A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

Baptism – Sacrament or Ritual

[Readings: Is 43:1-7; Ps 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This Sunday we remember the Baptism of our Lord by John the Baptist. This event has been so seminal in our theology that it has often erroneously been inferred that the ritual of baptism started with Jesus’ nazarite cousin, John. Βάπτισμα [baptisma] is the source of our word baptism and originally simply meant ‘washing’ and had ancient origins. The association of water with physical cleanliness in religious rituals has been found, for example, in records dating back to Mesopotamian times. John’s practice of baptism continued in this vein, with him proclaiming in Matthew 3:11:

I baptise you with water for repentance.

But he foretold a much deeper baptism which the Messiah would bring:

He will baptise you with the Spirit and fire. 

While our gospel reading dealt specifically with Jesus’ baptism; our reading from Acts touched upon the significance of baptism in more general terms – identifying the rite such as John practised as religiously necessary but not in itself sufficient. Listen again to verse 16:

For as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them, they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.

This reading tells us that for the Samaritans who were the focus of this episode of Peter and John’s ministry, baptism had been merely a marker of identity – a proclamation that they had committed to following Christ; but it would still take, as verse 17 averred, the laying on of hands for the Holy Spirit to be received by them. In other words, the ritual of baptism was at that time only an entry point into being associated as one of the believers; a religious QR code if you will. Baptism was merely a milestone along the road of the believer’s journey – a rite of passage.

In the subsequent two centuries, however, baptism would change in significance. No longer would it simply be an entry to an identity, a simple act of first initiation, as it had been for example when Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch. The practice soon developed in those early centuries that required would-be adherents to undergo extensive κατήχησις (catechesis), or oral instruction, before they could earn the right to be baptised and considered as new members of the church. The course of study which had to be undertaken could last as long as two years. It was as part of this development that baptisms were often restricted to being performed at Easter, a symbolic graduation ceremony held under the aegis of Jesus’ resurrection on behalf of all believers. Baptism thus moved from being merely a rite to being a sacrament. A sacrament is defined in the OED as:

A religious ceremony or ritual regarded as imparting divine grace.

Baptism had not been deemed to have conferred divine grace upon those Samaritans visited by John and Peter but that idea had changed when the rite of passage evolved into a sacrament becoming an act of cleansing the recipient of original sin. By the time of the Council of Nicaea, the concept had become firmly established in Christian theology and thus each week, in our reciting the Nicene Creed:

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

But let’s go back to the event recorded in our gospel reading which took place that day in the River Jordan and how it may have affected all those present. There was the baptiser – John – the baptised – Jesus – and then there were those who witnessed the event; each was affected in different ways. For John, it would have been an epiphany, a manifestation of the divine to which all his upbringing and adult life had destined him to experience. He had already become known as a baptiser for people came to him in droves to be baptised – for them and for him, however, that baptism would have been merely a ritual cleansing act of contrition. But that particular day, as our gospel reading relates, John didn’t just perform a physical baptism; on that day he participated in a transcendent one. There, in the waters of the Jordan, John not only encountered the divine, he encountered the Trinity; in his very presence, God the Father spoke as God the Holy Spirit descended upon God the Son.

For Jesus, the baptised, the event represented more than simply the moment when he would commence his earthly ministry; it was an occasion when he participated in what we may consider to have been a profound paradox. Valson Thampu in his book Be Thou my Vision: Spiritual Resources for the Healing Ministry put it this way about ‘the mysterious logic of the Baptism of Jesus Christ’ where:

God’s caring response to the sin-infected world begins with His beloved Son entering into a state of identification with the fallen world through His baptism of repentance. Thereafter, Jesus had to risk being labelled a ‘friend of sinners and tax collectors’ in order to minister to them. [p75]

Every time an ordinary baptism takes place, the baptised is told in our liturgy:

May they die to sin, (and) rise to newness of life.

In Jesus’ baptism, however, the Son of God did the opposite; he had become incarnate into our sinful world; and he had done this descent into the midst of our sin and brokenness in order to heal us. Our annual celebration of the Baptism of Jesus in our Church calendar therefore deserves to be understood as very much more than just an historical recollection, but as cause for deep gratitude by each of us. That was certainly the invitation to those witnessing Jesus’ baptism by John.

