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Sermon at the Baptism of adults

As many of you as were baptised into Christ
have put on Christ
(Gal. 3:27)

Dear brothers and sisters!

According to the Words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “He who believes and is baptised will be saved” (Mark 16:16), and as such the Holy Church performs the mystery of Baptism, which lays marks the starting point of a person’s path to salvation, to obtaining the Kingdom of God, toward their liberation from the sinful captivity of dark forces, and toward the enlightenment of their body and soul by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Before the Baptism is undertaken, it is absolutely essential for the priest to instruct those who want to be baptised in the Orthodox faith, to explain to them the meaning of the mysteries and their necessity for the salvation of the soul.

The mystery of Baptism encompasses the nullification of “original sin”, which is passed down to people as though inherited from our progenitor Adam, who fell away from God for breaking His commandment. Therefore, the Apostle says: “Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12).

From the biblical book “Genesis” we know how this happened. Primordial Adam violated the prohibition set out by God, that is, he did not stand firm in his righteousness: he wanted to live according to his own will; he wanted to become equal to God, being inspired by the devil, the teacher of pride and self-will. For this self-will and impenitence in his deed, the Lord expelled Adam from Paradise and deprived him of his immortality (Gen. 3:23).

Sinful offspring was sired from sinful parents, that is, sinful disposition and theomachy naturally passed on to progeny. And with sin, death entered the human race. The primary sin — the attraction to evil and disobedience of God’s will — like a kind of hereditary illness estranged people from God, depriving their souls of Paradise after death and subjecting them to the torments of hades, for, as the Apostle said, “What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).

But, God in His mercy took pity on His fallen and perishing creation, and into the world, to His people, He sent the Saviour, His Son, to deliver them from the dominion of sin and death.

The life of the Saviour was filled with hardship and suffering and ended on the Cross with His redemptive death, by which Christ, according to the words of the Apostle, “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

Christ, with the sacrifice of His life, opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven for man, for “as one man’s (Adam’s) trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one Man’s (Jesus Christ’s) righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18). In the mystery of Baptism, which Jesus Christ was the originator of, the sins of the whole world were buried in the waters of the Jordan River, and the gracious spring of the Holy Spirit was opened, renewing us and calling us to a chaste and righteous life. Saint Gregory the Theologian writes that the mystery of Baptism is accomplished “that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God — that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For we must undergo the beautiful conversion” (Oration 38, “On the Theophany”).

The grace of Baptism strengthens a person to do good; it heals the soul, releasing it from the dominion of the devil, who loses his power to affect the soul, provided that it does not move away from the Church’s nourishment. The power of grace changes the worldview of a baptised person, directing them from evil to goodness, forming them into a new creature, one filled with the light and joy of Divine aspirations, and who is dying to sin and living to God: “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God” (Rom. 6:10). A person emerges from the baptismal font without dependence on sin, as is stated in the book “Philokalia”: “the tireless tempter and seducer is no longer in power: he disturbs and harasses, but he no longer commands,” that is, sin is removed; it ceases to be part of our soul, and from then on grace reigns in the soul. The holy Apostle Paul thus describes the salvation accomplished by Christ; “We ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:3-5).

During the Baptism, the newly baptised is anointed with consecrated myrrh, consolidating the action of the descended grace. This has nothing in common with enchanting or magic, and for a spiritual person this is quite sensible and carries a deep meaning, and although some aspects of it are unknowable to the human mind, this mystery is reasonable, holy and comprehensible to the conscience of a faithful person.

In Holy Baptism we are redeemed by the Blood of the Lord; we are cleansed by the holy water of the font; we are sated by the holy gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ. “Having been buried with Him in Baptism,” says the Apostle, “in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, Who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). After being granted these blessings, do we dare to remain in the sinful delights of our former prodigal life, to postpone our spiritual rebirth until later due to our attachment to sinful pleasures, and seek to justify our sinful habits, saying: “I am a sinner, but no worse than others; I am sinful, but I do not do great evil?” But the holy fathers say that those who follow the path of self-justification are not Christians, but are “thieves who steal the grace of Baptism.” The ability to see your own sins is the first step to renewing your soul, since within the heart, which ever seeks to justify itself, lies the devil. The Apostle instructs the baptised: “That we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Some of the penitent ones return to their sin again, because they have not completely removed it from themselves. The sign of true repentance is a collected and stern lifestyle, led with the firm desire to become a new person.

