The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Over twenty years ago I arrived as the Parish Priest of St John's Bovey Tracey in the diocese of Exeter, and was there for eleven happy years. Almost next door to St John's was the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, and sandwiched between the two was Lord Halifax's vast nineteenth century Devon country house. During my time there, I had two former Rectors of the Venerable English College in Rome, as neighbouring clergy. The delightfully named Monsignor Adrian Toffolo, was replaced by the kindly Monsignor George Hay.
We did much together, praying and ministering, calling bingo in the hall every week, sharing parties and fundraising. When Father George arrived, a new relationship had to be established. We soon discovered that we both enjoyed fly fishing, and one of my servers, who had the rights to a lovely stretch of the River Teign, invited us both to fish with him (through the night) for sea trout. After a good dinner we enjoyed a fabulous night's fishing.
That night, we sat chatting easily in the warm summer air, waiting patiently until an inky blackness had enveloped the river before stealthily tiptoeing into our chosen spot. The overhanging trees were now in darkness and we silently pointed to the wild birds roosting above us. For years after we recalled that perfect evening on the water with the silent birds watching on. The river water became integral to our friendship, and friendship became a key characteristic in our priestly ministries to that town.
This morning's gospel talks about water and dove; about faith and belonging. Jesus knew all about ordinary country ways: catching and eating fish; pulling water from wells; ravens, sparrows, the birds of the air, the crops of the land, the significance of the dove. On this feast of the Baptism of Christ, such symbolism speaks powerfully to us not only about baptism, but creation, friendship, new life and new beginnings.
Water is there at the very beginning of creation, when God's spirit breathed on the waters of the earth; and in the great flood, water marks the end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. The dove, so often used in the Old Testament as a symbol of sacrifice, often invites comparison with Isaac and Israel, for just as a dove stretches out its neck, so too did Isaac when he prepared to be sacrificed to God. Thus, by the time of Jesus, the dove was already rich with symbolism and interpretation as atoning sacrifice, suffering, fertility and as the Holy Spirit of God: a symbol of God's love and friendship freely given.
At the very heart of the Gospel, and as a fundamental principle of baptism, there's the profound understanding that God chooses us. 'A voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' (St Mark 1: 11). If being joined to Christ hinges on our decision to accept him, then the Gospel is just something else we have to do. In other words, the Gospel is turned into a law, when our decision is what makes or breaks baptism. The whole point of the Gospel is that we don't do a thing! We don't decide to accept Jesus. He decides to choose us. He initiates the friendship. He doesn't wait for us to do something. He chooses to give us his grace even when we have fallen away from him. 'For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.' (Romans 5:10).
In this context, baptism is a beautiful expression of God doing it all. Babies can't decide and choose. They're utterly helpless and God comes to them in their helplessness. He decides to claim them as His own and bestow his friendship upon them. He gives them his Holy Spirit, his intimate friendship which will stay with them and guide them and help them grow in understanding and faith. God does it all.
When Aristotle talks about friendship he distinguishes three types: Firstly, friendships based on utility. The sort of friends who 'take pleasure in each other's company—only in as far as they have hopes of getting something out of it'. Secondly, friendship based upon pleasure: for example, when we enjoy the company of witty people because we find their company pleasant. Thirdly, perfect friendship, based on pure goodness, when each friend wishes good for the other. And I suppose the difference between these three types lies in what exactly is valued in the friendship.
More often than not real friendships are a mixture of all three, but Aristotle (just like St Paul) takes the third kind to be the most exemplary and closest to the core meaning of the Greek term 'philia', which is translated as friendship. And in Christian terms we're primarily concerned with perfect friendship, one based upon true goodness; upon God.
Aelred of Hexham, a twelfth-century monk from Rievaulx, gives us a special insight into such friendship. He speaks of it as a relationship which helps us grow in love: love of each other and love of God. In fact, for him friendship is a sacrament of God's love. He tells us that just as there is a continuous dialogue and interchange of love between the three persons of the Trinity, so through the waters of baptism we human beings are called to relationships based on mutual sharing and self-giving.
For him this is the theological foundation for all spiritual relationships. He also tells us that it is through the little things of life that we come to experience something of God's unchanging love and friendship. So, whether it is the ripple of a dry fly upon the river, or the splash of water at baptism, or the flow of good conversation, God's Holy Spirit is there in the midst of us.
A holy friendship is beyond words, beyond expression, beyond understanding, because through baptism God chooses to dwell with us in holy friendship and spiritual unity, and reveal a different kind of love to us than we are accustomed to in our normal relationships.