without any reference to the world outside, there was no challenge to discipleship, to live up to the promises and challenges of Baptism.

And, needless to say, there was no Sacrament, and no hint of there ever being a Sacramental ministry.

Content had been abandoned for the sake of form. But the form had become a charade. For the sake of relevance, the church had been made irrelevant.

The challenge of our Baptism is a challenge for the Church to be a sign of, a sacrament of, the Kingdom of God.

We can be distracted by the demands and fashions of what pass as ‘fresh expressions of Church’ and never meet the needs of a divided and suffering world.

Or we can be nourished by Word and Sacrament and respond to the demands of our Baptism in a discipleship that seeks to challenge and confront a suffering and divided world with the values and promises of the Kingdom of God.

But it is costly, and like Simeon warns Mary, you may find ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

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

Station IV of Ken Thompson’s Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)


Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:
Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
save through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of compassion,
in this eucharist we know again your forgiveness
and the healing power of your love.
Grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that forgiveness and healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 12: 49-56

49 [Ο Ιησούς είπε,] Πῦρ ἦλθον βαλεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν, καὶ τί θέλω εἰ ἤδη ἀνήφθη. 50 βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ. 51 δοκεῖτε ὅτι εἰρήνην παρεγενόμην δοῦναι ἐν τῇ γῇ; οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἢ διαμερισμόν. 52 ἔσονται γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν πέντε ἐν ἑνὶ οἴκῳ διαμεμερισμένοι, τρεῖς ἐπὶ δυσὶν καὶ δύο ἐπὶ τρισίν, 53 διαμερισθήσονται

πατὴρ ἐπὶ υἱῷ
καὶ υἱὸς ἐπὶ πατρί,
μήτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν θυγατέρα
καὶ θυγάτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν μητέρα,
πενθερὰ ἐπὶ τὴν νύμφην αὐτῆς
καὶ νύμφη ἐπὶ τὴν πενθεράν.

54 Ἔλεγεν δὲ καὶ τοῖς ὄχλοις, Οταν ἴδητε [τὴν] νεφέλην ἀνατέλλουσαν ἐπὶ δυσμῶν, εὐθέως λέγετε ὅτι Ὄμβρος ἔρχεται, καὶ γίνεται οὕτως: 55 καὶ ὅταν νότον πνέοντα, λέγετε ὅτι Καύσων ἔσται, καὶ γίνεται. 56 ὑποκριταί, τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γῆς καὶ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ οἴδατε δοκιμάζειν, τὸν καιρὸν δὲ τοῦτον πῶς οὐκ οἴδατε δοκιμάζειν;

49 [Jesus said,] ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 14 August 2016.

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