Sermon given at Evensong on the festival of the Baptism of Christ, 2022

What does the grace of baptism accomplish?

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 9th January 2022 at 3.00 PM

Today we keep the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

It’s somewhat ironic that for most of us, the day of our baptism is not something that we remember. Most of us were babies when our parents brought us to church and we were baptized.

I was baptised in 1960 at the Tanglin Garrison Church in Singapore, which once served the General Headquarters of the British Far East Land Forces. 

Like many other such babies, I was dressed up in some special, white baptismal robes, and a photographer took some pictures (that now lie in an ancient album) gathering dust.

It was all rather staid and formal with not much of spontaneous smiling. But things have moved on.

First, thanks to a rapid advancement in camera technology, including improvements to the clunking old video camera, the world we now inhabit is dominated by the sophisticated iPhone.

So many quick photos can now be taken, but I’m afraid to say that if you’re not careful, just as easily lost.

Of course, at Jesus’s baptism they didn’t need to take any pictures to make the event memorable. 

We’re told how at Jesus’s baptism the heavens opened up for him. And he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. 

And then of course, there’s that loud voice from the heavens, booming across the sky, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

In our New Testament lesson this afternoon from the sixth chapter of the letter to the Romans, St Paul talks about dying and rising with Christ. He teaches us that through complete surrender to Christ, we die to our old selves and we each become a second Christ.

By undergoing sacrifice with and through Christ, we gently lose ourselves only to become like Christ and more like ourselves through him. This mystery reveals itself through two paradoxes.

Firstly, slavery to God leads to true freedom—from the real slavery of sin. Secondly, death with Christ leads to life with Christ that never ends.

All of this can be expressed in the parable of the seed that falls to the ground, only to yield fruit. By letting go, we become fully ourselves.

Over the years there have been great debates over the nature and kind of change that takes place through baptism.

Some of the historical arguments, its conditions, its consequences and so forth, have unfortunately all centered around the assumption that baptism really is something that suddenly changes us.

In the very early Church, there were great debates about whether any post-baptismal sins were allowed, and if so, which ones, and how many.

The phrase ‘three strikes and you’re out’ comes immediately to mind because a lot of people assumed that to be baptised was to be part of a body of Christ distinguished by its purity, its absolute integrity.

And it took a while, I think, for the Church to ‘discover’ (as it were) that one of the features of the body of Christ which we need to consider, is that it is a wounded body, and therefore one whose boundaries are breached.

To live, therefore, in that wounded body is not to live in a state of sinless isolation. It took the Church all of 120 or so years to realise this.

We might perhaps, with the wisdom of hindsight, have said that they could have noticed it more quickly. But this is the very paradox, of course, at the heart of any Christian notion of holiness.

As Christians we believe that we are called to be holy. I suspect that you have heard in many a sermon about how we should all strive to be saints.

I remember being told that back in 1974 when I was confirmed in Exeter cathedral and thinking how does it change you? How do you get it? and how could you prove it?

But over much time I came to realise that the nature of Christian holiness is precisely that it is not something possessed like a set of achievements, or even a set of qualifications. It is a relationship, and can only be understood in those terms.

To be holy is to be close to Jesus Christ, and therefore also to be around whomever Christ is close to. We see from the gospels the sort of people he is habitually close to.

And that is the sense in which baptism, paradoxically, is not all about being cleansed. It is, in a strange sense, all about being touched by God in Christ, by living in the wounded body, which is how the body of the incarnate Word adopts and accepts the harsh realities of our world.

You will recall that St Paul says, very strongly and boldly, that ‘he was made sin, for our sake,’ and only from that lowering of defences, that opening of the breaches, only from there comes openness to the Spirit.

Again, that is something that already emerges in the reflection of the very earliest people to think about the identity of Jesus.

We see it in the third chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, in that strange little encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist, where the Baptist says, as people have said ever since, ‘Why do you come to me?’

And Jesus’s enigmatic answer effectively says, ‘That’s what I am here for. To be touched by baptism. To be affected by the need, the chaos and the darkness of the world.’ (Matthew 3: 13–15)

That, of course, is the paradox that runs through our baptismal living, our whole sense of holiness. In other words, closeness to Jesus, closeness to those sorts of people that Jesus goes out of him way to be near.

When it comes down to it, baptism is a gift from God to humanity. Baptism initiates us into the family of God and cleanses us of sin. We do not need to earn this gift. God gives it freely to all who are open to it.

For someone who is baptized as a baby, the personal response of faith comes as the child grows to respond to the graces given in baptism.

So, what does the grace of baptism accomplish?

It specifically does five things:

  1. It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person’s baptism
  2. It makes the newly baptized person “a new creature.”
  3. It turns the person into a newly adopted son of God and a member of Christ. (Baptism incorporates a person into the Church, which is the body of Christ).
  4. It brings someone into the flock of the faithful and brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Peter 2: 9–10) a share in the common priesthood of all believers and it also brings about the sacramental bond of the unity of Christians.
  5. Last, but certainly not least, baptism leaves and indelible spiritual mark (the character) of belonging to Christ on the soul. Nothing you can do will take away this mark. You will always carry the mark of a Christian on your soul.