GREAT STRICKLAND 10 January 2016:
Baptism of Christ:
Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21, 22

Politics or Cricket? On more and more mornings now Radio 4 makes you choose. You can even choose which kind of politics: the Today programme or Yesterday in Parliament - that is, if you haven't already chosen to drift gently along to Radio 3 or Classic FM or, if you are going out, to alert yourself to the weather and road reports on local radio. Now, I know some people may be able to make these choices more easily on their laptop or their iPad, but for those of us who are a bit technologically challenged, tuning in to what you want to hear on your portable radio is not always very easy: long wave reception varies, and for FM you need to be quite agile with your fingers and the way you angle the aerial, the set itself, and even your own distance from it, in order to hit the exact little wavelength you want.

For some of us then, tuning in to your radio in the morning can be quite challenging. But there's something that can often be even more challenging, and that's tuning in to other people, trying to hear what they are really saying and responding to that as best you can. The reason why tuning in to other people can be so much more difficult than tuning in to the radio is simple: you don't have to listen to that programme and if the radio breaks down you can either get it mended or buy another one; but other people aren't dismissed so easily, at least not without possibly great and sometime irreparable damage to yourself as well as to them. Tuning in to the radio is just one of countless activities of daily life in which our aim is to get what we want done: we are, more or less, in control of things: but no-one has or can have that kind of control over other people, at least not for long. Dictators, great or petty, may seem for a time to be in total control of their subjects or their families, but most of them finally fall from power or die alone and afraid. As wise statesmen and wise schoolteachers know, governing and learning only succeed when they themselves are prepared to listen, to learn, and to adapt.

The point is this: to live well in this world, we need to learn about the world, other people and ourselves in two different ways, both of which are within our ordinary human capacity. One way is by learning the knowledge and skills to deal with the things that we are able, up to a point, to control. The other way is by learning to listen to, and test, our feelings and intuitions about other people and about ourselves. Such feelings and intuitions of course are far less certain and definite than the knowledge and skills we derive from science, technology or our everyday work: but they are also what in the end we have to rely on when we make the most important decisions about our lives - not least whether or not to join in marriage or partnership with another person, and all the decisions that may follow in terms of families, friendships and careers. Before we make these crucial decisions we have neither the knowledge nor the experience to be sure that we are making the right ones; and while for some the decisions may turn out to have been wrong, it is only by continuing to trust our feelings and intuitions about the other person, by testing them in all the ups and downs of everyday life, and by being prepared ourselves to change, that deep and enduring, if also humanly imperfect and fallible, relationships can grow and develop.

Now if all this is true of these human relationships of ours, might something similar not also be true of the most momentous relationship possible? People sometimes talk about the existence of God as if that were something which could be decided by intellectual arguments about the evidence of science and our senses. And indeed if God were one great being among all the other beings in existence that might be appropriate, and atheists might be right. But that is not what God is: we do not know what God is, although we may find who God is. All we find of God is learned, not by the knowledge and skills we learn to deal with the things we are able, up to a point, to control. All we find of God rather is learned by trusting something much more like our feelings and intuitions about other people and ourselves.

In terms of intellectual arguments, I suppose, the crucial question is whether thinking, feeling, loving and praying people like ourselves are the chance outcome of blind impersonal processes, or the creation of a loving mystery at the heart of all things. But that question can never be finally answered either way by intellectual arguments: for atheists and believers alike it can be answered only by trusting our feelings and intuitions: and for Christians in particular it is by trusting the feelings and intuitions that scripture, tradition, prayer and worship evoke in us, and by testing them in all the ups and downs of everyday life, that a deep and enduring, if also human and fallible, faith grows and develops.

Now it is to open the door to the possibility of that faith growing and developing in his life, that Carter is being welcomed this morning by baptism into the family of the Church: it will be for him in later years to learn which feeling and intuitions to trust for himself. But let me just say now a few more words about this ancient sacrament of baptism. First, in our reading from St Luke's gospel about the baptism of Jesus, we are told that the Holy Spirit 'descended upon him in bodily form like a dove' and that 'a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased".' The baptism of Jesus by John, most scholars agree, probably did happen historically: but did all those present see that dove descending and hear that voice? Many historians believe that in those times it was psychologically far more usual, than it is in Western countries today, for what people felt and intuited of God to be actually heard as a voice: not everyone of course - St John's gospel tells us of another occasion when 'a voice came from heaven', which some heard as the voice of God, but others said it was an angel and others again that is was just thunder. But then today, far more people than are often publicly admitted - people who are not in the least mentally ill or psychologically disturbed - have ordinarily inexplicable and often unrepeatable experiences through which they believe that they are being called by God, Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

Are such experiences to be trusted? Ultimately that is for those who have them to say. But if we want to test, in our everyday lives, the feeling and intuition that our deepest relationship really is with the loving mystery at the heart of all things, there is something in our other reading today that might help us. Some Samaritans were the first non-Jewish people to become Christians. They 'had been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus', Acts tells us, but the Holy Spirit 'had not yet come upon them'. Why did this matter? The point about receiving the Holy Spirit, I think, was to help them realise that Jesus, the human face of God in a particular place and time, had now been released from that particular place and time, and in the Holy Spirit had gone out into all the world, to be found in countless other time and places - and also in faces, even in the most ordinary of faces, in whom he is always waiting to be recognised - "inasmuch as you did it unto the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me".

Baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit reminds us then, that through what we learn of God's human face in Jesus, we may discover not only the security of the Father's love, but also the surprises the Spirit may have in store for us. For the Holy Spirit, like the wind, 'blows where it chooses'; and we need always to be prepared to let it fill the sails of our spirits, to venture in unfamiliar and unexpected directions, prepared to adapt, to change and to grow. The possibilities which baptism opens up to us are embraced in the security of that amazingly generous promise in the Epistle of John - that 'everyone who loves is born of God and knows God'. But the possibilities which baptism opens up to us are also to be discovered in the surprises that the Spirit has in store for us, in all the adventures of our earthly pilgrimage. May Carter, all of us, and 'everyone who loves', be enabled to find that security and to enjoy that pilgrimage.