Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of Christ), 13th January 2013
Isaiah 55:1-11, Romans 6:1-11

You might be rather surprised to learn that I like cycling. When you look at my sylph-like figure, you might be excused if you showed a certain degree of scepticism about this! But really, I do enjoy riding my bike on a nice fine day. You are right, though: I’m not one of these chaps clad in Lycra trying to emulate Sir Bradley Wiggins up and down the Fairmile or even climbing up Box Hill – let alone doing it nine times!

My bike benefits from electrical assistance. Going uphill, the harder I have to pedal, the more assistance I get. It doesn’t do all the work for me, it gives me just as much assistance as I call for. On the way down into the village I hardly use any assistance, but on the way back up, I switch the boost to maximum!

This is the sort of mechanism that St Paul has in mind when he starts chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans by saying, ‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ In other words, pressing down on the ‘sin’ pedal brings counter-acting force, of grace, to outweigh the sin. Is that how salvation works? No, St Paul says, no, definitely it isn’t. Just because we have received God’s grace, God’s free gift in Jesus, because we have been put right with God, justified, by our faith, it doesn’t give us the green light to pursue immorality and sin.

It’s no good thinking that, because we have received grace, because we are numbered among the elect, the saved, then whatever we do, we’ll get whatever grace we need in order to put things right, however awful we are.

St Paul goes on to talk about the effect of baptism. In baptism there is a symbolic, sacramental death, drowning the old self in the water and then rising to new life as one emerges from the water. Today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, is the time in the church’s year when we celebrate the most special baptism of all, the baptism of Christ.

Why did Christ need to be baptised at all? As the son of God, he had no sin in him. The reason was, that Christ was entering into our human life. As humans, we are capable of sin; so Jesus as a human, as incarnate in our life, was baptised, washed free of any possibility of sin. St Paul develops this idea in this passage from Romans. He talks about dying and rising ‘with Christ’. A big theme in St Paul’s letters is the idea of our being ‘in Christ’. Sometimes he talks almost as though Christ was a suit of clothes. In his letter to the Galatians he says, ‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ …’ (Galatians 3:28) In this passage in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans, he says that Christians through their baptism are ‘dead to sin and alive to God’ (v.11), or raised to new life in Christ.

I’m not really sure what that means. It’s very comforting to hear, in our lesson from Isaiah chapter 55, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.’ (v.8) I don’t know whether anyone can fully understand all the nuances of meaning, for somebody to be ‘in Christ’. A traditional explanation is that, for us to be ‘in Christ’ means that Christ is in us. But If Christ is in us, how does it work? In particular, how does it work for us to be ‘crucified with’ Christ, and then to rise again with him, in the way St Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans?

If we are united with Jesus in death, then, indeed, St Paul says we will be united with him in his resurrection too. But, thank goodness, none of us has been crucified: instead, St Paul makes it all depend on baptism. He says we were ‘baptised into’ Jesus’ death.

Baptism is a sacrament: an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. The Catechism, which little boys and girls used to have to learn by heart in the latter half of the C16, says this.

‘What is the outward sign or form in baptism?
Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
What is the inward and spiritual grace?
A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness, for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.’

And the Catechism goes on, ‘What is required of persons to be baptized? Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that sacrament.’ (BCP, A Catechism, p.295) Repentance and faith. These stand for death and resurrection, in the sacrament of baptism.

As St Paul says, we are justified by faith (Romans 4:13-5:1). The word ‘justified’ in St Paul’s letters, δίκαιωθεις in Greek, is often explained as meaning ‘put right with’, not exactly ‘excused’ or ‘acquitted’, but put into a right relationship with God. ‘Justified by faith’: there’s almost a circularity in it. If we have faith, we have a right relationship with God. If we lose our faith, we are separated from that right relationship and we are ‘in sin’. Sin is separation from God.

You might object that this is a very heavy theological burden for a baby who is being christened, and that it is a bit far-fetched to imagine that any baby is going to understand that he or she has been baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. But, the idea of babies being baptised is a very old one. In the Book of Common Prayer you will find the next question and answer in the Catechism asks why infants, who cannot ‘perform’ the required repentance and faith, are baptised, and the answer is that their parents and godparents make the promises for them, and when they reach a suitable age, in confirmation, they take over responsibility for repentance and faith; they are, in effect, still bound by that promise.

This is all very beautiful, and it sounds great. You would expect therefore that Christians would live perfect lives. But of course, we don’t. Indeed St Paul himself goes on to say, in the next chapter of Romans, chapter 7, ‘I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.’ (Rom. 7:15,17) That doesn’t seem to square very well with the idea of having died to sin, and therefore no longer being affected by it.

I came across a picturesque way of understanding this apparent contradiction. Imagine a bus driver who has to follow the bus route when he’s driving the bus. As he drives along, he sees all sorts of interesting by-ways and detours that he’d quite like to take. But because he is a bus driver, under orders, he can’t deviate, he has to keep to the prescribed route.

But suppose that the same bus driver on his day off follows the same route in his own car. In those circumstances, he’s perfectly able to go exploring, and leave the bus route. Once, like the bus driver, we were constrained to follow the route of sin. Now, in Christ, we have been set free. We can still choose to follow the old route if we really want to. But we’re also able to choose something new, ‘newness of life.’

So we still have free will; and indeed, sometimes it gets on top of us, as St Paul was complaining. But we are now driving our own car: we ought to be a good driver. If we have faith, then we are ‘in Christ’, and Christ is in us. We are free from the compulsion to follow the path of sin. (Stone, D., 1998, The Baptism Service, London, Hodder and Stoughton: p.91)

Nevertheless, being ‘in Christ’, being ‘dead to sin and alive in Christ’, may also be rather like waiting for the Second Coming. There is a tension between the here-and-now and the not-yet. St Augustine’s prayer, ‘Please God, make me good – but not yet’, is another way of expressing this. Are we ready to ‘put on Christ’? Are we ready to ‘die with him to sin’? That is the question which we need to think about, on this first Sunday after Epiphany.

Let us pray that in this new year, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.