How do we follow God? During the 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy as one way of exploring that. It’s a fascinating imaginative journey through the afterlife, following Dante as he descends to hell, then goes through purgatory and up into heaven.
It’s a vivid and engaging exploration of a journey of faith, dramatising Dante’s real-life return to faith, as well as a way of settling some political scores along the way! (Dante spends a lot of time meeting his political enemies in hell and his heroes in heaven!).
Shortly after I’d finished reading it, we had a baptism of a child called Dante, which seemed too good an opportunity to miss!
It’s great to welcome Dante as a new member of God’s world-wide family. Dante has been baptised into the church, into the body of Christ.
In the reading that we heard from Luke’s gospel, Jesus challenges his hearers to think about what is really important, what you would put first. That’s why he talks about ‘hating’ our family, as a way of bringing us up short, of getting us to think about what we actually put first in life. This isn’t a politician speaking, trying to persuade us to vote for him by promising as many good things as he can get away with. No, this is a leader of a dangerous expedition calling his followers together, reminding them of the risks, telling them to leave behind stuff that will get in the way.
So what do we actually put first? Our family? Our job? Ourselves?
Jesus challenges us to put following God first, because then the other things fall into their rightful place. Jesus calls us to follow him to the goal of eternal life, of being part of God’s loving everlasting kingdom, and to leave behind the stuff that gets in the way.
One of the images that we use during the baptism service to help us think about what it means is the journey of faith. We’ve spoken about walking towards God, we’ve reminded ourselves that we’re all pilgrims on life’s journey and I used a cockle shell to baptise Dante, because that was the mediaeval badge worn by pilgrims as they travelled to the holy sites of Europe and beyond. And Dante’s mediaeval namesake, Dante Alighieri, also wrote about the journey of faith in his epic poem, ‘The Divine Comedy’. Comedy here doesn’t mean funny, but rather a story with a happy ending, that is, not a tragedy.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote about his journey through hell and ultimately up into heaven. He writes about the various paths that people have taken through life, about the choices that they have made, and what happened as a result. Dante is also clear about the surprises about who will actually make it into heaven, and the surprises about who won’t. He writes about the wrong turnings we can make and about the ways that we can fall short of being the person that God intends us to be. We often have hopes and dreams and aspirations for young children, like Dante. But, God still has hopes and aspirations for us all, whether we’re 6 months or 96 years old. God loves us, longs for us to be in his kingdom, to take another step on the adventure of following him.
Our first Bible reading was Psalm 1. This talks about the way of the righteous, of God being with those people who seek to follow him and about how if we are rooted in him even amongst the storms and floods of life then he is faithful. Like any journey, like any adventure, there is always something new to discover, some new challenge to take. And that’s the same in our journey of faith. It’s not going to be easy, says Jesus. But it is going to be worth it.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante begins in a wood, lost and wandering, and ends with an amazing glimpse of God surrounded by angels and the faithful, more wonderful and beautiful than anything else that he had seen. Along the way he is helped and guided by people who show him the right way, explain to him what he is seeing, and get him to the right places that he wouldn’t have been able to manage on his own. That’s a great picture of what we’re called to do as a church, how we’re called to support one another, help one another along our journeys. But, as well as that, we’ve spoken in this service of the gift that Dante has received, the gift that we’re given at our baptism. That is, the gift of the Spirit. God doesn’t just leave us to get on with the journey and just waits for us at journey’s end. No, God is with us, through the difficult decisions, in amongst the hard times, and celebrating with us as well. The promise of the Holy Spirit is that we have someone who is with us and who we can turn to, to ask for help and guidance.
The hope and promise of baptism is that Dante Smith, and all of us, don’t have to be lost. We are given the hope of following God where he leads us. We have the promise that we too can have the gift of eternal life. We have the promise that he will be with us and that he will help us, and help us to help each other. We are all invited to take another step on our journey of faith, to follow in Dante Alighieri’s footsteps and to meet with God again. Amen.