In Book 6 of Milton’s Paradise Lost Raphael tells us the story of how Michael and Gabriel are sent forth to do battle against Satan. We hear how:
The sword of Michael from the armoury of God was given him tempered so that neither keen nor solid might resist that edge.
The fighting is fierce until:
Dawning from heaven: forth rushed with whirlwind sound
The chariot of paternal Deity,
Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn…
The Messiah arrives to put an end to the fighting in an Ezekiel-style vision of God arriving on a chariot.
Milton interprets the war in heaven that we heard about in our first reading from Revelation as a kind of civil war. It is the richness but also the ambiguity of Milton’s great poem which have made it so long lasting. It was Blake who said Milton was ‘Of the devils party without knowing it’.
When I think of our present-day political situation then it can feel like Milton’s reflections on the Civil war are quite pertinent.
Today we come together to celebrate the Eucharist – a shared meal – but also to celebrate the Baptism of Rosa and you might wonder why a lovely baby like Rosa should have to hear about War in Heaven on her baptism day. Well one answer is that she is getting Baptised at Michaelmas but the other is that this battle, in a spiritual sense, continues in all human lives and communities and it is Baptism which invites us to be at peace and to be with God.
For Christians Christ’s incarnation, God becoming human, and his death and resurrection are THE revelation of who God is to us. A God in solidarity with suffering humanity who offers us hope.
I love the line from the former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins who writes ‘I find I’m believing more and more about less and less: God is, as God is in Jesus, so there is hope’.
Baptism is the way by which we come to be part of the community which wants to live this story. Baptism is, if you like, the Messiah’s chariot coming down from heaven to say I can see that life’s battles are hard but today I claim you for love and for justice.
In today’s Gospel Nathaniel asks Jesus ‘Where did you come to know me? And he is surprised that Jesus had already seen him under the fig tree. But Jesus responds: ‘Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
Baptism, anyone’s baptism, is an invitation to broaden our vision. Its not a naming ceremony, it’s the beginning of a journey to discover who we are in God.
In Parliament this week there was an argument about the way the murdered MP Jo Cox’s name was used. Her husband wrote: The best way to honour Jo is for all of us (no matter our views) to stand up for what we believe in, passionately and with determination. But never to demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common.
I believe that Baptism is such an invitation – stand up for what we believe in, passionately but never demonise the other side and hold onto what we have in common.
Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes right through every human heart”.
Baptism claims us for good in Jesus. So that in our many battles we can know that there is hope. And that one day, Like Nathaniel we too will see that vision of heaven opened.
Because although discord, disagreement and division continue in the country and in the Church and in our own hearts, and although it can sometimes feel like it really is a kind of civil war, Baptism claims us as an Easter people, a people who are seeking to live a new life nurtured by love, a life which dares to look into the face of those we disagree with and to see the face of Christ. Amen.