Well, here we are in “deep Lent” – next Sunday is Palm Sunday already! Then we’ll be walking through Holy Week, which is just full of opportunities to meditate on the sufferings of Christ on the cross. And then we’ll reach the goal of this Lenten season: the shocking events of Good Friday, the solemn vigil-keeping of Holy Saturday, and the glorious celebration of Easter Sunday.
Looking back at where we’ve been these past few weeks, we’ve explored three different layers of the sacrament of Baptism – remembering that sacraments are like onions: they’re made of layers. First we looked at how Baptism is a source of hope, rooted in God’s covenantal promises; second we looked at how this entrance into the new covenant pits us against the spiritual forces of darkness, so Baptism becomes a preparation for suffering; and last week we looked at how Baptism, more positively, is the beginning of a new life. Now, lastly, I want to lead us in a look at how Baptism links us to Christ. Last week, in particular, I mentioned how we’re Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, starting out this new life, but now I would like to dwell on that mysterious link between Christ and ourselves that results.
The way I’d like to approach this is three movements: first just looking at the overarching narrative provided by the three readings this morning, then looking at what those texts tell us about the present Baptismal reality, and then wrap it up with what those texts instruct us about our Baptismal call.
The Biblical Narrative
The situation by chapter 31 in Jeremiah is actually quite grim. Jeremiah has been prophesying impending doom for Jerusalem for quite a while. He’s even written a letter to the first group of exiles in Babylon telling them to settle down and pray for the prosperity of their conqueror, because they’re going to be there for a long time. And in the meantime, he’s urging the people still in Jerusalem to surrender now, while they still can. Tantamount to treason, if these words weren’t from God! But here in chapter 31, Jeremiah’s finally getting to the good news: God will bring his people home and initiate a new covenant with them.
To best appreciate this, we should remind ourselves what the Old Covenant in the Law of Moses was like. God lived among his people in a special place: over the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, this was a huge step up from the situation that Noah and Abraham and the rest of the Patriarchs had, where they had nowhere to go to be with God – they simply had to trust in God’s presence purely by faith. But on the other hand, God’s special presence in the Temple was not universally accessible – only the priests could serve in the Temple and only the High Priest could enter that inner sanctum, and even he only once a year! So in this system, the priests were literally closer to God than the rest of the people. Therefore they had higher standards of holiness by Law, and that’s how they were qualified to pass on God’s blessings to the rest of the people.
Also, by simple virtue of the fact that there was a Law and a holy priesthood apart from the rest of the people, there was a lot of ceremony and ritual that was tied up with knowing God. To use modern language, you had to know the liturgy to know God back then. Therefore the priests were also a necessary class of teachers and worship leaders under that covenant. So what we see in verse 34 about people no longer teaching “Know the Lord” is a promise of a new covenant in which God will be equally accessible to all of God’s people without the use of a mere human priesthood.
Now I say “mere human priesthood” because our new covenant still does have a high priest: Jesus, son of God, son of Mary, both human and divine. In Hebrews 5 we saw some description of this. Jesus was chosen by His Father to be a high priest forever. His prayers, his supplications, and his sacrifices are perfect. So perfect, in fact, that he only had to offer one sacrifice to effect salvation for the entire human race!
That sacrifice, of course, was himself. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus stated ahead of time that this would be the case. He was “lifted up” on the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And by atoning for the sins of the whole world, he undid all the work the devil had done in wrecking this world. In this sense, Satan was ousted from his throne over the world. Not fully destroyed, though, as we can see by the fact that sin & death still exist, but the blessing of salvation has been made available where it was once was not!
Furthermore, as Jesus says in verse 32, he drew “all people” to himself on the cross. This doesn’t mean that everybody enters into his salvation, but that the human race as a whole is brought in contact with himself in a mystical (or spiritual) way. Only those who love & obey him will follow him into everlasting life, but what he did on the cross did bring about a comingling of humanity and divinity – God’s being and our being were brought into contact not just in the physical body of Jesus, but also in the mystical body of Jesus. This comingling is represented by mixing a little water into the wine when we celebrate Eucharist, and we literally participate in this comingling when we receive the elements.
But I promised a sermon on Baptism, not Communion. So let’s take a look at what these passages say about the Baptismal reality – our Baptismal character – what changed when we were baptized.
The Baptismal Reality
Jeremiah 31 describes some of the benefits of the New Covenant into which we have since been baptized. Read verse 33. First of all, the Law is written on our hearts. Yes, we still have the Law of Moses in the Bible, and it teaches us a great many useful and valuable things, and it is still the unbreakable word of God, but, as I was saying last week, we are free from its condemnation. The Law of the New Covenant is the Law of Christ, which is written in our hearts instead of on paper or stone. This is describing the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Rather than being left to our own devices trying to obey a written code, God empowers us with His own Spirit to live for Him!
The presence of the Holy Spirit within us is also the underlying truth in the beginning of the next verse. Read verse 34a. By “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor” it doesn’t mean that we now know everything we need to know. It clarifies that we don’t have to say “’know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.” What it’s talking about is introducing us to God. Back then people would enter into the covenant by circumcision and still not receive any special presence of God – they had to be taught to know God. But in Baptism, we are introduced to God in that very rite!
And last, but certainly not least, the end of verse 34 promises that God will forgive our iniquity and will remember our sin no more. As it says in the Creed, we believe in one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This we also briefly explored last week: we go into the water of baptism, meet the Cross of Christ down there, and leave all our sins behind as we rise up in new life!
Baptism, thus, is the sacrament that connects us up with Jesus’ High Priestly sacrifice. And check this out: every Christian is Baptized, as opposed to before when only the boys would be circumcised. We all are linked to Christ in the same way, with the same power, with no distinction – nobody stands between us and our High Priest. That makes all of us priests along with him. You’ve heard the popular phrase “a royal priesthood” that pops up in a couple places throughout the Bible? That describes all of us!
