A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 11th of December 2022
BAPTISM – A SACRAMENT OR JUST A CEREMONY?
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 morning we heard our choir sing the beautiful Song of Mary, a deeply moving psalm from mother of God’s incarnation. It was a very appropriate paean of praise for us to hear in this season of Advent as we lead up to the celebration of her giving birth to the Son of God. Next week, on my radio program, I will be airing an interview I have done with Archbishop Geoff Smith; I started that interview asking him for a Bible reading he felt might be appropriate for the coming of Christmas. He chose the Song of Mary; in so doing, he suggested that Mary’s psalm is a call to a radical rethinking of what the message of Joy at Christmastime should mean to us all. He said that it is a call to all faithful people to be active participants in fulfilling those words we regularly say in the Lord’s prayer – ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
On Christmas Day we will celebrate the wonder of the mystery of Emmanuel – God with us – in doing so, however, we need to understand that it is the start of the whole story of God’s incarnation – the earthly life of Jesus. We know that the culmination of that life was the Easter story – crucifixion and Resurrection. But a key milestone in the journey between Jesus’ birth and his death followed by resurrection, was that moment of his being anointed to the task of ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – his baptism by John the Baptist.
In the fourth century, St Ephrem the Syrian wrote:
Christ, the Light of the World, dwelt first in the womb of the Virgin … and then in the womb of the Jordan; he emerged from both as the Incarnate Word, the Savior of mankind. Those who are baptized thus become children of Mary and partakers of the body, blood, and divinity of her Son.
In other words, St Ephrem inter-related the two births of Jesus – his physical coming into the world and his spiritual coming through the descent of the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John. But, by what he wrote, St Ephrem went further by involving us all in that event:
Those who are baptised thus become children of Mary and partakers of the body, blood and divinity of her Son.
Thus, he echoed Jesus himself who said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. [John 3:5]
At our 10.30am service this morning, I will be officiating at the sacrament of baptism of Austin James Dennis. So, in the light of what St Ephrem wrote, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect upon what the sacrament and symbols of baptism entail.
First of all, let me examine the symbols. After my sermon, I will lead Austin and his family to the baptismal font, located near the so-called West Door, the entrance to the Cathedral. The significance of this being that, while we refer to baptism being about a process leading to the remission of sins. It is also about an entry into a fellowship with other believers and a communion with God through Christ. So just as the West Door is the entry to the building, looking towards the altar where Christ Risen is portrayed, so too is the baptismal font an entry to both a spiritual space and a spiritual goal. Our baptismal service will shortly recognise this with these words:
We give you thanks that you have called the baptised into new birth in your Church through the waters of baptism.
Secondly, near the baptismal font will be the Easter Candle for, as the words of our baptismal service also say:
May the baptised die to sin, rise to newness of life, and continue forever in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the Easter Candle reminds us that, by his crucifixion, Jesus died for our sin and rose to new life, and by so doing gave us all the opportunity to do the same.
Then we have the water in the baptismal font. Water is clearly a metaphor with multiple meanings; water nourishes us, it cleanses us, it is the very essence of the capacity of any life to exist. So, in our baptismal service we hear these words:
With water you cleanse and replenish the earth, you nourish and sustain all living things.
At the beginning of creation your Holy Spirit moved upon the waters to bring forth light and life.
Through the waters of the Red Sea you led your people out of slavery.
Through the deep waters of death Jesus delivered us.
After I shall have sprinkled water on Austin, I will anoint him, giving emphasis to these words from our service:
I sign you with the sign of the Cross to show that you are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Finally, in our service there will be the symbol of community, where the person baptised is brought into a holy fellowship – a koinonia – so, we will then say together:
We therefore receive and welcome you as a member with us of the body of Christ.
Though we will shortly recite the Apostles’ Creed this morning, there is an interesting symbol about baptism to be found in that other key Creed, the Nicene:
One baptism for the remission of sins.