The mystery of repentance is similar to the mystery of baptism, since it involves the purification of the soul, and the change of the sinful egoistic will into a holy one, obedient to God. According to St. Gregory Palamas, repentance is the beginning and end of the Christian way of life. It consists of the notion to hate sin and love virtue, to turn away from evil and do good. This is preceded by self-deprecation for our sins, repentance before God, striving towards Him with a compunctious heart, and “casting oneself into the abyss of His generosity.” The Holy Fathers call repentance the second baptism. Repentance is a cross; it is self-crucifixion, which is done not by the sole will of man, but is aided by the power of God. The grace of God affects the soul; it summons grief within it for the sins committed, and for Paradise which was lost, as it was for the prodigal son, who returns to the Father, and who “came of himself” from the pangs of hunger. And if a person loses the strength given to them in holy Baptism, then the Church re-invigorates them with the mysteries of grace. The all-merciful love of God calls out incessantly, persistently knocking on a person’s heart: “I stand at the door and knock… If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will go into him and dine with him” (Rev. 3:20). Union with Christ in Baptism and joining the Holy Church, according to the words of Apostle Peter, takes place following the “answer of a good conscience” of a person (1 Peter 3:21), in addition to, as St. Gregory the Theologian mused, “preparatory cleansing and virtues, forming within oneself the skill for doing good,” that is, Baptism is the decision to live according to the laws of Christ, with the firm desire to be freed from sinful captivity, and to overcome the evil in one’s own soul. Baptism is only the beginning of salvation, and everyone will have to take up their cross and follow in the footsteps of the Saviour, with reliance on His power and support in the work that was started with the revival of the “new Adam” in themselves.

As such, Bishop Michael Semenov writes about God’s help in the work of salvation: “The law of Christ is beyond the powers of natural man; it is much more difficult than the law of Moses, because it refines and strengthens its requirements. To realise it in our lives with our weak strength, that is so inclined to sin, is absolutely impossible. The law of Christ is designed exclusively to be upheld with the help of the grace-giving power of the Holy Spirit.” According to St. Cyril of Alexandria, Baptism is the image of the death of the old man, “who sacrifices himself to God and receives from God’s grace the power to do what human will cannot do alone.”

The grace given by God at Baptism cannot be completely removed from the soul; it can, according to Saint Cyprian of Carthage, only increase or decrease in response to our behaviour and actions, similar to, as we hear in the Gospel, the seed sown in different soils bearing different fruits.

In the mystery of Baptism, we become bearers of the Holy and Divine Name of Christ; we are called Christians who, supported by grace, become invincible, grafted onto the Eternal Grapevine, Christ. The baptised person accepts the name of a saint, as a promise to lead a life following Christ. We must bear this name with reverence and awe, preserving its purity, sanctity and dignity. The name of the baptised one must be justified by them, and the meaning of their life must be found in multiplying the seeds that the Sower has sown in His grace-filled mysteries.

Baptism obliges us to begin a new life in service to our neighbours and to God, and to forget ourselves, for, according to the Saviour’s words: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself” (Mark 8:34). Approaching the Baptism, the priest must make sure that, when the person enters the church, they are willing to live according to the laws of Christ, to be a child of God. Then, after praying to God, the priest tells the one wanting to be baptised to remove their clothes, which is symbolic for casting off the wicked life of the former person. Facing west, the person wanting to be baptised, expresses in both word and gesture a decisive rejection from satan, thereby rejecting his dark deeds and sin, and exhibits a firm intention to turn from the adversary and embrace God. After this, they are told to turn eastward, signifying their gazing at the Divine light, and distancing themselves from evil. Then, three times they are asked about their desire to devote themselves to Christ, thereby confessing their resolution to be numbered among the Christians, to withdraw from all evil, and to firmly and wholeheartedly aspire toward goodness and the fulfilment of God’s covenants. The priest then anoints the forehead and other parts of the person’s body three times with consecrated oil, making the sign of the Cross. According to the words of St. Gregory Palamas, this anointing is the mark which signifies “the preparation of the one ready to be baptised for sacred feats and, following in the footsteps of Christ, for the mysterious dying together with Him, and becoming dead to sin.”

After the anointing, the priest leads them to the font, and fully immerses them three times in the water in the Name of God, the Holy Trinity in three hypostases: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Water tends to cleanse filth. In Baptism, the soul is cleansed from sinful filth, because Christ, Who accepted the sins of the whole world, Himself plunged into the water at the time of His Baptism in the Jordan, and brought down the grace of the Most Holy Spirit onto the water. “He and His Spirit are within it, purifying and enlightening rational beings by grace,” says St. Gregory Palamas regarding Baptism. Therefore, the divine Apostle Paul writes: “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3: 27).

