It’s the 5th time this gospel reading has come up in the lectionary since I was ordained and I still don’t know what to say about it…

This isn’t a sermon, it’s some thoughts that might lead to one.

Luke 12.49-56 is a really hard gospel. I like to find good news in the gospel, and I also like to inhabit the grey areas, but today’s reading leaves me very little scope for either; it seems full of judgement and harsh dividing lines, and destruction. And although I like complex, I like my complexity to be, well, happier.

One of the things I encourage my ordinands to do when they’re preparing to preach is to identify the ‘gospel in the gospel’ –  a process which involves letting the scripture reading converse with the time of year, the occasion, the church context and local/national events, and the preacher’s own perspective, experience and insights. Sometimes (=often) this process results not in a neat and tidy conclusion, but in more of a ‘way in’ – a starting point for what is likely to be a longer journey of reflecting and mulling-over, and responding.

Today is one of those days. There was a particular phrase that I found myself drawn to, and I’ll treat this, if I may, as the rabbit hole through which to explore this gospel, and see where the journey takes us.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This isn’t the first time that Jesus has talked about baptism the context of his coming time of suffering, and his approaching death.  Remember Mark 10.38-39?  You do not know what you are asking, Jesus replied. “Can you drink the cup I will drink, or be baptized with the baptism I will undergo?” “We can,” they answered. “You will drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus said, “and you will be baptized with the baptism I undergo…  In this rebuke to James and John, who are seeking the highest place by Jesus’ side in heaven, Jesus connects both baptism and the drinking of a cup with suffering. It sounds awfully like Baptism and Holy Communion are deeply and inextricably intertwined with suffering, both in the life of Christ and in the life of his followers, since they are key markers of our belonging to him.

In the early church, when many of those new to the faith, who had just begun their journey towards full membership of the church, were martyred before they could be baptised, the church began to teach that their martyrdom was a ‘baptism of blood’ – the blood shed at their death stood in for the water of baptism and united them fully with Christ. It’s possible that Jesus’ references to a baptism of suffering were the early church reading their own experience of martyrdom back into Jesus’ own teaching. It’s a powerful image, and a powerfully hopeful one for a persecuted church.

In today’s gospel there is no cup of suffering, but there is something else: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’  The phrase that sprang immediately to my mind, hearing these two images side by side in the reading, is the ‘baptism of fire’ that John refers to in Matthew 3.  It may refer to a purging fire, or perhaps more likely to the fire of the Spirit at Pentecost.  But the way we use the phrase now is as a way of talking about a difficult start, a challenge for which we may not be prepared, but which may test us and allow us to rise to it, proving us capable of facing whatever may come next.  Oddly, given the reference to baptism, it is near-equivalent in meaning to ‘in at the deep end’ – an first challenge that reveals whether we will sink or swim.

If a baptism by fire is  difficult (or at least challenging) start, then it is the start of something new, something that is (hopefully) going to be ongoing, something which we will (hopefully) survive, and through which we will ultimately thrive and grow. Think of the fire that Moses encountered on the mountain – the bush that burned but was not consumed. Think of how his new vocation emerged from this fire, overwhelming him but not destroying him, ‘burning’ him into being the person God was calling him to be.  Think of the fire of Pentecost, both the birth and the baptism of the church, terrifying, yet full of joyful power, enabling the few to grow to thousands.

Fire, in the gospel, is at once destructive and regenerative. It demands our absolute attention right here and now, in the present moment, when it may inspire terror, awe, wonder, fear… and yet it’s orientation is towards the future, towards what it will give birth to, what it will enable. The wound that is cauterized is for the sake of life and health; the forest is managed by controlled fire in order that new growth may replace old; the ore is refined in the flames to bring out the gold.  The references to fire (and even to the weather at the end of the reading) are about the relationship between what is happening now, or about to happen, and the ultimate, more hopeful, trajectory in the future. Suffering, purpose, vocation, life and death, hope and judgement – all of these are bound together, woven together, in this complex and richly allusive (and elusive) gospel.

