Sunday, 15 January 2023

Sermon - We “are” baptised

Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. 

Sermon preached at St George’s Bloomsbury on Sunday January 15th 2023 
 and St Stephen Walbrook on Thursday 19th January 2023 (Year A, Second Sunday of Epiphany) based on readings from 1 Corinthians 1.1-9 and John 1.29-42.


While the words of Auld Lang Syne were being sung at parties across Britain, air raid sirens rang in the New Year in the Ukranian capital, as the city was bombarded in another night of heavy Russian shelling. 

Olexandra Smazhnova and her husband Yuri were among those unable to make it to a bomb shelter that evening. Olexandra was in the middle of giving birth at Kyiv’s largest maternity hospital. Just a few moments after her baby was born, a shell exploded in the grounds, just outside the delivery room. The forces of life and death separated by a few metres.

Speaking on German television, the young mother described her experience that evening. The worst part, she said, had been waiting in the corridor for several hours before going in to the delivery room - having contractions while listening to the sirens wailing outside. But when the shell hit, making the ground quake, Olexandra explained that she remained unshaken. In that moment she found strength - what she described as a sense of “euphoria”; 
overwhelmed by the love of and for her daughter and the new meaning and purpose of her life as a mother - a sensation too powerful to be rocked by the explosion outside. 

The light and hope of this new life enabled Olexandra to turn away from the fear, the darkness and the destruction of the war raging around her - albeit briefly.


Viktor Frankl was a gifted Austrian psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor. Amidst rising anti-semitism he was granted a visa to the United States, but chose to remain with his parents and continued to work on the manuscript of his book. While staying in Vienna he met his wife Tilly. Nine months later they were separated and transported to the first of several concentration camps. Their belongings were confiscated. 

For four years Viktor sought escape from the physical and mental torture by focusing on reconstructing his manuscript - using whatever scraps of paper came to hand. 

As the days passed, he noticed that prisoners “of less hardy makeup” often seemed able to survive the painful and degrading treatment better than those of a more robust stature. He recounts the moment when he realised why.

Without knowing it at the time, Viktor escaped the gas chamber at Auschwitz by switching to a different queue of men, without being caught. The line he joined was placed on a work detail. Sent to lay a railway track through the forest, the prisoners marched barefoot in the freezing cold, clad in rags. Guards took pleasure in striking them with the butts of their rifles. Reflecting on their pitiful state, one man whispered: “if only our wives could see us now!”

As Viktor thought about his wife Tilly, he experienced a moment of epiphany. What he describes as “the truth sung by poets the world over” was revealed. That “a man who has nothing left in the world may still know bliss, even be it for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

Viktor had discovered that having a clear and controlling purpose in life - 
and being aware of the certainty of being loved - offered salvation from suffering. After the camp was liberated, he returned to work at the hospital in Vienna. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” became a best-seller. 

The fleeting bliss that Viktor Frankl describes - of knowing that you are loved and having a clear sense of the purpose and meaning in your life - echoes the sensation Olexandra Smazhnova experienced when, for a moment after giving birth she was able to turn away from the horrors of war raging around her. 

In baptism we are drawn by the Spirit into the light, hope and love of new life. We turn away from darkness, deceit and evil - and turn to Christ as the way, the truth and the life. We are welcomed into one fellowship - one family, sharing the same Father. In baptism we are united with the experience of Jesus. 

Today’s gospel reading offers few - but crucial - details about the experience of Jesus’ baptism. The Baptist’s testimony reveals that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ like a dove and it remained on him. 

It remained on him. 

As the Holy Spirit remains on all those who are baptised in the name of God.

The certainty of being loved remains with us. Our new identity in Christ as children of the one Heavenly Father - and the meaning and purpose this brings - remains with us.

Yet we tend to think of our baptism - if at all - as a fleeting, one off event. A brief moment in time. Something to speak about in the past tense, not the present. We “were” baptised - rather than we “are”.

Today, our readings encourage us to turn and see the truth of our baptism as a permanent and present reality. As the key to living the ‘life in all its fullness’ that Jesus came to reveal. As an endless source of the light, hope and love that Olexandra Smazhnova and Victor Frankl glimpsed momentarily.

And, we are assured, that these epiphany moments are not only made manifest in extremis. 

The truth of the love, the purpose of our baptismal life may be revealed to us - as it was to John the Baptist - directly by God. Or indirectly through a significant event, like the birth of a child - as in the case of Olexandra Smazhnova. Or as we meet the Lamb of God in the sacrament of the Eucharist. 

We may be pointed to it by someone else - as John directed his disciples to Jesus. Disciples who were unable to articulate what it was they were looking for - but who recognised their desire for more than a fleeting experience when they asked to remain with Jesus, wherever he was staying. 

Or perhaps the truth of this love, this purpose, may be revealed through the scriptures themselves, or the hymns, the art and literature they have inspired.

After the excitement and fervour of first receiving the gift of the Spirit, members of the church in Corinth soon started to turn away from the promises they had made in Baptism. They had started to forget what Viktor Frankl described as the “song of truth” sung by poets the world over. Paul wrote his letter to help the Corinthian church remember the tune; the song of truth that is the grace of God that has been given to us in Christ, which we share with him in baptism. A melody that is woven into every atom of the universe. 

May our baptismal life not be an “old acquaintance that be forgot, and never brought to mind” - a song we sing but once a year, if at all. 

Let us pray that the truth that we are loved by God - and the purpose and meaning this brings - becomes and remains a present reality for every one of us; the backing track to each new day of our lives.

Because this amazing grace we have received is the start and end of our search for meaning. 

Amen.

 

 Image: Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism ofChrist, 2015. 

 


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