The Meaning of Baptism

A homily on the occasion of the baptism of Otto and Axel String

       Let’s be honest. Most people today, even those who attend church regularly and call themselves “Christian,” don’t really believe in God. Many believe in “a higher power,” however vaguely defined, and in the power of prayer. Many believe in being good and discover in love a power that imitates transcendence. Many, perhaps most, believe that after death we go to a better place, even if they know not who guides us to Peter’s Gate or how we qualify for "eternal advancement." But you know as well as I do that in the modern age, very few believe that the gospel is an actual revelation of the divine will. This erosion of faith has occurred gradually over the past four centuries as Christendom steadily succumbed to the rise of secularism, which in turn gave rise to the modern liberal society for whom the proposition is axiomatic that there is no power in the universe greater than human reason. In the modern mind, God may exist at a distance from creation much as a watchmaker does to his watch. But the idea of the incarnation, that God descended to earth and worked miracles among us before dying on a cross, after which he worked the greatest of all miracles by rising from the tomb body and soul, is an absurd contradiction of reason. The dead by definition don’t rise. The gospel, therefore, has to be a myth, a compelling but wholly imaginative story. Only credulous simpletons think otherwise.

       Well, ok, call me a credulous simpleton, but I believe the gospel, every bit of it. I know what I believe and why. And I know that Christian faith is not blind or superstitious but is grounded in reason and revelation. Every Sunday for almost 25 years I’ve offered you many and various reasons why we may have absolute confidence in the truth of the gospel. Allow me this morning to give you one more. About 37 years ago, I witnessed a miracle. My son, whom I adore, was born with an abnormal growth on his behind, about the size of a 50-cent piece, something that looked like a piece of pepperoni. The doctors said that it would perhaps fade away by the time he was 18, but that until then it would remain a deforming mark that would cause him some discomfort. There was nothing they could do for him, they said. At Christmas that year, his mother and I took him to church, where Fr. Arthur Lynch, our parish priest at the time, anointed him and prayed for his healing. The next day, the deforming mark was gone, vanished. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think that answer to prayer was a sign of God’s grace. I was in my second year of seminary training for the Episcopal priesthood. I was unhappy and close to quitting. That answer to prayer changed my life. And so I’m here today to proclaim good news. God is everything the Gospels say he is and as much as we depend on human reason, we ultimately depend on God’s grace even more.

     Baptism, which is what brings us together today, is no less of a real and dramatic miracle than what I saw happen to my son for its being so common. You might say, “I’ve seen many baptisms before but in not one of them did I see a miracle.” But look again. In baptism God cleanses the soul of the one being baptized of original sin and so welcomes him or her into the Church, the visible institution on earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the act of baptism, it may look like a man is pouring water over a baby’s head, that’s all. But the water is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It’s what we can’t see except through the lens of faith that matters most; grace abounds in baptism. But one is tempted again to say, “If you can’t see something, in this case the action of the Spirit, weigh it or measure it, how can you be sure of it?” The modern age, obsessed with reason and science, thinks it’s so smart. But the modern age, for all its higher learning, is seriously dumbing us down. Solomon, whose wisdom has stood the test of time, said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). In other words, we have forgotten what the ancients knew: It takes faith to see the world for what it really is, the property and province of God.

       But don’t take my word for it, listen to Saint Paul. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke records the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion. About a year after Jesus’ death and resurrection, while traveling to Damascus with the intent of persecuting the church there, Paul was struck blind by Christ, who appeared to him in pure light. The Lord spoke to Paul and commanded him not to persecute the church but to join it and to lead its evangelistic mission. Paul remained blind for three days. After three days, the Lord then sent a saint named Ananias to pray for Paul. Ananias laid hands on him and prayed, and then Luke said that immediately “something like scales fell from his eyes and he (Paul) regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). And the rest, as they say, is history.

       Luke also tells the story of Saint Phillip, who met an Ethiopian man on his way home from having visited Jerusalem. The Ethiopian was reading from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, which speaks of a righteous servant of God whose unjust suffering and death redeems humanity from sin. The Ethiopian did not understand what he was reading. Phillip explained to him that Jesus of Nazareth was the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke and that by his suffering, death, and resurrection, he had fulfilled the promise of the scriptures and accomplished our redemption, fully reconciling sinners to the one and only Holy God. The Ethiopian was moved in his heart by what Phillip said and asked to be baptized. Without delay, seeing the sincerity of his faith, Phillip baptized him in a nearby river (Acts 8:26-38).

