Sunday 13th January Acts 8;14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sir Winston Churchill, in a famous speech he made in November 1942 after the victory at the second battle of El Alamein, said these words: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.

Whatever else he was, Churchill understood that the people of Great Britain and her Allies needed to hear good news after a punishing first three years of War. He also understood that to claim too much might in fact cause a level of complacency that the nation might live to regret.

I suppose it is a bit like a cricket team that wins the first Test of the Ashes series. This is cause for encouragement and even some cautious celebration, but too much over-confidence could be the cause of much regret as the "Old Enemy” strikes back.

Now this might seem like a strange parallel to draw, but baptism is a bit like this too. For some people, getting to the point of having a child baptised might seem like an ordeal, even a quite lengthly one, like Kira’s parents have gone through. I think we started looking at a date about eight months ago, and now, finally, the day has arrived. THE END?

No, not the end. Not even the beginning of the end. Only the end of the beginning.

What is baptism? This is the rite by which a person, in this case a child, is welcomed into the family of the Christian church. Not just the Uniting Church, but the church as a whole. Some churches teach that by this process the child is somehow now eternally qualified for heaven. By definition, an unbaptised child risks missing out, which I think has been part of the motivation of some families to have the child baptised long after any commitment to the church has faded away. Our understanding here is that in the act of baptism the child does receive God’s blessing; but it is not some final inoculation against eternal exclusion. For us, this is the start of a journey which draws its energy from the faith of the parents, looking for the day when the child will grow and embrace the Christian Faith for herself. We have welcomed Kira into the family. We would like to continue that relationship, and believe that this ongoing contact will be to her lasting benefit.

The misunderstanding; that this is the end of a process rather than a beginning, contributes to the fact that perhaps 95% of parents these days, and for as long as I can remember in my ministry, do not come back. It tells me, not that there is anything wrong with the love that these a parents have for their children, or their sincerity in bringing their children to the place of God’s blessing. I have often been told by parents that they feel that having their child baptised is the right thing to do, but that they will later decide for themselves whether or not to continue on the way of Jesus Christ. That is true, however what happens between today, and this time of the child making their own decision about the faith they decide to follow, is crucial in influencing that decision. One of the best ways to ensure that this faith journey will continue is to make sure that their child or children will be exposed to Christian community on a regular basis. Even that does not guarantee anything, but the statistics are interesting. They show that where neither parent is involved in the Christian community, there is minimal chance of the child embracing the faith. Where only mum is involved, the odds rise to 30%. Only dad, 60%. Both parents- up to 80%.

What is also instructive is how the bible speaks of baptism. When people come to be baptised by John the Baptist, his main message is that they should go on from there to live honest and ethical lives. He also makes it clear that his baptism is a mere foretaste of what is to come when Jesus starts to make his mark. "I baptise you with water, but one who is more powerful that I is coming….He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John’s baptism is just the beginning; what really matters is an ongoing relationship with Jesus, who offers strong spiritual energy, nourishing food for the journey of faith, in-depth teaching about how to live a life of love.

The passage from Acts is similar: new disciples in Samaria have been through the process of being baptised into the Christian faith, but have not yet been exposed to the special spiritual blessing that is available in the life of the early church. Peter and John therefore travel from Jerusalem to remedy that situation.

In each case, people have responded to what they see as an important call; just as you have today. But what they experience because of that response is just a beginning. There is so much more to come.

I myself was baptised as a baby, but only really became involved at age 19, when I found a group of young people who really cared about me, and were themselves committed to the way of Christ. It has been quite a roller-coaster journey since then. I nearly bombed out a few times, especially in mid-life, but even at my lowest there was still that inner voice that said "The journey is not yet over. Hang in there”. All I can say is that I am still here because the essential message of Jesus is about living a life of love. A lot of people get it. A lot of people here get it. When we are at our best, positive change happens. Lives are changed.

So what can I say to try and convince anyone that it is worth seeing this occasion as the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end?

*I am not going to try and tell anyone that they will go to hell if they don’t believe in Jesus, or go to to church: Some churches teach that. We don’t.

* And I am not going to try and convince anyone that Christianity is better than any other religion: Some do insist on that. We don’t. We share that common ground of wisdom with m religions and people of goodwill.

* Nor am I going to try and tell you that the people who come here on a regular or semi-regular basis are somehow more favoured by God than those who do not; or that by choosing to follow Christ’s way, and by giving 10% of one’s income to the church, God will make you rich. Some churches think that way. We do not.

What I am convinced of, however, is this:

* Jesus Christ, properly understood, invites people into a community, and a way of living, that is able to change us, and the world, for the better.

* The UCA, at its best, holds inclusion, care and justice as its highest values.

* That in spite of our short-comings, there is a depth of love here that holds and helps people when they are going through their dark times. It gives us a place to stand as we speak truth to power, and love to the world.

In the Uniting Church we do not see ourselves a people who have arrived at any special destination. We assert that we are a people ON THE WAY to the promised goal. As St Paul says in one of his letters, "I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering….Not that I have already attained this, or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me his own.”

This my friends, is not the end, not even the beginning of the end; but the end of the beginning.

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