First Communion

Hands75% of the world is covered with water. 97% of the earth’s water is in the oceans. It takes over 2,000 gallons of water to make four new car tyres. It takes about I gallon of water to process a McDonalds quarter pound burger.  You or I could live without food for more than a month (although we would be pretty sick and hungry if we tried) but only a very small number of people would survive without water for more than a week.  In the Australian summer, water is a powerful symbol of all that sustains life.  We only have to contemplate parched and arid areas not too far from here in the Upper Hunter to know how important water is for us all.

Water is at the heart of the story which we heard from the Gospel of Luke, the continuation of the story of John the Baptiser that we reflected upon together a few weeks ago on the Third weekend in Advent.  Jesus goes from Galilee out into the desert, out into the wilderness to the river Jordan where John the baptiser (who the Early Church believed was his cousin) has established a holy place to which many are travelling to receive his baptism.  John baptises Jesus, and this event becomes, for the first Christians at least, the pivotal moment in the inauguration of his ministry, the start of his work on earth as God’s chosen one.  After Jesus has been baptised a voice from heaven, accompanied by something like the sight of a dove, as the heavens are torn open —says, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

These Sundays of Epiphany — beginning last Sunday, and running for the next few weeks — are Sundays when we focus upon God being revealed through Jesus to people in new ways.  Epiphany simply means manifestation.   So over these weeks of the Epiphany-tide we are being asked to ponder the question, “what is it that God makes manifest to us through these events which we hear about in the life of Jesus as we hear about it in our Gospel readings?”  What do we come to understand about God in Jesus through these significant moments in his life?

Last week as we looked again at the story of the Magi (the wise men) coming into the presence of the baby Jesus, we were reminded that there is no one outside of God’s love, no journey so far from God’s kingdom which cannot bring people into his presence.  Even star-gazing astrologers from a distant place and a foreign religion can come to know the light of Christ.

In today’s story of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan the Epiphany, the manifestation is pretty clear.  The words that boom from heaven say it all: this Jesus, the one who has just been baptised, is the Son of God – God in the form of humanity on earth: both God and human in a way that the world has never seen before.  What an Epiphany, what a realisation, that as we look at this man, we see God. And as we see God in him, we can surely have hope, for ourselves and for the whole world.

As I said, a few weeks ago in Advent, Jesus’ baptism does remind us that Jesus did not invent baptism himself, because it was already happening before the Church had even been established.  It was a Jewish rite of purification which was borrowed by the Early Church.  It is a very powerful symbolic ritual – you will know that yourselves from when baptisms are celebrated here – because as we watch it, and as we experience it, it is clear what the symbolism means.  The water expresses for us what is going on inside, we are being washed clean, we are being transformed and made new as we are joined with Christ in the water of life.

It would have to be said that the sacrament of baptism, as it is offered today, is a far cry from the baptism offered by John in the River Jordan, and we reflected a little on that a few weeks ago in the Season of Advent, and if you want to re-visit any of that you can find the sermon through our website.  But the most important thing to have uppermost in our minds is that baptism is a sacrament of grace.  There is nothing that we can do to deserve it, or to earn it: Jesus has already done all that is needed for us, in his life and death and resurrection.  There is nothing that we can learn about it that will make us fully prepared for it.  It is a sacrament of grace.

Of course that is thankfully obvious in our Anglican tradition.  It is abundantly clear that a tiny baby has done nothing on his or her own to be particularly worthy to receive the sacrament of baptism, or indeed to understand what is going on.  Whilst we take seriously the idea that parents and god parents bring each baby in faith to baptism, we certainly do not believe that the baptism doesn’t work, (that the grace of God somehow doesn’t stick) if the parents or god parents are not sincere in the promises that they have made.

What is true for the parents and god parents is also true for the way that we understand the ministry of our priests in the sacraments as well.  The Thirty Nine Articles of our Anglican tradition make it clear that ‘the worthiness of the minister hindereth not the sacrament’. In other words, if I baptism a baby, or stand at the altar at a Eucharist for that matter, and don’t believe a single word that I am saying, our Anglican tradition says that that won’t get in the way of what God is going to do anyway.

It all boils down to this.  Sacraments are God’s way of assuring us of his love and grace.  We can’t earn them, we can’t attain them through study and learning, not even our priests have to really understand them for them to be real.  The only thing that matters is that the Holy Spirit is present within them, in the life of the Church, to turn simple outward signs (like water, and bread and wine) into acts of God’s assurance and grace.  Because what is true for baptism, is true for the sacrament of Holy Communion as well.

Some of you with keen eyes have noticed the rubric in the new Eucharist booklets inviting all those who are baptized to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.  And some of you have been wondering how a person can receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ without being confirmed.  Which is a fair question to ask, given that the weight of history, at least for a few hundred years has been on the side of confirming people before they receive holy communion.  So given that there are some helpful conversations going on about this at the current time in our Parish, I want to say three things about this, and I also want to assure you that we should not be shy about having a fuller conversation about it together,  and I have valued those who have discussed it with me so far.

The first thing to say is that Holy Communion is a meal: a very special kind of meal, but a meal no less.  There has been a growing realisation over many years that children should be in Church for as much of our worship as possible, and if they are going to be here, participating in our worship, then it makes no sense at all for them to be excluded from the meal that the rest of us are sharing in.  If children are in our homes and we are having a meal together we would not dream of saying that because they are children they cannot eat with us, they can have a sticker instead.  And yet that is what we do at the Eucharist.  So the first point is about hospitality.  All those who are baptised – whatever their age should be welcomed to the same meal that the rest of us share.

The second thing to say is that this has happened gradually over time.  Unlike the Church of England, which began to introduce the admission of children who had been baptised to Holy Communion much earlier, here in Australia Church law allowing children to be receive Holy Communion prior to confirmation did not come into reality until 1985, so this has been a relatively new development for us, for the last 25 years.  In this parish similarly, after not allowing children to receive Holy Communion until after they were confirmed for the whole of the history of this Parish, it was not until the 1990s that the first children were admitted to Holy Communion prior to confirmation.  And there is a register that has been kept of all of those children who have been admitted.  So it is important to realise that this has been a fairly new development in our life times, returning to a much older tradition in the Church.

The third thing to say is that this does not do away with Confirmation.  All those infants and children and young people who are admitted to Holy Communion after baptism but before confirmation, are nevertheless expected to come to the Sacrament of Confirmation at a later stage.  Three of my boys were admitted to Holy Communion in the Diocese of Perth, and one was admitted to Holy Communion in this Diocese.  And I hope and pray that they will all come to Confirmation in due course in the life of this Parish.

In the same way that we baptise babies before they can possibly understand what is going on, because we believe that God’s love and grace is bigger than that; so to where children are offered the sacrament of holy communion, it is on the basis of God’s abundant grace not our understanding of what is going on or because we somehow have earned the right to receive the sacrament.  Which is good news for many of us, including me, who would not be able to describe what is going on at the altar in a few moments time.  That’s also (incidentally) why we don’t stop giving communion to adults when they have dementia.  It is the action of the Holy Spirit that is important, the Holy Spirit at work in all of the baptised, whatever our age.

Baptism is how we enter the church, and once we are baptised, holy communion is how we are sustained in our Christian life, wherever we are up to on our Christian journey of discipleship.

We rejoice today in this second Epiphany, manifestation of God in Jesus.  As Jesus is baptised he is announced to the people, as God’s son.  And today we celebrate our own baptism, into his life and death and resurrection, whatever our age, whatever our level of understanding.  Because we are here as the Body of Christ, by the grace of God alone.