St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 22nd May 2011
I’m going to make no apologies for the fact I’m going to talk a lot about sport this morning. I guess there are quite a lot of us who have dreamt one time or another of scoring the winning goal at Wembley, or hitting the run that secures the Ashes, or lifting the champion’s trophy at Wimbledon. For most of us our dreams have remained, well, dreams. I for one realised at a very early age I was never going to make it as a goalkeeper, especially when I started going to a rugby-playing school. But this morning I want you to imagine you are starting to live out your dream – sort of. After all those years of hard graft and early morning training sessions you have finally made it. You are a professional footballer. You are earning a living doing what you’ve always wanted to do, kicking a ball around the pitch, playing for a proper team.
The only problem is, the team you’re playing for isn’t actually that good. In fact you’re somewhere near the bottom of the league. Relegation is a real possibility. The club is in a bit of a mess. The chances are, you’ll never end up playing for the team you’ve always supported. But then some surprising news comes in. It turns out they’ve been watching your progress and they’re interested in you. In fact, they really would be quite keen for you to come and play for them.
There’s just one small matter in the way. You’ve just signed a new contract with your old club. You just can’t walk out of the ground, hop into your car and drive to the new club. Something has to happen if you’re ever going to switch sides. Can you tell me what that is?
Our transfer fee …
That’s right, the two clubs have to agree a transfer fee. A transfer fee is a sum of money which one club pays another so that the player in question can sign for them.
Now you’re probably thinking what’s this got to do with our service this morning. Well, today we are looking at Jesus’ command to baptise in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And I know the whole question of baptism gets lots of people confused. They’re not quite sure what it stands for, or why it’s so important.
But maybe the way to start thinking about it is to realise that in effect Jesus has paid a transfer fee for us. Because the sad truth, whether we like to admit it or not, is that on our own we are part of a losing team. We live in a world which is not as it should be, a beautiful world that has been spoilt by the things we have done to it and to each other. And the Bible says that’s because we have cut ourselves off from God. We have tried to play by our own rules, not by God’s, and that’s why we’ve ended up in the mess we’re in.
But the good news is, this isn’t the end of the story. Because Jesus paid the transfer fee to make us able to become part of God’s team again. In our reading from Luke’s gospel Jesus talks about Himself as the Son of Man and says how He must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Why did Jesus have to go through all this? So that we could be rescued from our life of sin and wrongdoing, and brought into a new relationship with God as our Heavenly Father.
There’s just one thing, however. It’s all very well two clubs agreeing a fee for a player. But if the player doesn’t want to sign, then the whole deal is off. The player has to want to switch sides. It’s the same when it comes to following Jesus. We don’t just follow Jesus automatically. Nobody is born a Christian or becomes one just by going to church or trying to live a good life. You have to make a decision. Do you want to become part of God’s winning team?
That’s why in a moment we’re going to pray a prayer asking that we might be part of Jesus’ team. And where does baptism come into all this? Quite simply, because it is a sign that we’ve made that decision, that we’re serious about living for Jesus, and want to be on His side. It’s a promise that we make in public to follow Jesus and make Him the boss over our lives.
More about our transfer to the winning team later, but for now let’s pray…
Romans 6:1-14 … the actions!
Sin – Thumbs down
Grace – Thumbs up
Dead/death – nails in hands
Raised/resurrection – lift up hands
Life – Wave hands in air
(Go on – try it!)
So you’ve finally made it. The deal has been done. You’ve been unveiled at the press conference. You have your own shirt in your new team colours hanging on the dressing room wall. There can be no doubt from now who you are playing for.
Getting involved in the game …
So what’s the next step? Do you simply go round telling everyone you are now playing for the club of your dreams? Or maybe sit in the stands watching your new team mates playing?
No, of course not. You get on the pitch and play. You want to show everyone that you’re worth the fee that’s been paid for you. You want to do the very best for your new club, and prove you’re the player they’ve been looking for.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But why is it that many people who call themselves Christians don’t actually seem to be out on the pitch playing the game? If it’s true that Jesus has paid a transfer fee for us, if Jesus loves us so much that He was prepared to suffer many things and die for us, surely we ought to be living a life that shows we are thankful for that fact. Yet the sad truth is, many people think that their Christian faith is something private, something they only practice in their spare time. They are, so to speak, ready to sit in the stands and watch other people putting their faith into action.