Think for a moment about how those bystanders might have reacted to John baptising Jesus which was then followed by the Trinity manifesting itself. We may just think that they felt they had experienced a ‘wow’ moment, one they would surely think they would never forget. However, what occurred was so much more than a mere unforgettable wow moment; those present had been witness to transcendence. We don’t have any specific record as to how long the ‘wow’ effect lasted for many of those attending. There clearly had been a significant number of those present who were permanently changed by what they witnessed; this much is proven by the report of the event in all four canonical gospels. However, we also know that there were others who remained unconvinced, evidenced by the continued existence through the centuries of the Sabean-Mandeans, followers of John the Baptist, who to this day still do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, notwithstanding that their very scriptures acknowledge that John did water baptise Jesus when we read in them that:

[John] brought [Jesus] back up to the shore. The Spirit took the form of a dove. She made a cross in the Jordan and she lifted up the waters in colours.  

Perhaps that is somewhat like what happens at contemporary baptisms – there are some bystanders who get the profound significance of the sacramental moment, while others are mere observers of a long-standing and admired ritual. Let us consider our baptismal liturgy. You will all know the basics of that liturgy and, I am sure, could pretty much summarise all that happens between the baptiser and the baptised during the service. But what do you recall of the role of congregants who witness that liturgy? The congregants attending a baptism should be more than just spectators, they are called to be active participants. It is the reason, for example, why baptisms are by tradition held during a regular service in preference to private ceremonies. There are a few times in the baptism liturgy where the whole congregation is required to respond to the baptising priest. We may consider those moments as no more than responses; but perhaps we should think of them as constituting a parallel liturgy of their own to that which happens during a baptismal service calling on those witnessing to more from the mere reaction of saying to the action of doing?

Let me extract those parts of the baptismal service which are addressed not to the baptised but to everyone else watching on. The first part comes after the priest has asked for responses from either the person to be baptised or their sponsors in the case of infant baptism. The priest then asks the congregation to support the calling of the baptised or their sponsors; to which everyone present responds ‘we will’. The second step is the declaration of faith, the stepped saying of the Creed which in the last portion is addressed neither to the one being baptised nor to the sponsors, but to the congregation watching on. The priest says ‘This is the faith of the Church’ to which the congregation responds:

This is our faith: We believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The third part comes after the ceremony of baptising has been performed concluding with the words from the priest:

Live as a disciple of Christ: fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith.

The congregation then responds:

We therefore receive and welcome you as a member with us of the body of Christ, as a child of the one heavenly Father, and as an inheritor of the kingdom of God.

Our baptismal liturgy asks more of us than simple responses; it really asks for commitment … listen again to some of the words the congregation say in the service:

We will … we believe … we receive … we welcome

By such active verbs, the congregants commit to the baptised. So, the onus is on those speaking to determine how they might ‘do’ these words rather than just ‘say’ them. This will define the difference between ritual and sacrament. It is an important matter, for it determines not only what we fundamentally think of any baptism ceremony to which we may happen to have been witness, but also to reflect upon John’s baptism of Jesus, to conclude what we really think of that event which took place two millenia ago.

Matthew’s account of the Baptism reveals that John the Baptist had initially balked at baptising Jesus:

John would have prevented him saying: I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? [Matt 3:14]

He relented after Jesus assured John that his baptism would ‘fulfill all righteousness’ [v15]. That exchange reminds us of another event of water cleansing – Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Peter had objected then to Jesus washing his feet but finally relented when Jesus had said:

Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. [Jn 13:8]

Jesus washing the disciples’ feet was more than a mere ritual, he converted it into a sacrament where the divine, through the symbol of water, had bestowed grace upon the recipients – a commitment from God.

Our reading from Isaiah can be taken as echoing that awesome commitment from God when we commit to Him. Listen to this verse:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, [43:2]

Jesus was baptised for us that he might lead us through the waters, through the fire and we would not be overwhelmed.