A Sermon by Rev. Michael Gladish
“Most assuredly,” Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Baptism is a sign. It is a symbol, a token, a reminder, a representative act that bears witness of a deeper reality. It is not the cause of anything spiritual, it is an effect, a result of a person’s determination to enter into the life and teaching of the Christian religion (or, in the case of a child, a person’s determination to introduce the child into that life and teaching).
So the ritual of baptism is said to be “like a gate,” not a gate that opens or closes the way to spiritual life, but one that marks a person’s entrance into it through the commitment to learn and practice spiritual principles. That commitment is open to everyone, and it certainly is a valid one for any parent to make for his or her child.
Imagine, if you will, a great stone arch like l’Arc de Triomphe or the Prince’s Gate down here at “the Ex.” These are ceremonial gates, and if you walk through them you will not automatically be-come someone different than you were before. But when you walk through them you may have a feeling of entering into a new or special world, enjoying a new experience, or reliving the experience of those for whom the arch was built. Certainly as you pass through such an arch you will be aware that you are making a statement: “Now I am going THIS way; now I am doing something special.” It’s a point of reference. You notice it. You remember it. And you think about the things it represents.
So it is with baptism. In itself the act is very simple, in fact nothing could be simpler or more routine. The word itself means washing, or dipping in water, and we do this every day of our lives, often many times a day. Babies, especially, have to be wiped and washed constantly (for obvious reasons). And yet this particular ceremonial washing stands out just as walking through a special gate stands out from the regular walking we do every day.
And what does it mean? The doctrines of this church make it very clear – but they also say that without a knowledge of the spiritual sense of the Word it’s not clear. So, many people go through the act of baptism knowing that it means something special, knowing that it is a gate of entrance, but not knowing why or how. But it’s simple: water represents the knowledge of truth, in fact it corresponds to the knowledge of truth, which means that the knowledge of truth does for the spirit exactly the same things that water does for the body: it nourishes, cleanses outwardly and also provides for purification inwardly. The application of water does not cleanse the spirit, but in cleansing the body it represents the cleansing of the spirit, which is the real point of baptism.
Once we see this we can understand that baptism as a gate of entrance is a ceremonial introduction to the specific teachings of the church in which the baptism takes place, just as l’Arc de Triomphe leads into the Champs-Elysees or the Prince’s Gate leads into “the Ex.”
In this case the gate of entrance leads into a whole wonderful world of new knowledge revealed by the Lord that we might understand and live the Christian religion in its true essence, as a matter of spiritual freedom and rationality, rather than mere custom and tradition. It is like one of the symbolic gates of the New Jerusalem described by John in the book of Revelation. It opens up into a fabulous city all of gold and full of light, with streets and walls as clear as crystal, representing the enlightenment of the mind through the understanding of the truth and how it works in the everyday affairs of life. But we don’t get this enlightenment, we don’t get this understanding unless we enter into it through the gate of knowledge, in fact the gate of acknowledgment which involves the application of the truth that is known to one’s own life.
In describing this situation, the Writings introduce a comparison of the different uses served by the TWO sacraments, baptism and the holy supper. Both are said to introduce people to everlasting life, but the first introduces to the teachings that can take us there, the second actually invites us in. We read,
“These two stages can be compared with the case of a prince who is born to be king; he is first introduced to the knowledge which will enable him to govern; the second stage is his coronation and reign. Another comparison is with a son born to a great inheritance, who first learns and absorbs the sorts of things which are relevant to the proper management of estates and wealth; the second stage is when he comes into possession and administers his inheritance. Another comparison is with building a house and living in it; also with the way a person is brought up from childhood until he comes of an age to make his own decisions and judgments, and with his rational and spiritual life after this. One period must inevitably precede in order to achieve the second, since the second is impossible without the first. These illustrations show that baptism and the holy supper are as it were two gates through which a person is introduced to everlasting life; and after the first gate there is an open space to be covered. The second gate is the goal, where the prize is which he set out to win; for the victory comes only after the encounter, and the prize only after the contest” (TCR 721:2).
Next week we will review more of the teaching about how the holy supper introduces into heaven itself; here we note simply that it has more to do with the experience of the Lord’s love than of His truth, thus more to do with living than with learning.
Meanwhile, it is worth considering that each of the gates in the vision of the New Jerusalem was made of a single pearl. It is hard to visualize a pearl as a gate, especially when we know that it is not a door, as such, but a doorway, that is, a passageway like the arches mentioned earlier. Maybe instead of thinking about it as a solid gate we can picture the pearl in the vision as a sort of hologram, a real thing filling a real space but composed of LIGHT reflecting the qualities of a pearl rather than a solid structure that would form a barrier to those entering. Indeed, seen in this way the passages in Revelation describing the scene might take on new meaning as we read,
“…(T)he city had no need of the sun or the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it, and the Lamb is its light. And the nations of those who are saved shall walk INTO its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (and there shall be no night there)” (Rev. 21:23-25).
