It is a privilege to be invited to speak at this service of prayer for the week of Christian unity. On such occasions not only do we find ourselves united in prayer, but we are able to take the opportunity of learning a little more about the variety of Christian traditions.
Today I would like us to consider something which is almost universally practiced in all Christian communities. It is the sacrament or ordinance of baptism. In the orthodox and catholic traditions it is valued as a sacrament in which God Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, graciously renews the one who is being baptised. But even in the protestant traditions, and I was myself brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, there is a strong sense that in baptism the believer is testifying to the work of God which has already taken place.
Baptism is important to us all. The Catholic Catechism says, ‘Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission’. The Anglican Catechism of 1662 teaches that the inward and spiritual grace of baptism is ‘a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. While John Wesley taught that, ‘By baptism, we enter into a covenant with God, an everlasting covenant, are admitted into the church, made members of Christ, made children of God. By water as the means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again’.
Baptism is clearly important to all Christian traditions. But as part of our activities for the week of prayer for Christian unity I would like us to consider for a few moments especially what the Orthodox Christian tradition teaches about baptism.
We know that from the earliest times Christians baptised those who sought to become members of the community of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, when the crowd had heard Peter preaching, they asked “What must we do to be saved?” And Peter answered them saying “Believe and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. These three aspects of Christian initiation have remained a constant in the orthodox Christian tradition ever since, faith, baptism and the Holy Spirit.
In the second century, St Justin Martyr bears witness to the teaching of the Church in his First Apology to the Roman Emperor. He says, ‘I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ… As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”’.
A little later in the same century, Tertullian writes, ‘Blessed is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life!’, ‘Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing?’, ‘All waters, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying’.
By the time of the fourth century, St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his lectures for those preparing for baptism, says, ‘For you go down into the water, bearing your sins, but the invocation of grace , having sealed your soul, suffers you not afterwards to be swallowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, you come up quickened in righteousness. For if you have been united with the likeness of the Saviour’s death, you shall also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection. For as Jesus took upon Him the sins of the world, and died, that by putting sin to death He might rise again in righteousness; so thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again walking in newness of life.’.
We see that baptism in the early Church is described as being made new through Christ, and being regenerated through the washing with water. Indeed the instruction of our Lord that we be born again, is linked to baptism, echoing the words of St Peter, ‘Believe and be baptised for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. The physical washing, united with the invocation of God, becomes a means of spiritual washing, of sanctification, of salvation and of eternal life.
The teaching of the early Church provides the means for us to interpret the Scriptures. Yet the words of the Scriptures seem plain and easy to understand for Orthodox Christians. ‘Believe and be baptised for the remission of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. It seems to the Orthodox Tradition that the Scriptures teach us that it is not possible to separate these three components. Faith is required, but this must be put into practice in the sacrament of baptism. Faith is required, but baptism is the means by which remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are received.
St Cyril of Jerusalem again says, ‘When going down, therefore, into the water, think not of the bare element, but look for salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost: for without both you cannot possibly be made perfect. It is not I that say this, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power in this matter: for He says, unless a man be born anew (and He adds the words) of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Neither does he that is baptized with water, but not found worthy of the Spirit, receive the grace in perfection; nor if a man be virtuous in his deeds, but receive not the seal by water, shall he enter into the kingdom of heaven’.
Orthodoxy claims to be in continuity with the Church of the first centuries, indeed to be that same Church. Perhaps we can turn to one of the greatest of Orthodox fathers, St Severus of Antioch. He lived in the 6th century, but his influence is found throughout the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and even to the present time. Not only is he one of the most important of theologians, but he is considered a great homilist, liturgist and hymn writer. In the collection of hymns which have come down to us from his pen we find many that are concerned with baptism and illustrate the continuing understanding of baptism which is held by the Orthodox Churches, and indeed by the British Orthodox Church.
In one hymn he says,
You who by enlightening baptism have been made new, by deeds themselves keep such a reputation unto the end. Do not wantonly take yourself back again to the old age of sins; do not by any means follow after deeds of darkness. You have rightly confessed one Lord and one Faith: renounce the many doctrines of error that are falsified against the truth. Behold! You have been armed with the mighty arms of the Spirit: fight and struggle: and do not through sin make miserable treaties with your foes. By calling the Holy Father in heaven, ‘Our Father’, fix the hidden eyes of your mind constantly on heaven. You have been hallowed by the divine laver; you have been removed from all filth, pollution and stain. Having once been buried and risen together with Christ who is God, who once suffered and rose, think not at all of a second baptism. Keep the treasure of immortality that has been bestowed on you with all carefulness, offering praise to the good giver of this gift, according to the riches of His mercy.
What a wealth of teaching in one short passage. And we can imagine the spiritually edifying effects of these words on those who had just been baptised and were processing into the body of the Church, where they were now fully members of the Christian community.
