35 years ago I spent a day in Florence.
And I was dazzled, by the brightness of summer sun, by the intensity of the light reflected off the marble on so many of the buildings, and by the luminosity of the paintings of Botticelli in the Uffizi gallery.
I knew at the time that most of the beauty of the city owed its existence to the patronage of the Medici banking family, but what I didn’t realise was how that patronage worked. I had imagined that the relationship was primarily a financial one- between paymaster and artist.
But it wasn’t.
Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and other luminaries of what came to be known as the Renaissance were regular dinner guests of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and for periods of time actually lived in his palace. They also participated in the meetings Lorenzo organised when scholars discussed the political and philosophical ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and how they squared with Christianity and the challenges of contemporary life- which then were every bit as complex as they are now, with civil strife and international instability ever threatening.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it was the community of scholars, artists, philosophers and theologians- such categories were very fluid then- that Lorenzo- astute banker and shrewd political operator- drew together which changed history and culture forever.
We talk easily these days about communities, when we often seem to mean groups or categories of people united by one defining characteristic only- communities which have real impact are usually smaller and have more in common; are able to meet, converse and break bread together.
Today we have 2 overlapping communities present, Oscar’s family and friends and the St Barnabas church community which he is about to enter at his baptism.
Due to the slippage of language it is easy to forget that a church is not a building but a gathering place- a place of meeting.
This is put so emphatically in the words on the order of service when we get to the baptising part of this morning.
First the whole congregation is invited to welcome Oscar, on the assumption that he is not here by whim; Hattie and Chris having thought deeply about why they are bringing him, and because ultimately God is calling him- as Christians we are committed to the idea that God cares for all his children and welcomes them at any time they turn to him.
But next the parents and godparents are addressed.
Parents and godparents, the Church receives Oscar with joy.
And your role is to pray for him, lead by example, and help him to find a place in the community of faith,
To walk with him in the way of Christ.
So the church is not only the meeting place between Oscar’s family and friends and the congregation, but the place where we hope God in Christ can also be encountered.
That is where the responsibility shifts back to all of us who are regular members of the church. How do we do we ensure that is the case- honestly and truthfully? By our actions, our words and our ideals?
A few weeks ago when George Dillon performed his brilliant one man play inspired by St Matthew’s Gospel here, he portrayed the disciples, particularly St Peter, as being a dense bunch, inarticulate and very, very slow on the up-take.
His view was that Christ is the central character and the disciples are merely dramatic foils.
I would argue that they are not mere foils,; they are blundering human beings.
Like we see in the readings today. The one from the Gospel of John, when they simply can’t get their minds around the implications of the Resurrection, and the one from Acts when they are struggling to understand the continuity between what happened before and after Easter.
When St Peter, the erstwhile blunderer in chief begins, for the first time to find his voice.
There is an election coming up a bit sooner than expected. One of the questions that will be rightly raised by politicians and commentators alike will be ‘What thought of society do you want?’ But I think we all know that the party political system can only play a part in answering that question.
It will be, as it always has been in our communities, whether families, or churches or neighbourhoods, interest groups, or even businesses , where we connect in a meaningful way that the donkey work is done.
For the church with our certainty that there is continuity between the good news of Easter and all that Christ meant before, we need to pay particular attention to the kingdom of God; that aslant way of living and set of priorities that Christ pointed to again and again in parable and action.
Put so powerfully into words by the poet R S Thomas over 30 years ago.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured