The Washing of Rebirth: A sermon on baptism

Introduction: Strange family habits

Churches are strange places. You may or may not be aware of this. Perhaps if you’ve been at church or part of churches for a long time. We can grow accustomed to odd things, in the same we get used to the peculiar features of the places we live and forget how odd they are. Sometimes it takes a stranger’s eye to notice these things. When my wife Lauren first met my family, I remember suddenly noticing all sorts of strange things about us because I suddenly saw us through her eyes. Yes, it is a bit weird that we do things like that isn’t it! Wow, I guess not everyone has conversations the way we do. Perhaps you know this experience. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the things that are different are bad. But it draws your attention and makes you think.

Over the next three weeks, we are drawing our attention to three things that we do as a church family that, when you think about it, are a bit weird. We’re thinking about three practices which are, you could say, part of our family life, and yet which we may have gotten used to and stopped noticing. We’re taking the chance to look again at three practices that say something about who we are and what we’re on about. The practices are baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and saying creeds. My hope is that what we will see is that, in the same way as some family eccentricities might be odd, but are actually really good, these practices are actually quite beautiful. When we understand them rightly, they all point to and help us stay clear about the fact that our salvation has been achieved in Jesus and what he has done, and that being a Christian is not about adding to that or moving on from that, but sharing in it, giving thanks for it, and enjoying it. These are family habits that say some beautiful things about who we are and what we’re on about.

Today we begin by looking at the practice of baptism. You’ll see on your outline the way the sermon will proceed. I won’t be working my way through one text, but I’ll be paying attention to both the passages that were read.

§1 What is baptism?

First, then, what is baptism? At one level, the answer to this question is pretty simple. Baptism is a symbolic, ritual action. It involves water, which is used to wash someone in some sense, although only symbolically – we don’t get in there with the soap and scrub. But also, typically, baptism involves an action of going down and coming up in some way. This is more obvious when it is an adult who is dunked under the water, but it is still there with infants – the infant goes down and comes up. In fact in the Book of Common Prayer it is clear that infants are supposed to be “dipped” and only “sprinkled” if the parents certify that they are weak! As we’ll see, there are reasons for this, although we’ll also see that it doesn’t matter that much – just worth your knowing!

A couple of other features of baptism are worth noting. First, it is always accompanied by the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. That is, Christian baptism is always baptism in the name of the God who we know through Jesus as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is because baptism is about being joined to, identified with, this God and what He has done. This is why it is also described as being baptised into Christ Jesus. Second, baptism is always done by someone else. You don’t baptise yourself. You have to ask for baptism and someone else has to give it to you. This also points to the way baptism is about grace – salvation is something we cannot get for ourselves but only receive as a gift.

§2 Where does baptism come from?

Before we get too far into the symolism, however, let us understand where this practice has come from. Christian baptism has a key source in the work of John the baptist, who we read about in the Gospels as we did today. Christian baptism is not the same as John’s baptism – it’s in the name of God the Trinity, which his was not. But it does flow out of John’s baptism. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and the same is true of Christian baptism. The difference is that what John’s baptism pointed forwards to in hope, Christian baptism looks back on in thankfulness, that is, the work of Jesus. In the Gospels we read that Jesus himself was baptised. This was a moment of identification, in which Jesus accepted and took on his calling to bring salvation from sin.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ disciples themselves continued this practice of baptism (John 4:1–2). It was a way of people identifying themselves with Jesus and with his movement. But the symbol underwent an important development when Jesus used it as a way of talking about his own death. Let me show you this. Turn with me to Mark chapter 10 verse 38. The context is that James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, have requested that Jesus give them the places of honour when he is victorious. Jesus responds, in verse 38, by saying, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” He’s referring here to his death, and he describes it as a “baptism”. That is, it is a great experience that transforms everything and beyond which everything is changed. Now, here’s the crucial bit: baptism was a powerful symbol for this because of the way it sort of suggests death. You see, there is something a little unsettling about going under the water that we should not brush aside: it suggests drowning, it hints at death. This aspect of baptism is, I think, what led Jesus to use it to interpret his own death. Ever since he did that, baptism has always been for Christians partly a symbol of death – life as well, but death nonetheless.

The place of baptism within the Christian faith was sealed by Jesus’ command to his disciples after his resurrection. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he appears to the disciples and tells them, in Matthew 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus, that is, commanded his followers to make baptism the key means by which they made converts. It was to be the way in which people took the step into Christian faith.

Now, all sorts of questions are probably arising for some of you at this point. Don’t people become Christians by putting their faith in Jesus? Are you saying people can’t be Christians without being baptised? Just to calm you down, let me head this off at the pass and say that I think the answer to these questions is yes to the first and no to the second. People do become Christians by believing in Jesus, and yes, people can be Christians without being baptised. But, let’s not rush from there to the conclusion that baptism doesn’t matter after all. Jesus tells his followers to baptise converts. It’s reasonable to think, wouldn’t you say, that he probably knew what he was doing. Then, in the book of Acts, we see the early church take his command very seriously. Baptism becomes the way in which people are welcomed into the church and Christian faith. When the crowd who hears Peter preach in Acts chapter two is convicted of their sin and ask Peter what they should do, he replies (Acts 2:38–41), “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” It’s reasonable to think, wouldn’t you say, that Peter knew what he was doing. It irritates me, just to go on a minor rant, that we sometimes now don’t bother to encourage people to be baptised because we think being a Christian is just about faith in Jesus and so we can’t really see why there would be a point in baptism. Do we really think we know better than Jesus and the entire early church? Getting baptised was for Jesus and the early church a central and important part of how someone became a Christian. Let’s have some respect for that.

This does leave us, though, with some good questions, about what baptism does mean and why it matters and is important. What are we saying about baptism? We’ll get to these questions (§4 below), but let’s first notice that from this point, the practice of baptism entered richly into the thinking of the early church. Because baptism was the standard means of conversion, all through the New Testament there are references to baptism (e.g. Romans 6:1–4; 1 Corinthians 10:2; Ephesians 4:5; Colossians 2:12; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21). Just as one example, Titus speaks of how God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. I like this reference, because I think it’s a point at which the practice of baptism has provided the imagery with which to describe salvation. This, I think, takes us a long way towards understanding why Jesus gave us baptism: because it symbolises really powerfully what being a Christian means. It helps us get a grip – a real, physical handle – on what faith in Jesus actually means for us.

§3 What does baptism symbolise?

What, then, does baptism show us? What does it symbolise? Baptism has two main symbolic aspects. On the one hand it is about cleansing, on the other it is about dying and rising.

On the one hand, baptism is about being cleansed. As we’ve already noticed, it’s a symbolic washing, symbolising the way in which our sins are washed away by Jesus. Baptism, that is, is about forgiveness, about the way in which God wipes away our sins and remembers them no more, about the way in which because Jesus took our sins upon himself in death and did away with them, we now stand before God clean. We see this powerfully in the letter of 1 Peter chapter 3. In verse 21 Peter speaks of how baptism… now saves you and then clarifies what he means – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. The ritual washing of baptism, you see, symbolises the way in which through Jesus we stand before God cleansed within, clear in our conscience, clean in our heart.

But baptism does not only symbolise cleansing. On the other hand it also symbolises dying and rising. Here is the significance of what we noticed before about baptism hinting at drowning. Baptism is almost a symbolic drowning and coming back; it symbolises dying and rising with Christ. We saw this in our second reading, Romans chapter 6, where Paul asks, Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were, he goes on, buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Cf. Col 2:12.) Baptism symbolises being united, joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

§4 What is “going on” in baptism?

