Baptisms are often times when people give gifts to a new arrival in a family, traditionally things like silver bracelets, cups or spoons, or perhaps something more obviously religious like a Bible or prayer book. Whether or not there are any physical presents given, there are always less tangible gifts being offered on a day like today, the prayers and good wishes of those who are here – both family and friends of the one being baptised and those who are members of our regular congregation too.
In the old folk tales, the gifts given at christenings are often very significant. They are magical gifts given by magical godparents to a child destined for great things – grace, strength, goodness, a loving heart– things that will make a real difference to their lives.
What we are doing here today isn’t magic, but we hope that it will give Daisy gifts like that too, the tools she needs to live well. We hope it will remind those who care for her that she is God’s child too, and part of a community that cares; they aren’t on their own. We hope it will remind them that when she gets in a mess, as we all do, there is always forgiveness and a new start; the waters of baptism tell us that it all comes out in the wash, in God’s love. We hope it will help to set a good direction for her life, pointing her towards all that is good and life-giving. These are the most valuable gifts given in baptism, gifts that will keep on giving throughout her life.
As it happens, today is a double celebration. It is also our Patronal festival, the feast day of the saints to whom this church is dedicated, St Peter and St Paul. In a way, Patron Saints are a bit like the church’s own godparents, and they have gifts to give us too, inspiring us through the stories of their lives. We heard snippets of those stories in our readings this morning, but I probably need to do a bit of unwrapping if we are to discover the gifts those stories contain, because they aren’t always obvious.
The Gospel reading featured the first of our Patron Saints, St Peter. It is set just after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – that is very significant, because Peter hadn’t exactly distinguished himself when Jesus was arrested and killed. He’d been so sure of himself beforehand. He’d been by Jesus’ side throughout his ministry as he had travelled around teaching and healing. He was a bluff, strong, impulsive man who said what he thought, often without thinking too much about it first, but he saw himself as loyal and brave, as Jesus’ best friend. But when the soldiers came for Jesus he’d deserted him, like all the rest. Worse than that he had denied even knowing Jesus at all, not just once, but three times by the time the cock crowed next morning. Some friend he turned out to be!
It looked like the end of everything, but three days later the disciples started seeing Jesus again, risen from death. It should have been pure joy for Peter, but… he couldn’t forget how badly he had let Jesus down, how far short he’d fallen. How could Jesus ever trust him again? How could he ever hope for Jesus’ friendship and love again?
So Peter went back to something he did know how to do, or thought he did. He went fishing. But even his old skills seem to have deserted him. He fished all night, but caught nothing. Just as he and the others were about to give up, though, a figure appeared on the shore and called to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Rather sceptically they did, and to their surprise, the nets were filled with fish, so many they could hardly drag them in.
Peter twigs straight away that it is Jesus, and jumps overboard to swim to shore, but after breakfast, Jesus takes him aside for the conversation he has been dreading. This is where he is going to get torn to shreds for his disloyalty and cowardice isn’t it…? But that’s not what happens. Instead Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and three times, hearing that he does, he tells him “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs”…Look after those who will follow me in the future, it means. Be the leader of this group. And that is what Peter becomes, a towering figure in the early Church, and for the Church ever since.
Jesus had called him the Rock – that is what Peter means in Greek – but it wasn’t the loud, bold confidence of the old Peter he was pointing to, but the much deeper resilience that came through getting it wrong, really wrong, and discovering that wasn’t the end of everything, but the beginning. He discovered that the weaknesses and the failures in our lives often matter far more than the apparent strengths and triumphs. As he learned to see himself anew - fallible, but forgiven - he also learned to see others anew as well, recognising God at work in those who didn’t fit the mould of success his society had given him.
Our other Patron Saint, St Paul, is another man who doesn’t look at first sight like someone you’d want to follow. The first reading was about him, though in it he was called by his Hebrew name, Saul. He’d been one of the most bitter and sworn enemies of Christian faith. He sincerely believed that it was a dangerous perversion of the beliefs he had grown up with, and that it ought to be stamped out firmly. He was a man on a mission when he set out for the Syrian city of Damascus, but it was a mission of destruction. On the road to Damascus, though, he saw a blinding light, and heard a voice, calling out “why do you persecute me?”
He couldn’t understand it at all. He thought he was doing God’s work, and yet here was a voice, apparently from heaven, challenging all that. It wasn’t just his physical sight that he lost that day; nothing looked the way it should anymore.
But along came someone – one of the bravest people in the Bible – to change all that. Ananias, the Christian who God sent to pray for his healing knew perfectly well who Saul was when he set out to visit him. He knew he was someone famous for persecuting the church, but he went anyway, because here was someone in need of his love and prayer. No wonder later on St Paul wrote so much about love – that famous passage often heard at weddings is his “ If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but have not love I am nothing…Love is patient and kind… Love believes all things, endures all things.. Faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love.” He had discovered this for himself, as Ananias responded to him not with the hatred he might have expected, but with kindness and care.
Peter and Paul both got it wrong, spectacularly wrong, before they got it right, but that was how it had to be.
And that’s often the way with us too. It’s when our lives fall apart, when we have to let go of the shiny self-image that we have clung to for dear life, that we start to really appreciate those around us. We open ourselves up to the help that those around us offer – we have to. That help may come from unexpected sources, unlikely people, places we’d never thought to look, as Paul’s help did in the shape of Ananias. We discover the love that was always there, the love of others and the love of God, which we were too tied up with ourselves to notice before. And having discovered it by accident, perhaps we learn to search for it deliberately, looking at all those around us as children of God, places where God is at work, people who just might have gifts to give us, gifts that we need. That is what Peter and Paul learned – the hard way – through their lives, they each came to realise in their different ways that God was far more generous than they had thought, giving freely of his love to all, even to those they thought were failures or beyond the pale, and intending that all people should be gifts to one another too, gifts to be treasured and welcomed.
So, today is a day full of gifts, whether they come wrapped in shiny paper or not; the gifts that come from the saints who inspire us, the gifts of love and prayer we give to Daisy, the gift that she is to us and to the world, the gifts that we can all be to one another, and learn to find in one another if we have eyes to see. I pray that not only Daisy but all of us will go home today laden with gifts to sustain and bless us.