In the first place we see the Orthodox teaching that baptism renews us, and indeed is a new birth. We believe that in baptism God acts for our salvation, and as Tertullian wrote, that the waters are indeed sanctifying by the descent of the sanctifying Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christians believe that something happens in the waters of baptism, and that it is more than a testimony to what God has already done, but rather is the means by which God effects remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Christian life, as far as Orthodox Christians are concerned, begins in the waters of baptism.
But the effects of baptism are not magical. There is no grace without faith, but as the Fathers teach, there is no remission of sin and new life without baptism. Baptism is a beginning and not the end. St Severus reminds those who have been newly baptised that they must make every effort by the manner of their lives to preserve the grace of that which they have just received. He warns that it is always possible to fall back into the old life of sin. For the Orthodox Christian, baptism requires faith both before the sacrament, during the sacrament, and throughout the spiritual life lived after the sacrament. Faith requires us to struggle and fight to preserve the gifts we have received in baptism.
It is the case that those who consider baptism to be a sacrament and an act of God are often accused to teaching that a person might become and be a Christian with no effort. Of course this is no different to the accusation sometime levelled against Protestants that a person need only pray a short prayer and then can live essentially how they please. Both are perhaps caricatures of what is taught. Certainly in the case of the Orthodox Faith there is no sense at all that baptism without continuing faith and effort will keep a man in a right relationship with God. Having been baptised, having received the gifts of new life and the forgiveness of sins, the new Christian must be prepared for a life of constant struggle and effort.
But as far as the Orthodox Church is concerned, the newly baptised member has been armed with the whole armour of Christ. He has received everything he needs to begin the new life of grace in the Holy Spirit. For the Orthodox Church, baptism is not the means of avoiding the life of faith, or a substitute for ascetic effort. On the contrary, it is the beginning of an unceasing conflict with the enemy of our souls.
Much of this hymn by St Severus is concerned with this struggle. For the first time the newly baptised join the rest of the congregation in praying, ‘Our Father..’. But this is not simply the privilege of those made members of the Christian community. It becomes an obligation to fix our eyes on heavenly things, where our Father dwells. He is our Father in heaven, because baptism has raised us from all the stain and pollution of the world, and has set us apart in the holy waters of baptism, and we have risen with Christ to the heavenly places.
But this view of baptism, as a gift of grace and life, does not lead us into complacency, much less to rely on our baptism as if it were all that was required for salvation. On the contrary, St Severus concludes his hymn by urging those who have been baptised to keep the gift of immortality they have just received with all carefulness. Indeed the aim of baptism, in the Orthodox view, is to be able to receive the gift of immortality by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And the aim of the Christian life is to preserve this gift of immortality by the same indwelling Holy Spirit. And the joy of the life to come is to enjoy the fullness of immortal life with God for ever.
This hymn of St Severus was written 1500 years ago, yet it entirely represents the Orthodox experience of the sacrament of baptism, while also representing the understanding of the early Church. St Severus stands with St Peter in insisting that baptism with faith is necessary for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His teaching is already found in St Justin Martyr’s words, ‘For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”’. It is echoed in the words of Tertullian, ‘Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing?’ It is repeatedly found in the instruction which St Cyril of Jerusalem gave to those preparing to be baptised, ‘When going down, therefore, into the water, think not of the bare element, but look for salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost: for without both you cannot possibly be made perfect’.
This teaching is not of simply historical interest. It is the teaching of the Orthodox Churches today. For the Orthodox Christian, for those of us represented here in the British Orthodox Church, baptism is the means of receiving the gifts of God. But it is also the beginning of a struggle which continues throughout the life of the Christian. Nevertheless this struggle, for the one who has been baptised, is taken up with the strength and power of God given in baptism by the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is, in one sense, the continuing experience of our baptism.
What did we read at the beginning of these thoughts? Do we remember the Catholic Catechism which says, ‘Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission’, and the Anglican Catechism of 1662 saying that the inward and spiritual grace of baptism is ‘a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’, and John Wesley teaching that, ‘By baptism, we are admitted into the church, made members of Christ, made children of God. By water as the means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again’.
There is a great deal of agreement in these things. There is a great possibility for Christian unity in our understanding of the meaning and value of baptism. To rediscover the treasures of grace which are found in baptism is necessary for each one of us as Christians, and for each of our Christian communities. It is always Christ who unites us, and in baptism we are united with Christ. Baptism is therefore a place where we can truly experience a greater degree of unity. If we turn to the Fathers of the Church and humbly embrace their teachings we find a wisdom that heals our divisions.
May we remember our own baptisms, and consider all that we received from God by the participation in the sacrament. What is demanded of us as people who have been born again to new life in Christ, who have been buried in the waters of the baptistery and risen to new life and light in the community of the Church? Whichever Christian community we are members of, the recollection of our baptism unites us in giving the glory to God, who has given us new life in Christ. To him be the glory, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Father Peter Farrington