But what of us?  The two central rites of our membership in Christ – baptism and Eucharist – are both connected by Jesus to his passion. When we are baptised, when we welcome others in baptism, when we share the bread and the cup, we participate in Christ, we are his body on earth, sharing in his death and resurrection, his suffering and his glory. This is our baptismal and eucharistic vocation. And it’s our life’s work to work out what that looks like in real life, and to do it. The hard fact of today’s gospel, much as it pains me to admit it, is that being good does not make for a quiet life free from suffering or from argument. It is in the nature of sin to battle with the good, both between us and within each of us.   Dante, in his Divine Comedy, reserved a special place just on the outskirts of hell for those who ‘lived without praise or blame’ and had therefore ‘never really lived’ at all. These, in Dante’s mind, were presumably those who had lived out their lives in denial of the reality that living in the world and truly engaging with it in a meaningful way will involve making decisions, working out what to believe and then standing up for it, and being willing, once standing, to be counted. Even (or especially) if you stand up and are counted for the sake of truth, justice and righteousness, you will make some enemies and piss a lot of people off (sorry about that). The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus himself, are testament to that.

When we read the ‘signs of the times’ (ie what’s happening now, in the church, in our own local community, in the nation, in the world), we are confronted with a question: what sort of Christians, what sort of church, is required? Who do we need to be in response?  What does it look like when we (individually, communally, ecclesially) fulfill our fiery baptismal vocation to be Christ’s presence in the world?

I don’t have an answer for you, but if it is any consolation, I shall take away the same questions for myself.

Making the most of your child’s baptism

baptismbook.jpgI’m delighted to say that the second edition of my booklet, Making the Most of your Child’s Baptism – a gift for all the family, will be published by SPCK on 21st January 2016.

The new edition is in a slightly larger format, with a slightly larger typeface – it’s an easy read for families, with lots of lovely pictures (the design work by SPCK’s Sarah Smith is beautiful, by the way). As in the first edition, there are excerpts from the liturgy, explanations and explorations of the words and actions, things to think about and practical ideas to try at home to help the whole family grow in faith.

This second edition is also fully revised to include the new ‘accessible language’ liturgical material published a few months ago, as well as still containing all the Common Worship ‘default’ settings.

You will be able to buy copies direct from SPCK, or from Eden, Amazon etc. Enjoy!

Things to do during a baptism service

Some easy ideas for churches to try if they’re not sure what to do with all the kids in a baptism service.

  • Treasure hunt
    Give children a photo sheet of key places in the church that feature in the baptism service (ewer, font, candle, oil stock, shell, hands applauding, hymn book (or organ/piano/band) etc in roughly the order that they occur, and ask the children to keep watching to spot each one as it happens
  • Doodles
    Give all the children pencils, and ask them to doodle on their service sheet all the way through the service – encourage them to draw what they see, hear and feel.  You can ask them to focus on what they think are the best bits or the most important bits – and try and pick out some words that sound really important, and illustrate those.
  • Involve children in the liturgy as much as you can (lighting the paschal candle, carrying the water jug to the font, pouring the water into the font, holding the shell and the towel (if you use them), holding your service sheet while you say the prayer over the water etc).
  • Use movement if you can – start the service at the front of the
    church and move to the font for the baptism, and make sure the children get a really great view. Use big gestures, lots of oil, lots of water… make the service feel as multisensory and generous as you can.
  • If there are older siblings who are already baptised, encourage them to bring their own baptism candle and have it re-lit at the service.
  • Why not get the whole congregation to contribute towards something during the service? Perhaps hand out pens and small pieces of coloured paper to everyone and ask them to write a simple blessing on it. These could be collected (by the children) and stuck into a small scrapbook (the children might like to do the sticking) and presented to the family (rather like some families do at funerals to keep a record of who came and their messages of condolence!) or could be used to make a tag cloud after the service that you can send to the family for them to keep and share on social media.
  • Use all-age welcomers at baptism services – could a family from the regular congregation be there at the door to greet families and their guests? This would be a reassuring sign that the church is child-friendly, and that they are welcome as they are, and can enable baptism families who don’t usually come to church to get to know families who come regularly. Children who act as welcomers
    can also help with other aspects of the service, such as leading prayers, doing readings, etc.
  • Make sure people have something to take away – a prayer card, or some object to remind them of the experience and any pledges they may have made, etc. I know one priest who buys up baby socks from
    charity shops, uses them during the talk as a visual aid, and then gives everyone one to take home at the end as a reminder.
  • If you had a big banner-shaped piece of paper/card, you could write the baptism candidate’s name on it in big outline letters for the children to decorate (you could also write it, ‘St X’s Church welcomes N’)
  • Ask the children’s groups, if you have them, to make a dove-shaped card with words of blessing (suggested by the children) on one side, and ‘God says, N, you are my child, I love you, and I am pleased with you’ on the other side, adding the name of the baptism candidate. The children can decorate the dove using coloured pens, and present it to the family at the welcome.
  • If you are using the reading about the baptism of Jesus, why not print out enough stickers for each member of the congregation with a dove outline bearing the words, ‘God says, you are my child, I love you and I am pleased with you’ then get the children to take the stickers round and stick one to each person – you could link this to a talk about how the love of God comes first, and then we live it out (and that this can be true for each of us, every day, not just for people at the start of their life).
  • Parents may also appreciate something their children can do ‘in the pew’ with them.  To that end, here are two downloadable booklets that you may wish to use – they can be photocopied and given out to children along with a pack of crayons.Baptism Colouring Book
    Download it as a .pdf document here: Baptism colouring book
    This is something that younger children can do on their own, and uses colouring pictures to illustrate the baptism service – in our church we use the same images (smaller) to illustrate our order of service so that even if parents aren’t that great at engaging their children with the service, at least they can match up what they’re doing with what they’re children are doing…
    Print this out 2 pages per sheet, in the order 12,1,2,11,10,3,4,9,8,5,6,7 then copy it back to back to make a booklet.  Or you may have a clever printer that will do booklets for you!

