Sermon by Kenneth Padley in St Michael St Albans for 23rd June 2019
Baptism of Maximilian Ridley-Holloway
Readings: Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39
‘As many of you as are baptised into Christ have been clothed with Christ’ (Galatians 3.27). I suspect that this verse is the origin of christening gowns, that tradition in many families of robing their babies in white flowing garments to show on the outside that inner holiness which is symbolised by the baptism ritual.
I should note that today’s baby is rather large for his six months and his mother Kate tells me that he has ‘Maxed out’ his intended baptism gown such that a bigger one has had to be found from another wing of the family – and even then that this one has had to be let out. There’s a message in this: Max, our prayer for your future is that you will experience spiritual riches on the inside as big as your supersized gown on the outside.
For, of course, the important thing in baptism is not external symbolism but the deeper truths that it represents. The ceremonies of baptism are an outward and visible sign of the purification and blessing which God gives to those who receive him in faith.
In the case of babies of course this means that there is a temporal gap between the outward sign which we see today and the inward faith into which we hope Max will grow in years to come. But, Max, our commitment today as parents, godparents and community is to provide the best framework in which this can happen for you. That is the promise which we will all be making to God for you shortly.
That life-shaping encounter with Jesus which Paul compares to new clothes in his Letter to the Galatians was also represented to us this morning in that powerful story of Jesus’ meeting with the Gerasene demoniac called Legion. A bit of background to the miracle might be useful at this point. The region of the Gerasenes (sometimes called the Gadarenes or the Gergesenes) was not Jewish territory. It was somewhere to the east of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of what we know as the Golan Heights. This region was populated by predominantly non-Jewish people hence those un-Jewish pigs – of which more shortly.
Many devout Jews like Jesus would have steered clear of such pagan territory. Moreover, they would have recoiled from encounter with a man who was naked (offensive to Jews) and who lived among the tombs (ritually contaminating to Jews).
Jesus, however, was not put off – quite the reverse. He embraced the man in his brokenness. Neither was Jesus fearful of the man’s ritual impurity. The contemporary understanding was that corpse impurity spread from the tainted person to the clean person. But, in the encounter we just heard, the opposite was true: rather than impurity passing from Legion to Jesus, holiness flowed from Jesus into Legion. The power of God was greater than the evil of the demons, with the result in verse 35 that people from the village found the man (whom they knew as a free-range naked nutter) to be seated at the feet of Jesus, ‘clothed and in his right mind’. The villagers glimpsed on the outside something of what had happened on the inside – an embodiment of St Paul’s principle: as many as have encountered Christ have put on Christ.
So what about the pigs? The welfare of these animals is a matter of personal concern since my beloved wife (who is widely known in St Michael’s to have an obsession with toucans and partridges) also harbours a soft spot for all things porcine. I fear that one day I will return to the Vicarage to find a Gloucester Old Spot rootling through the Sweet Williams. Given this penchant for pigs, you will not be surprised to learn that Mrs Padley does not appreciate the bit of the story where the animals drown in the Sea of Galilee. Their destruction is an economic disaster and – to modern readers – an ecological scandal. These animals were the livelihood of the village, innocent bystanders who pay the highest price for the rehabilitation of the demon-possessed man.
So what’s the explanation? While Mrs Padley is positive about porkers, we know that Jewish tradition is not. Pig is non-kosher meat. So by getting rid of the pigs and the demons simultaneously, Jesus was symbolically extending God’s territory, the kingdom of heaven. The visible destruction of the pigs was the outward manifestation of what was happening to the man and his community on the inside. Remember how the story ends: the man goes off to tell everyone about what Jesus had done for him.
This message about spiritual conquest is particularly brought out in the version of the story which we heard from Luke’s gospel. Luke was working from an earlier account in Mark chapter 5. But Luke was no slavish copyist. He chose to add that line about the demons begging not to be sent back to the abyss, the subterranean realm of disobedient spirits. Despite this request, the moment they entered the herd, the pigs careered down the steep bank and into the lake. The Jewish-minded early readers of Luke would have interpreted this as God’s kingdom being advanced both visibly and spiritually – the pigs and the demons both returned to the underworld. Perhaps there is a second, more universal point here as well. The demise of the demons in the lake despite their protestations shows that evil is ultimately self-destructive: bad thoughts and immoral choices will rebound on those who perpetrate them.
So what do your outward actions reveal of your inward identity? Two weeks ago we prayed at Pentecost ‘let holy charity mine outward vesture be; and lowliness become mine inner clothing’. Is that true of you? If you came to court, would the clothing of your outward actions convict you of a Christian heart?
One man for whom that was true was St Alban, our local hero and forebear in the faith. His festival was celebrated yesterday. As a leading citizen of Roman Verulamium, Alban will have lived within a quarter of a mile of this church. His story is that he sheltered a Christian priest and was converted by the man’s piety. The Venerable Bede wrote that Alban, observed the priest’s ‘unbroken activity of prayer and vigil … [and] was suddenly touched by the grace of God and began to follow the priest’s example of faith and devotion’. In other words, the outward behaviour of the priest was a shining manifestation of his inner faith. And the upshot of Alban’s conversion was that, when soldiers came hunting for the priest, Alban disguised himself in the priest’s cloak, giving the priest time to escape. Just like the priest, Alban’s faith could now be identified from his recognisably Christian exterior. Unable to arrest the priest the soldiers seized Alban and hauled him before a judge. Alban refused the judge’s request that he offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Clearly for all to hear he made an outward declaration of the truth he had discovered in his heart: ‘I am a Christian’ he said. These are the most significant words which Alban ever spoke – they are captured in the Alban window in our north clerestory. By declaring his Christianity in this way, Alban was effectively signing his own death warrant. He lost the trial but he passed the real test and was marched away to execution.
The most likely site for Alban’s trial and declaration of faith is… here. St Michael’s is built on the site of the basilica, the headquarters of Verulamium, and the basilica is the most obvious location in Verulamium for Alban’s trial. If this true, as I have said before, this means that St Michael’s is the oldest site of known Christian activity in this country.
this morning we sit surrounded by reused Roman bricks, bricks which in their
earlier edifice may have been seen by Alban himself, has encounter with the
risen Jesus so shaped your outward vesture and inner clothing that you could
stand alongside the saint and declare ‘I am a Christian’?
 H.E. 1.7