Some have taken this to mean that a person should only ever be baptised once; there are two alternative viewpoints on this question. One has to do with another theological tussle which occurred in the early church and reached its climax at the time of the Council of Nicaea – it was a conflict between the growing Gentile arm of the church with the much smaller Judaeo-Christian branch which had existed from the time of Jesus. The Judaeo-Christians had followed the practice of a three-fold baptism. Three baptismal areas have been found in the ruins of a Judeo-Christian church in Nazareth – one, at a lower level, for the baptism of fire; a second at the level of the rest of the church, for the baptism of water; and the third, at an elevated level, for baptism of the spirit. Our Nicene Creed could then have been arguing that such a three-fold process of baptism was not necessary.
A second and alternative viewpoint, however, as to the significance of ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ was expressed by W K Lowther Clarke in Liturgy & Worship: A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion. He wrote:
Baptism (is) a sign guaranteeing endowment with the spirit … though it was ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, its root idea was initiation into a community … This helps us to understand why, in the Church, Baptism … is never repeated. Had forgiveness been the fundamental thought, repetition (of baptism) would have been natural; but initiation is once for all.
This brings us beyond the examination of the symbols of Baptism to a consideration of its sacramental nature. In opening this portion of the sermon, let me ask you: do you consider a baptism to be a ceremony or something much more than that? We call it a sacrament, but do we actually treat it that way? Or is it no more than a mere ceremony to us?
Dr Thomas Fisch, author of Primary Readings on the Eucharist, has this to say about baptism:
The two most important sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism is the ritual prayer-action through which a person becomes a member of the Christian community, the Church. The heart of the ritual is a ceremonial washing … The person doing the washing says: ‘I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. Then the person being baptised is anointed with a special perfumed olive oil [‘Chrism’]. Through these actions the newly baptised person becomes a new member of the Church, is joined to Christ … Baptism gives a person a new birth into God’s life, and takes away all the person’s sins.
‘Baptism gives a person a new birth into God’s life’ – is it any wonder, then, that in C12 the term ‘christening’ started to be used as an alternative name for baptism – with the sacrament being a ‘prayer-action’ where we seek to bring the baptised closer to Christ.
Last night, in preparation for this morning’s baptism, I conducted a Prayer Vigil for the baptised. It is a practice I have been following for the past few years whenever I conduct a baptism. [A copy of that prayer vigil is included in the printed version of this sermon].
Let us pray that this morning’s baptism service for Austin James will be much more than a ceremony; may it be a profound moment for his parents, his godparents and all his family, that here, in the presence of this congregation, we have undertaken a ‘prayer-action’ as Thomas Fisch has described it. After some moments of silence, when we might reflect upon this, let us then begin the sacrament, not just the ceremony, of his baptism.
A VIGIL ON THE EVE OF AUSTIN JAMES DENNIS’ BAPTISM
Lord Jesus Christ, you desire that everyone who follows you shall be born again by water and the Spirit:
Remember tomorrow your servant Austin James who tomorrow is to be baptised in your Name.
By his names Lord:
Grant that you will know him, and call him to a life of service. Amen.
Grant that he may become the person you created him to be. Amen.
Grant that he may be written for ever in your Book of Life. Amen.
Through the water of his baptism, Lord:
Grant that he may be united with you in your death. Amen.
Grant that he may receive forgiveness for all his sins. Amen.
Grant that he may have the power to endure, and strength to have victory in the battle of life. Amen.
As a member of your Church, Lord:
Grant that he may rise to a new life in the fellowship of those who love you. Amen.
Grant that he may suffer when another suffers, and when another rejoices, rejoice. Amen.
Grant that he may be your faithful soldier and servant until his life’s end. Amen.
Through the abiding presence of your Spirit, Lord:
Grant that he may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning. Amen.
Grant that when he passes through the dark waters of death, you will be with him. Amen.
Grant that he may inherit the kingdom of glory prepared for him from the foundation of the world. Amen.
To you, Lord Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory in the Church, now and forever. Amen.
 More information about this three-fold baptism can be found in Emmanuel Testa, The Faith of the Mother Church: An essay on the theology of the Judeo-Christians, Franciscan Printing Press, 1992, pp 141-157
 W K Lowther Clark, Liturgy & Worship: A companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion, SPCK, 1947, p414.
 T Fisch, Rituals & Sacraments (Christian View), appearing at www.ir.stthomas.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&content=encounteringislam