St Agnes, Kennington Park
19 January 1997
THE MEANING OF BAPTISM
[Sermon II on Baptism]
Last week we looked together at the Sacrament of Baptism.
We took as the headings of our chapters, so to speak, three sayings about baptism.
Firstly: Baptism is generally necessary to salvation
Secondly: God is not bound by his sacraments, but we are.
Thirdly: Baptism, together with the other sacraments, are "not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they are certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace.
This morning we shall take up that phrase "effectual signs of grace" and put it alongside another phrase from the Prayer Book. "Baptism" it says " is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace".
So there are three words which stand out for comment: effectual, sign and grace.
When we say that something is "effectual" we mean that it has an effect.
It means the difference between something really happening and only appearing to happen.
For example the other day someone sent me a cheque for some money they owed me. I paid the cheque into the bank and really believed at the time that as a result of doing so I was so many pounds better off than before.
However, a couple of days later there arrived a letter from the Bank "cheque returned unpaid. Reason: no signature. Your account has been debited accordingly."
So that feeling of wellbeing that came with paying in the cheque was in fact a false feeling; and the reason for its falsity could be traced to the fact that someone had forgotten to sign the cheque.
Needless to say the person at fault was very apologetic when the mistake was pointed out to her and signed the cheque on the spot, whereupon the cheque went through and my feeling of being so many pounds better off were true feelings.
But just notice what made the difference. One cheque had been signed and the other hadn't. the unsigned cheque was worthless - ineffectual; the signed cheque was both effectual and valuable!.
Now God's sacraments only have value because, so to speak, he signs them or authorizes them; and because they have value they are effectual, that is to say they have a real effect upon the person who receives them.
So what effect does baptism have on the person who is batpized.
Well, back we go once again to the Prayer Book. It tells us that in baptism a person is made a member of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.
To understand what these three images mean we must switch from the world of banks and cheques to the world of living plants and animals. One can take all sorts of examples, vines, sheep, families, but the one which covers most aspects of it is the human body and its owner.
That's an advantage because we've got a number of human bodies here today and you happen to be inside one of them. If we took the vine as our model then the odds are there would be someone in the congregation who didn't know what a vine is. But talk to people about the human body and most people will know what you're referring to.
Every bit of the human body is called a member of that body. A finger or a toe or a heart or a kidney are all members of your body.
Two very important things follow. One is that each member of a body can only keep alive by remaining firmly attached to the body; secondly the health, and indeed the very life of that body depends upon the health of its individual members.
Cut your finger and the rest of your body will immediately swing into action to start the healing process. Heart, blood, kidney all have their part to play in making the wounded body whole or healed again. But if the finger becomes separated from the body then the healing process simply won't work. In the same way If the finger for some reason fails to heal properly, septicaemia or blood poisoning will set in and the whole body sickens and perhaps dies.
When we say then that baptism makes us "a member of Christ" it means just this. You can't be a Christian in isolation, apart from his body. However little you may realise it, your life in Christ depends upon being part of that Body, what we call the Church, and the welfare of the Church in its turn depends upon your being a healthy member of it.
Secondly we are taught that baptism makes us the child of God
In our natural state we are his creatures not his children. by the grace of baptism we are reborn to be his sons and daughters. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father. In baptism we are enabled to partake of his nature. "To them that received him he gave the power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe on his name". "Of his fulness we have all received and grace for grace; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
Because we are sons of God, and because God has appointed him heir of all things, we, through our baptism, become inheritors with him of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Like any wise parent, god does not give all his gifts to us at any one time. He parcels out each one so to speak to see what we make of it; and when he sees we are ready for the next one he gives us another. That can only mean that if we are faithful to him and to his promises there is an infinitude of good things in store for us, some on this side of the grave but the vast majority which will be given us and we shall only be allowed to unwrap after our death.
Talking about gifts leads us on to the last of those three words: effectual, sign and grace.
We must never think that God's goodness is something that we can earn whether by being good, going to church, putting money in the collection or polishing the altar candlesticks.
Many people have this false notion that God's grace is a sort of dividend, a payment for services rendered to him by us for doing what he tells us.
But if it were a payment, of course, then it would be our right and something we could demand or insist on his giving us and God would be in no position to refuse our demand. That is of course absurd, but it explains why so much of the present-day talk about people getting or demanding their rights is so misleading particularly when it begins to infiltrate the minds of church people as it has don recently.
On the contrary, God's gifts to us in baptism come to us by grace not by right. They can neither be deserved, nor earned any more than a birthday present can be.
Of course this is very far from saying that because the gift is free it therefore can have no value. Indeed the cost of God's free gift to us is always right in front of us whenever we come into a church.
It is only through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross that the grace which we receive through the sacrament of baptism (or holy communion for that matter) has any value at all.
Just remember that when you come to his altar to receive the sacrament of his Body and Blood in a few minutes' time.
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