This creates some terrible confusion in English-speaking Catholic Christianity, because we have two different usages of the word ‘priest.’ In the original Greek New Testament the difference is clear, as it is in most other languages too. The Old Covenant priest who functions as an intermediary is a hierous, related to our word ‘hierarch.’ That is the priesthood that every Christian belongs to. The New Testament priest that we talk about in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism is a presbyteros, yielding our word ‘presbyter’ and morphed over time: preost, prest, priest. Most English Bibles today translate this as ‘elder.’ Many Protestant objections to the traditional Catholic priesthood are due to not knowing this annoying little word problem.
Back to Jesus as our new High Priest, what we read in Hebrews 5 informs us that unlike all the other High Priests in the Old Covenant, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was perfectly effective! It doesn’t have to be repeated every year, or ever; his work is done. And with all of us as his hierous priests, we can directly enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice from our Baptism on.
John 12 gives us even more description of our baptismal state. When Jesus “drew all people unto himself,” one mystical body was created. Our Baptism unites us to him in that death and resurrection; it makes us ‘members of the body.’ As members of his body, we get the benefits of his perfection, his sinlessness, and his divinity! Some of these benefits are eternal life (v25), the assurance that Christ will always be with us (v26), and that God will honor the work we do for Him (v26).
The Baptismal Call
Of course, it wouldn’t do simply to talk about what Baptism is and what it does to us without also talking about what Baptism calls us to do. Purpose is always rooted in identity – what something is informs what something is for. Let’s take one last look at our three passages to see what they say about our purpose as Baptized Christians.
In Jeremiah 31 we read that in the New Covenant we would all know God – nobody would have to introduce us to Him; we’ve already met in Baptism! The most basic thing we get out of this is the invitation to get to know God better. One of the main aspects of Christian life is that of adoption: because we are “in Christ,” we’re adopted into his family. Jesus is like our older brother, the firstborn of all creation. Naturally, then, Jesus’ Father becomes our Father. And Jesus’ mother becomes our mother. One of the Church’s traditional titles for Mary is “Mother of the Faithful,” and this is a major reason for that. I don’t want to digress too far on this topic, but it does merit a brief explanation at this point.
Very quickly in the Early Church, a lot of veneration and respect for Mary arose, and a number of doctrines grew out of this over time. Some of them, like this “Mother of the Faithful” concept, are clearly grounded in Apostolic teaching in scripture, but others, like her perpetual virginity, are not so clearly attested in the Bible. During the Protestant Reformation, all of these Marian doctrines were put under more and more scrutiny, and what was found to be unbiblical was ultimately thrown out. Unfortunately it went so far that most Protestants today have no place for Mary in their teachings. So for those of you who are curious about Mary’s proper place in Christian tradition, and how she might be properly honored and remembered, I commend this role as “Mother of the Faithful.” As we are in Christ, so we receive Mary as a spiritual mother. This doesn’t make her equal to God our spiritual Father, but it does beautifully illustrate how God used humans to redeem humans. And by the way, today is March 25th… what’s in 9 months? Christmas! If it weren’t for the fact that today’s Sunday, today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel told Mary that she was chosen to bear the Messiah, and she accepted God’s calling. All this to say – getting to know and honoring our spiritual family is one way to live out our Baptismal call.
The author of the book of Hebrews gives us a very different set of instructions based on our Baptism. In verse 9 it mentions that Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…” Simply being Baptized isn’t enough – it’s not a magical rite that gives us a Go To Heaven Free card; we have to obey Christ too. Since the major image in this passage is Jesus as our new High Priest, the contrast I think the author is going for here is that we have to follow the Law of Christ rather than the Law of Moses. Our shared hierous priesthood with him means that we have to participate with him – we must follow the same law, we must share in his prayers, we must share in his sacrifice. To put it differently, we must live the same as he, we must have the same heart as he, and we must worship in tandem with him. As we prepare to receive the Eucharist in a few minutes, consider this link – his one-time sacrifice on the cross is the sacrifice in which we participate when we celebrate Communion together.
The Gospel reading elaborates on this idea of participating with Christ as well. John here talks less about Christ’s sacrifice and more about how he lived his life. We must “hate” our lives and follow Christ, or die to ourselves and live for Christ. This doesn’t mean that we actually have to despise ourselves and this world – it’s a language of contrast, sometimes known as Jewish hyperbole. We must hate our lives in this world in comparison to our life in Christ. This should make perfect sense if we’ve been linked to Christ in Baptism – if we’ve left behind the world of sin, futility, and death, why should we ever desire to return to it? So even though a lot of this message is about ‘works’ – following Christ, doing good, living like he did, and obeying his commands – it’s really about love. Do we love our adopted spiritual family? If we do, we’ll honor one another and live for one another; and since God is the head of this family we’ll do our best to follow his lead rather than our own.
And, as in all things, there is a purpose for these Baptismal callings. John records Jesus’ promises in verse 26 that God will honor us if we serve him. And if you look at the language in verses 27-33, you’ll find that because we are linked to Christ, and Christ has defeated sin and death on the cross, we reenact His victory in our own acts of self-denial and obedience. That’s what we mean by “Christ reigns in us.” It’s not a simple matter of our mindless subjection to him, but opening ourselves up to the treasure of His victory that He desires to share with all of us!
Now, I fully acknowledge that this is all easier said than done. The spiritual forces of evil in this world are still working very hard to pull us away from this union with Christ, and encourage us to mock God and His family – our family. And by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, one of our best weapons is prayer. So I’m going to close with today’s Collect; it’s in the bulletin, and you may want to take it home and stick it on your fridge if you find it helpful.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise:
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.