    Baptism activity workbook for children
    Download it as a pdf here:  Baptism workbook
    This is based on the same illustrations as the colouring book, but has more questions, and is either for older children to do on their own or for younger children whose parents are willing to engage with them.  My 6-year-old is a good reader and can do it on his own, but I’d be interested to hear about how you end up using it in your own church, and what age group finds it most helpful.
    It is for use during or just before a baptism service:
    Print this out 2 pages per sheet, in the order 12,1,2,11,10,3,4,9,8,5,6,7 then copy it back to back to make a booklet.  Or your printer may have a clever printer that will do booklets for you!

  • Some of these ideas – and a few others, too – are archived here. Or you can search for ‘baptism’ on this website to find all related posts.

Baptism doves – children’s church craft activity

This could be a useful activity if you’re using Mark 1.9-11 for any other reason, or if you want your children’s group to make something as a gift for babies or children being baptised in your church (which is a nice thing to do!)

You will need two paper plates per dove, scissors, pens, hole punch, double sided sticky tape (or glue, if you prefer), small bits of paper, some lengths of wool (about 12-18 inches if fine), and a plain piece of card to make the template.  You might also like to pre-print some pieces of paper (or stickers) with the wording taken from the scripture passage – see photo. Leave a dotted line for the name of the child to be written in by hand.

paper plate dove1. Draw on a paper plate the outline of a dove, so that the tips of the wings and the tail benefit from the crimping round the edge of the plate, but the head and the belly are entirely on the flat bit of the plate.  You can cut this out and use this to make a template on your flat piece of card – this can make it easier to replicate the dove shape on the other plates.

2. Use your template to cut out as many doves as you think you need.

3. Now, make another set of doves, but this time using the template the other way round (or, if you want to look at it that way, by drawing on the back of the plate rather than on the front).  Either way, you want to end up being able to stick pairs of doves back to back, with the wings and tail fanning out, as in the picture. Try it, and you’ll hopefully see what I mean.

4. Use double sided tape to stick each pair of doves together. You will need one small strip at the bottom of the belly, one between the body and tail, and one at the neck. Don’t stick the back or the wings together.

5. Gently bend the wings apart.  Use the hole punch to make a hole at the top of the wing, as close as you can to the balance point (the balance point on mine was towards the back of the top of the wing).  Tie each end of the wool through one of the holes, so you have a loop to hang up the dove.

7. Stick on the sticker of piece of paper with the wording on it, and ask the children to write their own name on the dotted line.  Talk about how God also loves us, not as a reward for what we have done, but because we are his children.

6. You should end up with a sort of ‘pocket’ between the wings of the dove. This is where your small pieces of paper come in. Children may write or draw something (as many as they like) to remind them of blessings, encouragements, and gifts they have received without earning them – remembering that the words that God the Father spoke to Jesus weren’t a reward for what he’d done (because he hadn’t done anything yet!) but were spoken out of pure love, and to give Jesus strength and encouragement for all that he would go on to do.  Post the bits of paper into the pocket in the back of the dove – you can pray a thank you prayer as you do this.

7. If the dove is being made as a gift for a baptism candidate, write their name on the dotted line, and on the small pieces of paper write some ‘blessings’ or gifts that the children suggest God might want to give them.  Things like love, wisdom, happiness, family, health etc may be suggested. These words can be made into a prayer for the child being baptised as the dove is presented to them.