Sunday 10th January 2021
Readings Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
I started trying to write this sermon on Thursday morning, not knowing quite how the world would look whenever, or indeed if-ever, I finished writing it, never mind by the time we came to this morning.
Generally speaking I try not to talk about the sermon writing process when I come to preach. After all, when you are eating sausages and eggs, or tofu for the vegetarians, you don’t normally want to know where they have come from or how they been made.
But I don’t mind saying that this is the hardest time I have ever known to try and write. After 10 months of the ups and downs of dealing with the covid situation, which have included isolating twice because of family members having symptoms and not being able to get tests or results quickly, this third lockdown, and the other events of the past week, has hit me quite hard.
Why is that, I wonder, surely I should be used to it by now?
I think it is because over Christmas we had the choir back in church, the vaccines were promised and I dared to hope, for a moment, that we were on a smooth slope back to normal life.
And then, of course, like everyone else we spent the week between Christmas and New Year stuck at home unable to go and see all our family and friends, which was a bit of a downer, and then it was only on Monday of last week that the new national lockdown was imposed.
My particular struggle, with the new lockdown, was what to do about in-person worship in church. Unlike the first lockdown
the government did not ban communal worship and the bishops were leaving it up to individual clergy and PCCs. You all know where we got to on that and, as I said on my round-robin email, no one gets ordained in order to ask people not to come to church so that has been a real, almost existential, issue. I have no regrets about reaching that decision, and doing so quickly in the circumstances, but it gives me no joy to be in an empty church building once again. I know that the true church is the living stones who are you out there, but that doesn’t make it any less empty in here. I want nothing more than to have you living stones back here and for the place to resonate with your voices once again.
But the new lockdown has also had other personal implications such as the children being home from school, possibly for many weeks, and considerable uncertainty about Annabelle’s end of year exams.
That was Monday and Tuesday.
Wednesday morning was a good and productive time in church, not only celebrating communion, albeit into a camera on my own, but also being able to serve at least five families from the foodbank. Although tragic that we have to do that it felt good being able to do so.
On Wednesday evening, which for me is last night as I write this, we had the incredible images from Washington DC of the mob urged on by Trump to invade the Capitol building. Such sights I never thought to see outside of a movie. People wearing Nazi T-shirts and carrying confederate flags storming the home of American democracy whilst elected senators feared for their lives. Unbelievable.
By Thursday afternoon, things in America appear to have calmed down a little and Congress has formally certified Joe Biden as the next President, although what Trump’s next move will be is anyone’s guess.
But the new covid death figures have just been released and, as I write, it is over 1100 people dead in 24 hours and a nursing home in Crowhurst reports that it lost half of its residents to covid over the Christmas holidays.
It is tough to concentrate on writing a sermon.
There is just too much big stuff happening all the time.
But something else also happened on Thursday at 4.00 pm.
I joined a Zoom call with 55 other members of the Sodality of Mary, many of whom are from the United States, and we prayed a rosary together for the healing of that nation.
And as we prayed I was, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, surprised by joy.
Our two readings today have one person in common. It is not Paul or Apollos or John the Baptist or even Jesus.
The one person, and I use the term advisedly, who appears in both the reading from the book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark is God the Holy Spirit, and does so in the context of Baptism.
In the book of Acts Paul returned to Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey, and there he spoke to 12 followers of Jesus who had been previously baptised. It does not expressly say that they had been baptised by Apollos, who has gone off to Corinth, but that is the strong implication. It turned out that they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit and that they had only received the ‘baptism of John’, as they put it. So Paul baptised them again, presumably using the Trinitarian formula, and this time the Holy Spirit arrived in power and they started prophesying and speaking in tongues.
Why did the baptism of John not work for the disciples in Ephesus? We can only speculate but in today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist himself said that his baptism was only with water, whereas Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. Of course, John’s baptism worked for Jesus, but then the whole Trinity was present so John feels almost redundant in this process.
Why did Jesus need to receive John baptism of repentance, when he was without sin?
Again, without knowing the inner mind of God we can only speculate but we know that the one who was without sin would also take on the sin of the whole world and, importantly, as Jesus was baptised with water he was also visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father announcing that this was his beloved Son.
Today we are remembering not only the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan but also the baptism of the 12 disciples in Ephesus and also, of course, our own baptisms.
And when we remember our own baptisms we are viscerally reminded that we follow where Jesus has gone before in this and in all things. We are baptised with water and the Spirit because he was first, we share bread and wine because he commanded us to do likewise, we are resurrected because he was first and we are lifted into the life of God because of his ascension.
But today we should especially remember that because of our baptisms, performed in the name of the Trinity, we too receive the Holy Spirit – that very same person of God who alighted on Mary, on Jesus, on the disciples in Ephesus, on the church at Pentecost and on the church throughout time.
The Holy Spirit dwells within all the baptised, bringing forth fruits and gifts, which include not only prophecy and tongues, but also joy. And when we make space and time for God, chiefly through prayer, so they gifts and fruits can show more and more fully in our lives.
Whilst it has undoubtedly been a difficult and sometimes shocking and sometimes depressing week I have kept praying – by myself, with others on Facebook and with my sodality priest friends. It is only through that constant cycle of prayer and the constant exposure to the psalms and to scripture that I remain constantly exposed to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit in me. And that is why, in the midst of it all, I can still be surprised by joy.
Remember your baptism. Remember the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us because of our baptism. That Holy Spirit draws us together and points us always towards Jesus who lifts us to the Father. Pray constantly and ask the Holy Spirit to bring forth all the gifts and fruit he has in store for you.
Prepare to be surprised by joy.