Sermon: The Purpose of Baptism

THE PURPOSE OF BAPTISM
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
March 25, 2012
Dawson Creek, BC

Readings: Isaiah 1:9-20; Matthew 3:1-17; True Christian Religion 685

We just heard the story of John the Baptist, who called all of Judah to himself to be baptized in the Jordan River. In that story, we heard John say that one would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He later told his followers that the one he had spoken about was the Lord, Jesus. And when Jesus was resurrected, He appeared to His disciples and told them to go forth and baptize all nations into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning, baptism has been a key part of Christianity.

In the New Church, we tend not to focus much on ritual.  We put a lot of emphasis on life – the way we live by our religion.  And that’s as it should be – internal worship involves loving the Lord and loving our neighbour.  But there is a value and strength in the external rituals of worship, because they represent those internal things, and actually serve to strengthen those internal things.  And the two most important rituals – the two sacraments in the New Church – are baptism and the Holy Supper.

Without a knowledge of correspondences, it’s hard to understand how there could be a value in the external ritual of baptism.  But the Writings for the New Church describe a deeper meaning within this ritual that show how something as seemingly mundane as dipping someone under water can have profound spiritual influences.  And the Writings for the New Church reveal a purpose in baptism that is unknown to many in the world.

True Christian Religion describes the three primary uses of baptism: introduction into the church, getting to know the Lord, and being regenerated.  Baptism alone does not accomplish these things, but it serves as an external sign of them, and helps bring them about. These three all involve each other and are tied together – each one is an integral part of what it means to be baptized.

The first use of baptism is that it is an introduction into the church – a sign and a symbol that a person is a Christian.  This morning we read the story of John the Baptist baptizing people in the River Jordan.  The Jordan River marked the boundary and the entrance to the land of Canaan.  The reason that John baptized there was that it represented an entrance into the church.

What does it mean to be introduced to the church?  It means that a person is first beginning to learn the truths of the Lord’s words.  These are the simple, basic teachings – that the Lord Jesus Christ is God, that evils are to be shunned as sins against Him, that His Word is truth.  When a person first begins to learn these truths – and to live by them – it is as if he is being washed in the Jordan River.

Now again, this may seem like it wouldn’t have much power.  Doesn’t everyone know that it’s wrong to lie, to steal, to commit adultery, and so on?  They’re such simple teachings, it seems, that a person might scoff at the idea that they have to be bathed by these things. But until we actually try to shun evils because they are sins, we don’t know how strong or weak a hold they have on us. We might think, “OK, yes, I tell lies, but it’s not that big a deal – I don’t think there would be some profound spiritual change in me if I stopped.” But it’s not until we do try to stop because it is a sin against God that we realize how deeply that deceit may or may not be ingrained in us. When we try to stop, and pray for the Lord’s help, we do notice a change.

Being introduced into the church does not just mean introduction into the truth, though.  It also means introduction to the people of the church, and introduction among angelic spirits who make up the church.  That’s why we can perform infant baptisms – because even though the baby is not yet able to learn the truth of the church, there is a promise that they will, and there is also a sign made that they will be raised as Christians.  And it actually changes the spirits who are around that child.

Now, again, this might seem abstract and like it has nothing to do with real life – but that’s only because we don’t realize how huge an influence the spirits around us have.  Every single thought we have flows into us from the spirits around us, as hard as that is to believe.  And so changing our spirits changes the way we are even able to think.  Now, a person’s decisions throughout their lives also affect what spirits are around, and so baptism or non-baptism doesn’t determine a person’s spiritual home, the spirits he will live with forever.  But it does make a difference, because the washing of baptism and the sign of the cross is a physical manifestation and sign that actually brings the person among Christian spirits and angels.

So that first use of baptism is being introduced into the truth of the church, and also coming into the company of Christian people, spirits and angels. But in itself, being brought among Christians is meaningless – being influenced by Christians is not actually what makes a person Christian.  True Christianity – the kind of Christianity described in the book The True Christian Religion – means getting to know the Lord Jesus Christ.  And this is the second purpose of baptism – that a person may know and acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Saviour, and to follow Him.

There would be no point in introducing someone into the church without introducing them to the source of all the good and truth in the church.  And we can’t really get to know who He is except by following His commandments. That source is the Lord.  True Christian Religion asks, What would be the use of being called a Christian without this second use, the acknowledgment of Christ, and especially of following His commandments?  We read, “Is it not really like a subject who attaches himself to a king, and yet repudiates the king’s laws or those of the country, and yields allegiance to a foreign king and serves him?” (True Christian Religion 681).  To be called a Christian and yet not to follow the Lord would be an empty thing, and worthless.

This second purpose of baptism – coming to know the Lord – comes from the first – being introduced to the church.  A person learns to follow the Lord by being brought up, supported, and encouraged by Christians.  And here’s another area where baptism becomes relevant for our daily lives.  When we attend a child’s baptism, we attend a ceremony that introduces the child to the church – and we here help make up that church.  In that ceremony, the parents specifically promise to raise the child to follow the Lord – but we all share that responsibility, to support everyone who comes to the church and who is baptized in their path of following the Lord.  It is our responsibility to encourage each other to do what is right and good, and to look to the Lord together.