Baptism, then, is a richly symbolic action. It symbolises washing from sin and dying and rising with Christ. The language of symbolism, however, is not quite adequate to describe what happens in baptism. Because although it is certainly symbolic, when someone gets baptised, they’re not simply symbolising something; they’re actually expressing it, participating in it somehow. There is more “going on” in baptism than just symbolising something. Baptism is actually a way of participating in, sharing in, the reality it represents. Here is where our questions from before come up and where things get a bit tricky. And I apologise if this bit gets a bit involved. It might be one to follow up with another listen if you’re interested. I promise to get practical again soon. But if we don’t talk about this now, when will we?

Let me try to explain a little. As Christians thought about the fact that Jesus had intended and commanded this symbolic ritual action to be part of the life of his people, they realised they needed to speak about it carefully and accurately. The language that eventually developed was the language of “sacraments”. The word “sacrament” is connected to the idea of a “sign”, that is, something that signifies or points to something else; but it is a way of recognising that here we are talking about a very particular kind of sign, one given to us by God and so to be relied upon. Although it has various problems, at its heart, this language of sacraments is an attempt to capture the way in which this symbolic action, together with the Lord’s Supper, has a unique and particular nature and significance for Christian faith.

Let me give us, then, a working definition. A sacrament is a symbolic act involving a physical activity and accompanying words of explanation, which God has given to us to communicate his grace to those who trust in the gospel.

Let’s think about what this means in relation to baptism. The reality that baptism symbolises, the thing that it points to and signifies, is, as we’ve seen, the new birth that Jesus gives us. This is why Titus described it as the washing of rebirth. Baptism, then, is an act that communicates new birth to us and enables us to participate in it by faith.

What do I mean by saying that baptism communicates new birth? I mean that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, is not just what we make of it, it is not a “neutral” act that we can import meaning into or not. It really is a means of God’s grace to us. Because this is a sign that God has given to us, and which He guarantees as an effective expression of the gospel. What this act signifies is what is really true of God’s promise. In baptism, God truly extends his grace to us so that we may share in it.

What, then; am I saying that baptism kind of works automatically, so that you’re saved just by getting baptised, regardless of what you believe? mh genoito! Absolutely not! This is a mistake that has been made to terrible effect in the past. But it is a mistake about the nature of sacraments: sacraments are not magic spells, they are means of communication. Thus, they are effective in the life of a person only through faith, through trusting in God’s word.

This is why we saw Peter say before that baptism saves not through the removal of dirt from the body but as the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. We are saved by faith; the sacraments don’t change that.

But then, if it’s all about faith after all, why do we need the sacrament? This is where I want to affirm that at one level we don’t. That is, it’s not baptism itself that saves us, but Jesus; and it’s faith that connects us to him. And yet, that doesn’t mean these acts are unimportant. Because how is our faith expressed? How do we receive God’s grace and believe his word? The answer, if you think about it, is, in all sorts of ways, above all, perhaps, prayer. But praying to God is just as much an action of response as getting baptised. The sacraments are special actions that God has given us to respond to him in faith. This is why although Peter stressed that the physical act of baptism is not what saves, he didn’t therefore throw it out, but still said, “baptism saves you”. Baptism is a special form of response God has given us to express faith in Jesus.

Baptism, then, along with the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll look at next week, is like a word on the one hand, and a prayer on the other. On the one hand, it is a word from God to me, telling me the truth about what Jesus means for me, that he means I have died and risen with Christ and been washed clean of my sins. On the other hand, it is a prayer of trust in God, in which I ask to share in his mercy and give myself to him. Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave it to us. It is a beautiful gift.

§5 What does this mean for you?

What, then, does all this mean for you? Remind me never to study theology, you may be thinking!

Let me suggest firstly that it means that if you are a Christian and you haven’t ever been baptised, it would be a really good idea to do so. Not because you can’t be a Christian without being baptised; but because you can be baptised, because this sacrament, this ritual, is a gift to you from God to strengthen and help you in your faith. We don’t have to work on the level of only doing things if we have to. God has given us more than the bare minimum. He has given us abundance. Consider getting baptised, and if you want to, talk to me about it. I’d love to do it.

