Sermon for Sermon High Mass Epiphany 2
We’ve just heard a second version of the Baptism of the Lord. It perfectly illustrates what I said to you last week about S. John, who doesn’t so much tell us the story as contemplate what it meant, at one remove. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example of that periphrastic and ruminative approach. Jesus’ baptism is not described. It is mentioned obliquely as part of John the Baptist’s testimony to the ‘Lamb of God’, expressing his theological agenda, and movign the story on to the call of Peter.
Last week I articulated a strong preference for Mark’s more direct way of telling a story. Today we have John’s slant on things, with which I have less sympathy. But I have tried to find the Good News in that and, again, relate it to what we do here together.
I’d say that the Gospel here is ‘Behold!’, ‘Look!’, ‘the Lamb of God’. So significant a showing or epiphany that it has become a liturgical text.
We, of course, tend to think of lambs as fluffy charming and defenceless creatures. But for the agrarian Jews of Jesus’ time the sacrifice of a lamb demonstrated how serious they were about atoning for their sins. Jewish law dictated that a lamb be killed at least once a year, at Passover. Such a sacrifice cost the shepherd big time. Lambs were currency. This was tithing writ large.
Saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God is shorthand for two things. First, Jesus is God’s most precious gift: God’s own self, utterly and intensely valuable, yet defenceless and vulnerable, freely and riskily given to the world that we might know how serious God is about us. God can give us nothing more than Jesus. And, as a result of Jesus’ innocent suffering and death there is no need for any more lambs to be religiously slaughtered.
We need to keep hearing this message because some Christians get stuck on Jesus’ suffering to the point that they go looking for more. Jesus never sought out suffering. He bore what came his way. The same must be true of us. Christians are not meant to be smiling masochists. Most of us don’t need to look for more trouble in our lives; we share the Lamb of God’s sacrifice in the ordinary low points of our experience.
Second, John is eliding Jesus and the suffering Servant of Isaiah, who was ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter’. Jesus is the servant or child of God (interchangeable words in Greek) who because he bears, and bears away, the sins of the world, shows us that when we are baptized into his death and enter his service we also share in his resurrection and glory.
And that’s why, in Western Catholic Liturgy, we use this oblique reference to Jesus’ baptism as an invitation to communion.
As I said to you last Sunday, this Liturgy, our offering of worship, is about showing, not telling. That’s why we go to so much trouble to present it expansively and expressively. We can, and perhaps we must, do that precisely because we are odd; we are not a parish church in a residential parish. Our offering is distinctive: and the more distinctive it is the more it will draw people to Christ.
There’s been some research done recently on the decline of the Cowley Fathers, one of the core projects in reviving Religious Life in the Church of England. They, like us, had always provided worship for a gathered group of parishioners in a church which looked like a parish church but wasn’t. In the 1960’s and 1970’s they embraced the liturgical revolution with enthusiasm, radically simplifying their worship in the spirit of the reforms. History records that every time they made the liturgy simpler, more participatory, less distinctive and more mainstream, they lost people: they lost vocations to the Order and they lost worshippers in their church.
At St Peter’s Berkamsted, where I last worked, it was necessary to resource worship and preach the gospel for the breadth of Anglican sensibilities: it is a classic Anglican parish church, the church for all in that place. We couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have spent almost half our budget on music, as we do here. We had schools to serve, the pastoral offices of baptisms, weddings and funerals to attend to; the concerns of a market town to address, an annual town festival to bless; we were the presence of the church where people lived; the focus for their spiritual lives in a community.
But All Saints has always been, intentionally, something other than that: it was built as a model church of restored Catholic worship in Anglicanism, looking beyond this tiny parish boundary. Though it always served some parishioners, All Saints has never really had a settled residential parish and it has always sought to offer a distinctive and particular worship, and welcome, which was never mainstream or dull. We need to be wary of All Saints exceptionalism. This way of being the church has traps as well as treasures. But for many of us (myself included) it offers a way into the Kingdom which more conventional parish life may not.
I grew up in Rectories and was taken to church from birth. But it was only when I was exposed to this form of worship as a teenager that I came to faith. It was only when I found an objective offering of worship as the finest thing we can do, something glorious that happens whether we feel like it or not, something that doesn’t depend on me, but is guaranteed to be efficacious by God, that I understood that God loved and accepted me as an act of grace, not as something I had to earn by my contribution. I know I’m not alone in that experience.
That is the particular and peculiar charism of this sort of worship, and it needs to be nurtured, and understood. It will never be mainstream, but it will always nurture faith in those of us who aren’t quite mainstream either.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Blessed are those – all of us – who are called to the supper of the Lamb.