At the beginning of our reading from Romans Paul asks what sounds like a rather odd question: Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? I’m not going to fully explain that question now, but the fact he even asked this question reveals a simple point. There were folk in the church in Rome who didn’t realise that believing in Jesus is, to use a horrible piece of jargon, a game-changer. It’s about turning from an old way of life where sin is our master, to a new way of life where Jesus is in charge. And that’s exactly the decision that is made in the baptism service. To turn from, or repent, of our sins, and turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour. So what evidence is there in your life that you have made this decision?
Keeping up with the training …
You are playing for a new team now, and you need to get out on the pitch. But of course playing a game of football is more than about turning up at the ground once a week for a match. You have to work at your fitness day by day, you have to make sure you properly warm up and warm down, you have to watch what you eat and drink. Being a professional footballer involves discipline, and making sure you take regular care of yourself.
And the same is true of being a Christian. We need, so to speak, to keep spiritually fit by regularly having a diet of Bible reading, private prayer and public worship. If we don’t have these things to keep us growing in our faith then we will find it all the harder to live for Jesus day by day.
But it’s also important to grasp that being a Christian isn’t just about what we do spiritually. Paul in our reading makes it quite clear it also affects what we do with our bodies. It’s about the hard nitty-gritty of everyday choices, such as how much we drink, what we watch on television, the websites we visit on the Internet, and so much more besides. And I would go on to say that because the church hasn’t taught about these issues, hasn’t shown how faith in Jesus applies to these real-life situations, that so many people get the wrong idea about the Christian faith. That it’s something nice to have but when push comes to shove, doesn’t make an actual difference to how I live my life. No, the Christian faith is about getting out on the pitch and it’s about making a choice to follow Jesus, not just in church, but in the pub, in the supermarket, in the privacy of our own homes. And that requires discipline and it requires training.
Obeying the Manager …
It also requires being prepared to do what Jesus says. After all, no matter how good a player is on the pitch, or how hard he trains, he’s not going to get a game if he doesn’t do what the manager says. If the manager tells him to play in defence, and he decides to play upfield, he’ll soon be out of the team. Or if he thinks he knows better than the manager and starts ordering the other players around, he’s going to be in big trouble.
The relationship between player and manager is key. And the same is true with us and Jesus. It’s not just as Christians that we spend time praying to Jesus. We also spend time listening to what He is saying, and looking to understand what He is telling us. Or again, we don’t just read the Bible as a book that gives us information. We allow the Holy Spirit to take the words from the page and turn them into God’s word to us. We may not want to do what Jesus is telling us, we may sometimes find it hard to actually obey what He is saying. But then we need to remember again the transfer fee Jesus has paid for us. If Jesus has done all this for us, if He loves us so much that He has given His very life for us, why should we find it so hard to allow Him to manage our life? Our trust and our obedience is the very least that we should give Him.
In our reading from Luke’s gospel today Jesus said: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Challenging words, but what do they mean in practice? Exactly what we’ve been saying this morning. That to follow Jesus means putting our faith in action, having the discipline to make the right choices each day, and above all having a living relationship with Jesus as our Lord and our Saviour.
And that’s why immediately after baptism I make a sign of the cross on the forehead. Because at the end of the day baptism isn’t just about making a one-off commitment, or saying a few words that you forget later on. It’s about publicly declaring a new way of life which shows that from now on you are part of God’s winning team.
Does all that sound a bit too much like hard work? Perhaps a bit too much of a commitment? Well, of course the aim of playing for any club is to win promotion. To get into the Premiership. To qualify for Europe. To lift the FA cup. And again, that’s rather what it’s like being a Christian. Because, as Jesus goes on to say, one day He will return in glory. And if we have grasped what it means to follow Jesus now, then we can look forward to Him turning to us and saying, “Well played. Welcome home”.
For in the end baptism isn’t just about remembering what Jesus has done for us. Or indeed committing ourselves to living for Jesus now. It’s also about looking forward to when our faith in Jesus will be finally and totally rewarded. To quote Paul again: Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. And that’s why in the end baptism is more than a ritual or a kind of religious game. It’s about expressing our belief in what’s really important, it’s about giving Jesus our past, our present and our future. So let me ask: what does your baptism mean to you? Or if you haven’t yet thought about baptism, what is it that is holding you back from this step of faith?
If anyone would come after me,
he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.