The Sacrament of Baptism - in perspective
[Sermon by Anand Peter at Khakoottam CSI Church, Thirivandapuram - 13th August 2017]
Today we will meditate on the topic, ‘Sacrament of Baptism’. Baptism, like all sacraments, involves a gift of grace from God. Now what is fascinating about all sacraments, especially Baptism, is that the gift of grace from God does not happen all at once. It unfolds. That is the position I want to take today. When we invite God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; when we make the mark on the newly baptized person’s forehead with the pronouncement, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever;” there is grace at that moment. The process of God’s intervention in the life of the baptised does not stop there. There is grace in what happens next, what happens tomorrow, and the next day… and in the days and weeks and months and years to come. As the people around the newly baptised person begin to teach, and to nurture, and to model, and to help that person grow into the Christian faith, to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe that most of the grace actually occurs in that second part – in the long unfolding process. Let me explain that. Baptism is not like giving antibiotics to an infected person. If everything is done right soon the person is cured of the infection and there ends that matter. Baptism works because we believe in it; Baptism works because we participate in it. Because we help them to develop ears to hear Jesus speak in a small still voice, and a heart to follow Him. In the case of children, because we tell them, as often as possible, that Jesus loves them more than they can ever imagine, and that Jesus would come and die even if you were the only person on earth. I see Baptism as our entry into the Passion of Christ, His immeasurable Passion for His people, through our admittance into the New Covenant to which we belong to.
Baptism is also described as being ‘Born again’ or as being ‘Born from above’ an expression derived from an intriguing discourse Jesus gave to Nicodemus, read to us from John 3:1-8. This expression has been debated, by the Theologians, Bible Scholars and the Church Leaders for centuries. The disagreement is in the translation of the Greek word “anōthen” which emphasises two distinctive meanings, “born again”, and “Born from Above.” Ask me and I would say both expressions need to be understood in context, but mean the same, as Jesus would never have expounded conflicting ideas.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a scholar in his own right. He was respected in the society and was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council. During his conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus explores the notion of being literally born again from one's mother's womb. Most theologians agree that Nicodemus knew Jesus was not speaking of a literal re-birth. I see Nicodemus as a symbol of an inquisitor, a person who was searching for the truth about God and the ways of God. He was convinced that Jesus was an authentic voice of God.
The response of Jesus is the key to the right interpretation. He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' Water represents cleansing, symbolically used in Baptism, as has been practiced from Old Testament times. However the Spirit being the indwelling Holy Spirit is received when you accept Jesus, which is the Grace Jesus promised all believers who accept Him. What it signifies is that baptism refers as our “ingrafting into Christ.” Galatians 3:27-28 says, “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. re is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Because we are baptised into Christ; because in that baptism we have put on Christ, our identity is now found in Him through our union with Him.
Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of Jesus. Unless we are born from above, born spiritually, we cannot enter the kingdom of Jesus. Entering the kingdom of Jesus, possessing salvation, being in His presence and standing eternally justified before Him, is not something that can be gained by human effort or ingenuity. This state requires a conversion of one's inner being. It requires being born from above, washed new by the Spirit of God. Such a dynamic life-change demands a total renewal of our soul. Our only hope lies in the hands of Jesus. Only the Spirit of God can renew our beings, only He can give eternal life as a gift. We apply that grace to ourselves by trusting Christ. When we reach out to Him as the only ground for our eternal security, we receive, as a gift of God, salvation. That is what is meant as being ‘born from above’. This is the very essence of Christin belief. The theology, encapsulated in our passage for today, has driven us to recognise the essential need for personal conversion. It is a great work of God’s power changing the human heart and infusing life into our dead spirits. The question is where does each one of us stand presently?
Admittedly for some believers there must have been a life-changing experience, such as the conversion of Saul to Paul, which pointed to the need to accept Jesus as their personal Saviour. There are also many believers who came into Christ from other faith as they received the call in varying manners. For all such persons, it is a ‘born again’ experience. But there are many who are born into Christian families and are brought up in Christian traditions. Many such people would wonder, when and where did they encounter Jesus in their lives? Having known Jesus as a child, such persons grow stronger in faith and the process is ongoing. There may have been several events in our lives which might have taken us closer to Jesus. Here I am advocating being born again and again always with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit, as the purification of our inner self cannot stop with one event. Had that been the case, all human being would have been like the Angels after the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the Bible, the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" is another way of referring to "the New Birth" and the "Indwelling Spirit", not a separate "experience" itself. The Bible knows of no Christian life without the Holy Spirit. "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" - Romans 8:9. “It is the indwelling Holy Spirit that regenerates or causes rebirth in us” - Titus 3:5.
God deals with us all differently. Each of us is wired uniquely — physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in our own personal abilities and gifts that are given to us by Jesus. None of us ever has the same experience as someone else. We not only need to be recharged with spirituality, we need our capacity for the Holy Spirit within our hearts to expand. A heart full of this world and its nuances, hidden sins leave very little space for the Holy Spirit. With our efforts, helped by the Him, we must continue to cleanse our hearts so that we create more room for the Holy Spirit to work in us and manifest in us. David prayed in Psalm 51:10-11, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” This should be our prayer all through our lives. Amen
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