Certainly we know from the Writings that the pearl of great price is the acknowledgment of the Divine authority of the Lord. This can never be an obstacle to anyone who is entering into the light. In fact, to acknowledge this is to enter through the pearl, like walking through a crystal ball, into another dimension where everything is light – and love, and the fulfillment of a meaningful relationship with God.
But now we are not in the spiritual world – at least not consciously, and so we may wonder how a ritual of washing can be so significant and so important as a gate. Surely if we are going to learn the truth we can learn it without getting baptized! If we are going to enter into life according to the truth we can do so without having a ceremony to mark the occasion. Indeed, to some the whole thing may seem rather presumptuous, like the Pharisees of the New Testament hiring someone to sound a trumpet ahead of them as they walked through the city giving alms to the poor. Wouldn’t it be better just to learn and do what’s right, or in the case of children to teach them by example, and NOT make such a big deal of the promise to do so? After all, who says we will be successful? Who says we will be able to fulfill the commitment before we try? (The last thing we may want to do is set up an impossible goal and then look like hypocrites when we fail.)
The Lord even told a couple of parables about this, saying,
“…(W)hoever does not bear His cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27-33).
But these questions, these doubts about the outcome are some of the very reasons for baptism. (Incidentally, they are also good reasons to come forward for adult confirmation of baptism. For by these signs we commit in such a public way, and with the benefit of such powerful symbolism, that we attract the very affirmation and spiritual support we need to get the job done. It’s like a contract or a business commitment: we may know very well what we intend to do, and we may know what we expect from the other party, but we still almost always sign the documents describing the commitment so that it can be verified and confirmed whenever doubts arise. This signature is like the sign and seal of baptism: it doesn’t really guarantee anything, but it brings the force of what the Writings call “ultimates” into the equation.
“Ultimates” are all external, natural, material things and the actions that go with them. They are the chemical elements, the physical substances, the circumstances, words and deeds that form the lowest or most basic, outer shell of life. While it may seem that this outer shell is the least important of all things, and certainly less important than the spiritual elements within, there is a sense in which it is actually more important than everything else, and even more holy, because it embodies all the internal things and gives them form (AC 9824:2). Of course, an external form may not appear to embody the things contained within, especially in cases of hypocrisy, but one way or another it always does. And the form holds them all together, giving them a basis or a foundation in what we often call “the real world” as distinct from the world of mental abstractions.
It is good, for example, to feel kindly disposed toward someone in need. But it is always better and more fulfilling to act on that disposition by doing something kind for her. Again, to illustrate by contrast, it is bad to feel anger and jealousy toward someone who has done no wrong, but it is even worse to act on that anger by doing something harmful. Why? Not just because this hurts others but also because it confirms and establishes the feelings even more deeply within ourselves, giving them a place to thrive, like worms in rotting compost.
So the “ultimates” or physical circumstances of our lives help us modify and define our character. They also give others a basis for relating to us, or making judgments about us.
In regard to baptism what this means is that the external act contains, confirms and strengthens the commitment. It also sends a clear message to the people around us that there IS a commitment, something that might well be in doubt until the ritual takes place. And this in turn attracts the support even of the angels in the spiritual world, who identify through bonds of love and wisdom with our act. Let’s face it, we are not going to have an easy time forsaking all that we have to be the Lord’s disciples!
But why baptism (washing) instead of a handshake or a signature, anointing with oil, or some other ritual such as the Jews had with circumcision and other cultures have with smoke or fire? Why not a ring or a tattoo, or why not just lay hands on the child’s head and say a blessing?
The answer, as it was so neatly summarized in our third lesson, is that water corresponds to truth. So with the natural application of water in a cleansing rite there is a complex and powerful foundation for the thought of people here on earth and in heaven about the spiritual application of truth. Furthermore water covers 70% of the surface of the earth and is essential for human life on the planet. So the rite of baptism is readily accessible to all people, and it is easy to do. Indeed, it represents how readily accessible the Lord makes His truth, and how easy for us to apply.
Still, what if we commit through baptism, and then fail? What if, after passing through this gate of entrance, we turn back and go some other way? It happens of course. Are we then worse off than we were before? Do we then invalidate the act itself or take the name of God in vain? Well, maybe, but not necessarily. It all depends on where we have come and how much we have been able to integrate into our whole lives. Remember, the act of baptism represents a commitment to learn, and through the learning to acknowledge and follow the Lord. If we do this we are regenerated by the Lord, but if we don’t do it we are not regenerated. In a sense nothing is lost, but then again, nothing of heavenly life is gained – except perhaps some remnants from the early stages of the commitment – which all help! But in such cases the act of baptism isn’t much more than a symbol of what might have been, or of what could be for others. It still serves a use, but not for the one who turns aside from what it represents.
Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
To be born of water is to live according to the truth. To be born of the spirit is to live according to the understanding of it. May the children who have been baptized today grow strong and wise in these two heavenly blessings, even as their parents love and learn to guide them from the Lord. And may the rest of us enjoy the privilege of giving our support, not only to these parents, but to each other as we continue in our efforts to fulfill the promise of eternal life that God has given to us all.