Names are very important and our own name is deeply personal. It expresses so much of our identity, who we are and where we belong. We have our first name or names, what for those who have been baptized we call our Christian name, and we have our family name, taken from one or both of our parents. Some choose on marriage to combine these family names, others adopt one and stop using the other. We don’t choose our first name for ourselves, at least not at first. It is given to us by others, our parents or in some cases someone else who has the first care of us. If we later decide to change this, it is a major step to take and will reflect very deeply how we now see ourselves, otherwise it is what we have grown up with and become accustomed to. One of the things we do at baptism is give someone’s name an added layer of blessing. This is the name which is used as water is poured over us in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And there we have name being used again. What we do in this special moment is identified with the love and character of God, it is done in God’s name.
When Jesus used the image of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading (John 10:11-18), earlier in the passage it was taken from, before where our reading started, he says that the shepherd knows the sheep so intimately and closely that he calls them by name (v3). And the point of the story is that we are the sheep whom Jesus knows by name. It is an intimate image. We are not just one of a crowd, though we are part of a great company of followers who seek and have sought to live the Jesus way down the centuries and do so today. We are known for who we are and loved for who we are. When so many people struggle with who they are – be it body image, how they look, or with confidence and acceptance for not quite fitting in with the crowd, or coming to terms with something different about us to what had been expected – knowing that God loves us for who we are can be incredibly liberating. God knows you by your name, not someone else’s. And being you is to be the unique creation that God has made, blessed and calls to follow him. You are one of those beloved sheep that the Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.
And that is another side to baptism. With our name blessed we are called to follow Jesus. We are called by name to live a life that gives thanks to God for the love he gives us in Jesus Christ and to show that in everything we do. That might mean saying sorry on occasions for when we mess things up – and all of us do that, regardless of how old or important we become, in fact we probably do it more the older we get and the more important we become. This is why every service includes a confession; a moment when we can acknowledge that we have got it wrong, sometimes spectacularly, and we will show this by trying to live differently. God calls us by name and sets us free to walk on in a new life of hope and grace.
In a moment, Canon Sarah will show these three elements in the actions around baptism. The name is blessed along with the person as the sign of the cross is made on his forehead using special oil blessed for this purpose. Anointing is an ancient custom whereby someone is marked out as special and given a special job. Jack is special and his name takes on the extra special character as his Christian name. The special job is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and that requires a whole life commitment. He is young and will need to grow in that. As he does that, he will require help and encouragement, which is where everyone here has a part to play. He needs examples to follow and reflect on – that is your part, and parents and godparents have a particular privilege and responsibility here. Teach him, pray for him, pray with him, guide him and delight in him as he flourishes in faith and in life.
The second action is the water being poured over him, three times in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this just like we wash away the grime of the day at bath time we are reminded that the sins we do and will continue to do are taken from us by the only one who can, God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a putting away of the grip of sin – for we pass through the water in a hope that life is not futile, but blessed, loved and held. The image used is of dying to sin, passing through the waters of death, and coming to share in the life and hope of Christ. It is a rich image. We are forgiven because we are loved. Sometimes the one who needs to forgive us most is ourselves and accept this deeply within ourselves. God sets us free to be and live as his beloved child.
The third action involves the Easter Candle burning here. It is a light to remind us that we live in the hope of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead at Easter. At the end of the service a candle will be lit from it for Jack to remind him and us that we are to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God. We have a calling, a vocation, to be people of that light and not people of darkness. There are so many ways that this can be and is expressed. But in short, we aim to be people who are blessing to those we meet and for whom the consequences of what we do is life-giving and life-affirming, which is at the root of the word blessing. Be light, be Christ light, wherever you go and whatever you do.
The Church of England gives today an extra label. It is ‘Vocation Sunday’ and that means it is a day to ask how God might be calling you to live that light of hope and grace and blessing. It might be that there are ways you can do this in whatever it is you do for a living. It might be that there are ways to do this more fully in your home or among those with whom you live. It might be that God is stirring up within you a sense of a different role that aims to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and call others to follow him. That is what the church is called to be and do – it’s a very simple vocation that we have here – proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and call others to follow. Everything flows from this, whatever fancy words or statements we come up with – if it is not about this, it has missed the point. Vocations and calling in the church take many forms, some are ordained as clergy, some are not; some are to the religious life as a monk or a nun or in some other kind of community, some are not. It might be that there is another ministry that strikes a chord for us. God’s Spirit calls and stirs and it can take us a bit of working out just what shape it takes. But when God calls others will recognize it too and that is good way of checking out what is delusion and what is real.
God calls us by name and our vocation, our living out of this will take the form that fits us, and the form it takes may well surprise us. It surprised the prophets before us. And all of us who stand here wearing clerical collars began with our names being called by God, being blessed by God, by realizing that we had to die to sin and live for God, and to be lights shining in and through and for the world. Every baptism is a moment to be reminded of our own baptism, of our own calling, and of our own growth in faith and living out that faith. Pray today for Jack, for those who will help him grow, and for yourselves as you seek to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, to be light-bearers, to draw others to follow him too.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Easter 4, Sunday 22nd April 2018