This connects us to another important point: you haven’t missed your chance if you’ve been a Christian for ages. Baptism is not conversion. It is a sign of what happens in conversion, and so it is often done close to the time someone puts their faith in Jesus. But it is not the thing itself, and so it doesn’t actually matter if the sign is separated in time from the biographical moment you first believed. In fact, part of the point of baptism, I think, is to help those for whom there was no particular moment, such as people who came to faith over a period of time, or people who grew up as Christians. Baptism is a sign that clarifies our diverse experiences and shows us what they mean.

This applies too to those who were baptised as babies. The practice of infant baptism is contested among Christians, and yet I think our Anglican practice of doing it remains a good one. There are a variety of things to say about this, and if you’re interested, you can follow up the links I have put on your outline. But for now, I do want to just point out that infant baptism doesn’t not count just because someone didn’t always believe. In fact, part of the point of infant baptism is that the person cannot possibly express faith for themselves at that moment. It’s a recognition that we depend on God’s grace utterly and completely. So let me say that if you were baptised as an infant don’t feel like it’s second rate. Through faith you claim that sign as your own, and it stands over your whole life as a profound testimony from God to you about what your life adds up to, because of Jesus.

This leads me to the thing I really want to say, which is that if you have been baptised, whenever that happened, can I encourage you to receive that fact, through faith in Jesus, as a word of assurance to you, a physically real testimony from God that the truth about you, the truth about your life, is that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection you have been forgiven, washed of your sins, and reborn. You have died and risen to new life with him. Let your baptism be a powerful response to your doubts that you truly are accepted, valued, ok; because God has given it to you as a word of assurance that what he did in Jesus really does apply to you, really does reach you. Your sins, your failures, your sense of your own inadequacy; they are not what matters. Jesus has overcome all of that; and his work applies to you.

Which, finally, should be a source of inspiration to press on. We were, Paul writes, buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Your baptism should be a powerful reminder that you have died and been raised with Christ, and that therefore we should turn our back on our old ways and live new lives, for Jesus, in everything. Let the memory of your baptism be a spur to get on with living the new life God has given us. Get rid of sin; you live to God now.

§6 What does this say about the kind of community we are?

Finally, let us very briefly consider what baptism says about the kind of community we are. Let me suggest a couple of things.

First, baptism defines us as a welcoming community. Our task, our mission in the world, is to welcome people into God’s family. This is why baptism fonts are mostly placed near the entrance of a church building: they signify that we are welcoming someone in. And we welcome anyone equally. Everyone enters the church through baptism; there are no better or worse baptisms; and there is no hierarchy beyond baptism. We are all equals in needing, and in receiving, God’s grace.

But also, baptism reminds us that our welcome has a particular shape. That is, our task as a church is to welcome people into something. We welcome people, that is, on God’s terms, not on ours or on theirs. We welcome people into new birth and forgiveness and sanctification (washing). Baptism reminds us that in a funny way, the church does have a membership entrance requirement – quite an extreme one: you have to repent and turn from everything you once lived for. A church is not like an ice rink, where anyone can come in and just do their own thing. Anyone is welcome; but they are welcome into something, something huge; and not everyone may want that kind of welcome.

Secondly, baptism defines us as a community that lives by the belief that people are neither imprisoned by their past errors nor determined by their future failures. We believe in grace and forgiveness, and in change and transformation. We believe that sins, however massive, can be forgiven, and do not have to have the last word, and that people can live thrilling new futures despite them. Let us not ever forget this.

And finally, baptism reminds us that we believe all this, that we all have hope, not because of anything we have done or anything we can do, but because Jesus Christ did what we could not, died in our place, and rose from the dead to give us new birth. We believe that hope and salvation have been achieved and secured once and for all, and quite apart from us. When we baptise people, we proclaim and rejoice in and celebrate that.

Andrew Errington

St Stephen’s Church, Newtown

18 August, 2013

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