The second use of baptism is that we may know and acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ, and follow Him.  It might seem like this purpose would be the final use and goal of baptism.  But from the Lord’s perspective, the one remaining use is actually the most important.  That final use of baptism is that a person be regenerated.

The Lord spoke of the importance of a person being born again.  He said, “Unless someone be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”   When we talk about regeneration, we are talking about re-birth.  But we use the word regeneration because it is not referring to one moment in time, as “birth” implies, but a process and progression over time.  The Lord’s purpose in baptism – and even the reason that He wants us to know Him and follow Him – is so that he can create us anew, and give us the blessedness of heaven.

Think about that.  The Lord did not create humanity was for the sake of His own glory, so that He could be worshipped.  The Lord created the world for the sake of blessing the world, not being blessed Himself

And so this final use of baptism – that a person be regenerated – follows from the prior two uses, and it could be said to be its primary end in view.  And it is the use that is most clearly seen in the representation of baptism itself as a washing.  Because the way that a person is regenerated is by spiritual washing, that is, by removing the evil lusts and desires that cling to him.

The way a person does this is by repentance.  And repentance is the common thread that runs through all the different uses of baptism.  A person is truly introduced into Christianity by repenting; he learns to acknowledge the Lord and follow Him by repenting; and he is regenerated by means of repentance.

This is not always an easy process. And in some ways, baptism is presented as a painful thing. It is used as an image of death. Speaking of His crucifixion, Jesus said, “But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” The image of baptism is one of washing, but it is also an image of being buried – the apostle Paul would later compare Jesus burial and resurrection to the experience of being submerged under the water in baptism and then rising up out of it. In our reading this morning, John the Baptist warned the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious leaders at the time, that the Lord’s baptism would be like a consuming fire. And when we repent, there are parts of ourselves – the merely natural parts – where we feel like we are dying. Baptism is a symbol of putting to death the parts of us that rebel against the Lord’s love, so that we can be purified. The prophet Malachi compared it to a refiner’s fire: “But who may sustain the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He is seen? For He is as a refiner’s fire, and as washer’s soap.” That refiner’s fire burned away all the impurities in a precious metal. For us to be purified, we have to endure the pain of fighting against the evil cravings that give us pleasure.

But that fire that burns away impurities is also a warming fire of love. The purpose of baptism and of washing is not simply so that evil can be taken away, but so that something new from the Lord can come in and take its place. It is so that the Holy Spirit can flow into a person, giving them a new spirit.  It is so that the fire of the Lord’s love can flow into a person, giving them a new heart. There is a progression there. That progression is described in John the Baptist’s words: “I indeed baptize you with water, but one comes after me Who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.”

That first kind of baptism is a baptism of water.  The Lord did not only baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; He also baptized in the waters of the Jordan river, just as John had. The water of Jordan is a picture of the simple, straightforward truths in the letter of the Word.  We start out by following them, by repenting on the very basic, literal level – stopping our stealing, stopping lying, shunning adultery.

As we progress, though, the Lord gives us the opportunity to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit represents the Lord’s Divine Truth.  This is contained within the teachings of the Lord’s Word, but cannot really be expressed in words.  It’s a sight we have of the truth.  We learn to see things in ourselves that are sins against the Lord, even if we can’t describe exactly what they are – attitudes or intentions that on a deeper level steal from the Lord.  There’s the love of self, and the raising up of ourselves above others; and when we realize this, and shun these deeper evils because we know they are sins, we are being baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Being baptized by the Holy Spirit means being regenerated by truth.  We come to love the truth, and to love treating our neighbours well because we know it is right.  There is love in the Holy Spirit – but it’s primarily a love for acting by the truth, not simply a love for goodness itself.  That is the next level, the celestial level; and to be regenerated by this love is what it means to be baptized by fire.

A person first becomes spiritual before becoming celestial.  But a person can become celestial.  The way this happens is that gradually the Lord transforms their love for acting by what is true into a genuine love for the Love that comes from Him.  It is love for love’s sake, and when a person reaches this state, they act primarily from love to the Lord.  This washes a person on an even deeper level than that love for truth does.  Those who reach this level are said to be baptized with fire. These are the people who come into a genuine love for the Lord and love for their neighbour, who love to love others.

The external act of baptism does not accomplish any of these things. But when a person has these internal elements – a desire to learn truth, to fight against evil with it, to come to know the Lord and be regenerated – then the external ritual actually makes these things happen more fully and more completely. Through the internal washing of repentance and regeneration, a person is made clean, and made ready for heaven, which is the Lord’s greatest desire. By the first use of baptism, a person is introduced among Christians; by the second use, he comes to know and acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ as God, and follow Him; and by the third use, He is regenerated and born again, in accordance with the Lord’s words in the gospel of John: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12,13)  Amen.

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About Coleman Glenn

I'm a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and Patheos blogger (www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth).
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