Sermons & services

The Creed: We beieve in one baptism for the remission of sins

Published Sunday 22nd May 2022, at 11:39 a.m.


Since we began these talks on the Creed, we’ve been speaking about the elements of Christian faith. The beliefs. But belief - faith - should always lead to action. Which is why today the Creed turns at the end to baptism: the sacrament of initiation into the Church. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that Creeds were once statements of faith, proclaimed by those preparing for baptism: the catechumens. So imagine the scene. It’s dark: just before the dawn. The church is in darkness but a throng of people have been holding vigil in the church all night, and are now pressed around a room at the front of the church. In the room – the baptistry – there is what looks like a jacuzzi built into the floor with steps leading down into the water. A number of men and women are there, all facing west. Bishops, priests and deacons are there, too. In the darkness, those to be baptised recite the words of the Creed. They’ve spent weeks, possibly months, being taught the Christian faith. Now is their opportunity to profess it: to claim it as their own. As the sun begins to glimmer through the east window, the bishop asks the question: do you turn to Christ? And as the sun (s-u-n) rises and casts its light onto those to be baptised, they physically turn and face east, the direction of the Risen Son, s-o-n. There are other questions: do you submit to Christ? Do you renounce the devil and all his works? Then the bishop prays over them that they will be freed from the power of evil: known as the rite of exorcism. And then they are anointed with highly perfumed oil: the smell of it fills the baptistry with the scent of cinnamon, balsam, and myrrh. The candidates then take off their clothes – probably not all of them! – and then descend into the water where they are plunged into the water three times as the Bishop baptises them, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Immediately after, they are dressed in a white garment: they have become part of that vast crowd that no-one could number, dressed in white with palms in their hands (Revelations 7.9). Now what I’ve described is not exhaustive or 100 per cent how baptism would have been carried out in every church in its early history. But in broad brush strokes it does tell us about how early Christians celebrated the rite. Now it has to admitted that in the 16th century, some of the Reformers binned many of these rituals. And the Church of England – as I said last week - looking in one direction towards the Catholic, and looking in the other, towards the Reformers– also discarded many of them. But if you’ve been here for a baptism at St James or in many, many other churches, you’ll recognise many of these elements because it’s what I do here, because they help to understand the depths of what is going on in baptism, by which we become members of the Body of Christ, the Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins: as it says in our penultimate part of the Creed. So let’s go back to our imaginary-ish baptism in the early church – thinking about how we carry out baptisms today – and so, I hope, understanding a little more about what baptism means for us, who probably don’t remember our own baptisms. First the darkness. St Peter tells us that God has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. And the language of darkness versus light is one of the major themes of the Gospel of St John where we are told that people preferred darkness to the light. So darkness is the absence of the light which is God. In Genesis, it is the absence of form and order: chaos. In John’s Gospel, it is also a symbol of the Old Covenant. When Jesus meets Nicodemus, the Jewish member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, he comes to Jesus at night. Darkness and night and error and untruth are interchangeable terms. Darkness is a symbol of evil, and ignorance of the Gospel. When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John says simply, and it was night. And before the light of the Resurrection bursts on to the world, Mary Magdalen comes to the garden where the Lord has been buried, she comes to the tomb while it was still dark. So when the baptismal candidate turns around from west to east, they are turning from darkness to light. From ignorance to truth. From death to life. In a physical way, they are turning their backs on the way they once lived in the world, to be bathed in the light of the Risen Son, in whose way they will now walk until their life’s end. For the first time they will profess their faith in this Christ: proclaiming with their voices their faith in the Jesus who loved them and gave himself for them. Next: the exorcisms. In the last half a century, many Christians have rejected those parts of the Scripture that mention demons, evil spirits, and the like. In 1968, an article about baptism in the early church was explicit: today, it said, thanks to the Church’s struggles against belief in and fear of demons, and the development of a scientific understanding of the universe, we no longer understand our existence in terms of personal devils, evil eyes, and awful spectres. Okay, but the trouble with that is that it doesn’t do justice to the Scriptures. There is this implication that, somehow, we moderns know better than Jesus: because the Scriptures leave us in no doubt that Jesus – God Incarnate – absolutely believed in the presence of evil and the demoniacal. The first thing he tells his Apostles – in Mark’s Gospel – is to go out and heal, and he gives them authority over unclean spirits. And when they return, the first thing they tell Jesus is that they have cast out demons in his name. So the exorcisms are a recognition of the presence of evil in the world and – big AND – God has conquered them through His Christ. As St Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus: He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them through the Cross. Next, the anointing. In the early church, and increasingly now with most adults, those being admitted into the church were baptised and confirmed at the same time, so they could then receive the Eucharist straight away. Though we say confirmed, the proper word is chrismated, from the fact that they were anointed with Oil of Chrism: the holiest of the holy oils. Think, for a moment, about cooking with olive oil. You take a beautiful piece of steak and fry it in the olive oil. Why? To seal in the flavour. So the anointing in baptism is about ‘sealing in’ the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us in the sacrament: be sealed with Holy Spirit, says the bishop. Then comes the immersion in water. And, by the way, the early church gave permission for this just to be water poured over the head of the candidate if they couldn’t be immersed. At St Paul tells us: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized pinto Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Two things happen here: First baptism erases original sin within us. Because of original sin we are subject to sinful tendencies, sickness, suffering and death as the result of our descendance from Adam. With Adam’s sin our nature was changed. But as I’ve tried to show throughout these talks, through Christ, the second Adam, human nature is restored an healed and so in baptism all our past sins are washed away in the baptismal waters: hence we confess one baptism for the remission of sins. So secondly, our old self dies in the waters of baptism, so that the born again you and me can rise from spiritual death into a share in the newness of Christ’s resurrection life. Which is why the candidate is then dressed in white. Some Christians – Ethiopian Orthdodox, for instance – still do this. When they attend the Eucharist they wear a white garment. Nowadays, in the Western churches, it’s only worn on the day of baptism, though sacred ministers and servers continue the practice. Hence the priest wears one of these, called an alb, from the latin for white. What’s the point? Here’s a passage from the Book of Revelation: there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. Revelation is a picture of heaven, so what we’re saying is that, in baptism, our citizenship of heaven has already begun. We have already begun to share in the divine nature. The life of heaven. In our baptism we pass from darkness to light. From death to life. From the untruth to truth. From earthly existence to heavenly existence. May we pray for the grace to live more and more faithfully our baptismal life in Christ. Amen.