        Neither Paul nor the Ethiopian was baptized after a lengthy pre-baptismal class. It soon became the custom among the early Christians to baptize new members into the Church on Easter Sunday, following 40 days of study and prayer. Lent became the season to prepare for baptism. Although today we baptize people throughout the year, it is still the norm for adult candidates for baptism and for parents wishing to have their children baptized to take a pre-baptismal class to learn the basics of the Faith: the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed.  But some are baptized with almost no preparation. Once, in a hospital, I baptized a child who was born prematurely and was expected to die. Why do that? We baptize with confidence that God’s grace is bestowed on our souls through the sacrament, because baptism is not something we do for God. Baptism is something God does to us. In baptism, the Son of God, who alone has the right to call God “my Father,” makes us his own. By sharing the divine nature with us (2 Peter 1:4), Christ gives us the right to call God “Our Father” (Galatians 4:4-7). We who were children of Adam and Eve crawling in the poverty of sin to our mortal graves become through baptism children of God and heirs of his eternal Kingdom (John 1:12). We who were dead because of sin are reborn, through baptism, to eternal life (John 3:7).

        “You cannot enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “unless you are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Baptism is not just a little ritual of initiation into the church that may be required of some but not others (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the necessary precondition of our salvation (Mark 16:16). Christ went all the way to the cross to secure it for us. God announced through the prophets that he would reverse the curse brought upon us by Adam’s sin. “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you. I will take out your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-28). Baptism is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. In baptism, by an act of grace, we are cleansed of sin and given the Holy Spirit as a pledge of our inheritance of even greater things to come (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 1:13-14). All of this is a gift to us from the Son of God, who takes us to himself in baptism, bestowing on us by grace the holiness that is his by nature. All who are baptized into Christ and in whom the Spirit comes to dwell have been given the hope of heaven. As Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you (through baptism), he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the spirit which dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11).

       We may be tempted to think that baptism, especially of an infant, is just an ancient ceremony we maintain for tradition’s sake, a little “christening” we keep to please the grandparents. The grandparents are very pleased, but look. You could say the same of marriage. Why not just live together? What’s the difference? The difference is that when a king makes a vow in public and puts a ring on the finger of his bride, even if she was a peasant beforehand, she becomes in that moment a queen. In baptism, the King of kings gives us his name and we become royalty. The name of each and every baptized soul is written in the book of heaven (Revelation 3:5; Philippians 4:3). Nothing could be more important than baptism. It is not a guarantee of salvation—we still have to take up the cross, follow Jesus, and keep the faith—but it is a necessary first step (Romans 8:14-18).

      If you take only one thing away from this homily, I hope it will be the conviction that all who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit belong to God in a way that the unbaptized do not. I’m not saying that the baptized are better people than the unbaptized. That’s obviously not always the case. I am saying that the baptized have been given something by grace that the unbaptized have yet to receive: a divine pledge and promise of glory. Saint Paul put it like this when he wrote to the church in Rome: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4-5). Baptism puts our past sins behind us and orients us to the future, where Christ is all in all and the love of God is perfected among the angels and saints in heaven. The task of all the baptized is to li:17-19; Galatians 6:7-8).

        In a secular age in which people roll their eyes at the mention of God and relegate all mention of the divine to the realm of superstition, it’s a challenge to live by faith in Christ. It takes courage to keep your faith as a bedrock conviction of absolute truth in a world that denies that there is such a thing as absolute truth. But we have the revelation of God in Christ to enlighten our minds and the witness of all the saints to strengthen our hearts. It’s humbling to believe the gospel, because recognition of the divine self-sacrifice needed to accomplish the redemption of sinners evokes in those same sinners who comprehend it an almost incomprehensible awe at what God has done for us and the excruciating lengths to which he went to share the divine nature with us. I’m moved by the words of one of my heroes, William F. Buckley Jr., who with his typical eloquence expressed his faith in these words: “To praise the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi is to focus attention on the difference between his and your and my lifestyle. To ponder the glory of God is to worship a transcendence that gives us a measure of man, near infinitely small on the scale of things, but infinitely great, as the complement of divine love. Who are you, buster? I am the man Christ-God died for.” (Nearer, My God, Harcourt Brace, 1997, p. 168) That impossibly humbling boast of the sinner, “I am the man Christ-God died for,” says it all. We owe everything to him who has come to us in our poverty and set us up to rule with him as kings. He has not given us the level of total comfort, prosperity, success, and security we would like to have here and now. He has not given us a world free from sorrow, pain, evil, and death. But he has borne our sorrows and worn a crown of thorns for us. He has faced evil for us and gloriously defeated it by rising above death. Maybe he hasn’t given us everything we want or answered every question we may have of him, but he has secured for us everything we need to enter heaven. And for that the baptized are eternally thankful.