But if a person received Baptism without faith in Christ, but only as a formality or for the acquisition of certain worldly benefits, then, according to the words of St. Gregory, in Baptism, this man was washed only externally, and approaches the Baptism in vain, for he “was baptised, but was not enlightened in spirit”, according to the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. “The body was plunged into the water, and came out of the water, but the soul was not buried with Christ, and did not rise with Him, and the water for such remains water.”

Three complete immersions in water symbolise the burial or dying to sin, and the ascent – rising from our sinful fall, after the fashion of the resurrection of Christ, Who “died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God” (Rom. 6:10), according to the Apostle. The rising of the soul of man is the beginning of his new life, in which, according to the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “a man must be foreign to evil, and must hate vice.” At the same time, the sins one has committed before Baptism are removed from their soul; they cease to be part of its internal content, and are not imputed to them in the next age. Having received such a great gift from the Lord, a person who has received Baptism must sincerely and decisively change their life, which was previously led in sins and passions, and redirect their will to goodness.

When accepting Baptism, a person must understand its meaning. Baptism is the spiritual birth of a new person, which occurs by the faith of the one baptised. As the Lord Himself said, He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (Mk. 16:16). As such, a person receiving Baptism without faith is also condemned by the Lord. Deeply mistaken are those who regard the fulfilment of the mystery as a magical act, the result of which is unaffected by the will of the person.

Baptism is the beginning of a new life in Christ, in which the Lord gives His saving seal of grace only to those who have a “good conscience,” that is, those who make not only a verbal promise, but show a sincere desire to live according to the laws of goodness and purity. A person who freely and voluntarily chooses to be reborn in Baptism and to sin no more must actually fulfil his vows to God; and if this does not happen, then our vows to God not only do not aid us in achieving salvation, but further impel our condemnation – “better not to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccles. 5:4) – and, as Apostle Peter says, returning to a sinful life after Baptism is the return of a dog to its own vomit, and a washed pig to the mire (2 Peter 2:21). The Lord Himself says: “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). God, being alive and true, demands honest vows from us, and living faith, not dead, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

If a person approaches the mystery of Baptism with faith and repentance, then they are cleansed of all sins, but, as Venerable Mark the Ascetic writes: “To the firm believers, the Holy Spirit is granted immediately after Baptism; to the faithless and misbelievers, It is not given after Baptism.” And if a baptised person does not maintain the purity of their soul by leading a righteous Christian life, then what the Lord warns us of can happen to them: When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking peace, and finds none. Then he says ‘I will return to my house, from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first (Matt. 12:43-45).

It is crucial that the cleansing in Baptism be the pledge of a firm desire to be freed from sins, for, as St. Gregory the Theologian adds, “Baptism carries forgiveness of past, not of present sins (not those which still predominate in the soul); and its purification must not be played with, but be genuinely impressed upon you; you must be made perfectly bright, and not be merely coloured on the outside; you must receive the gift, not of a mere covering of your sins, but of a taking them clean away” (Oration 40).

Baptism is the voluntary acceptance of the cross of Christ upon ourselves, and the beginning of our way of life according to Christ. In the Church of Christ, everything is arranged so as to help a person to cleanse themselves of sin, and to work on their salvation, strengthening themselves with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly, evil spirits will hinder us on the path to salvation, but, with reliance on God’s grace, let us strive towards God with all our strength; let us be deemed worthy of the highest Christian calling and of the promised Kingdom, opened in Christ’s Baptism by His good will.

Hierarch Michael Semenov in his sermon “The Fruits of Baptism” says: “We cannot be sinless, but let us be vigilant. Let us cultivate our opposition to sin: instead of self-justification – self-condemnation; instead of self-pity – ruthlessness towards oneself, and mercilessness in the destruction of the evil contagions of the spirit; instead of “zemnost’” (earthliness) – striving for eternity, etc… In Baptism, the first victory over sin was won; many more victories are necessary in order to achieve salvation. Only when we firmly cast off the bonds of sin will we find peace and tranquillity of the spirit, whilst trusting in the help of God. Let us remember that God is Love, and that our Homeland is ahead of us.” Glory be to our God, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages! Amen.