Baptism & Participation: A Sermon

 

by The Rev. Canon Glenn Spencer

Rector, All Saints Anglican Church

 “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…”  

II Peter 1:4

 

“Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning…and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” James 1:17

 

“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2

We continue our exploration of God’s finality for man, which is to grow into the title Christ and his Church has bestowed upon members of his Church, namely, that we are the children of God. I think the reality is that we take identifying titles like “I am an American,” or “I am a Virginian,” or “I am French,” far more earnestly that we take the identity that Jesus himself bestowed upon us when he gave us the prayer that begins with the words, “Our Father…” If we take Jesus seriously when he says, “This is my body;” if we believe him when he showed his disciples his hands and his feet and encouraged them to touch his resurrected body — I could go on listings what we take to be the realities of Jesus’ life — if we believe the Creeds should we not take it seriously when he speaks to Mary just outside the empty tomb?

 

 “… Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” 

John 20:17

 

You can be sure that the earliest Church believed the title “children of God,” to be so radical a change in their state of being that many of them were quite prepared to dispense with Israel entirely. On the other hand there were those Paul identified as the “circumcision,” Jewish Christians who affirmed the reality that through Jesus we are the children of God, but  these Jewish Christians also said that you have to be a Jew first and only then may one become of child of God. It took the Church considerable time to work this out through the ministry of St. Paul. As we saw in our study of Romans St. Paul showed the Church that God’s grace has not destroyed Israel, but rather Jesus the Messiah has perfected the Israel of God by assuming Israel’s life into his life, that is by substituting his life for Israel’s life, by recapitulating Israel and then bequeathing all the perfected promises to his Bride the Church. And those perfected promises are, among other realities, the means of grace, the sacraments of the Church. This is what Peter is referring to when he writes:

 

“He (God) has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…”  II Peter 1:4

 

What I am encouraging you to do is to take a sober and critical look at how you use the language of the Church, especially when it come to the universally received recognition, naming, identifying, and distinguishing of those baptized into Jesus as “children of God.” Our resurrected Lord himself, as we see in his commission to Mary Magdalene, reinforces this reality on the morning of his resurrection: the radicalized state of being of the baptized is to have God the Father as our Father and to have Jesus the Messiah as our sibling.  The author of the Hebrews underlines what for the Church of the New Testament is indispensable and catholic:

 

 “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers…” Hebrews 2: 10 & 11

 

This is brought to fruition for us by St. Athanasius in The Incarnation of the Word. I say that St. Athanasius brought it to fruition for us because he underlines not only here, but throughout his writings, what is clearly common life and common prayer for the early Church. In The Incarnation of the Word he wrote:

 

“For he was made man that we might be made God; and he manifested Himself in a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”

 

And then again Athanasius writing to Bishop Adelphius a letter against the Arians summed up the mystery and the effect of the Incarnation:

 

“For he has become man, that he might deify you in himself, and he has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote.”

 

And again we can see God’s finality for man in the Church’s common prayer, her common language, as Athanasius writes that if the Word was not truly Incarnated, if Jesus was not really flesh of Mary’s flesh, then we are not saved. This is the way he said it:

 

“Who would not admire this? (The eternal, immutable God, ‘the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning,’ humbling himself to become a finite, mutable, dependent creature who could die.) For if the works of the Word’s Godhead had not taken place through the body, man would not be deified.” (Discourse III, 31)

 

Everything that matters to Jesus, everything that matters to Paul and Peter and Athanasius and the whole Church is completely dependent on the Incarnation. Our connection to the Son is intimate; our relation to Jesus is the pearl of great price because he has, like us, in devoted solidarity with us, become a partaker of our flesh and blood. And that very thing was accomplished in the Incarnation through the flesh of his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. God has become flesh of our flesh and thus we have a true connection, a material connection, a cherished connection in the flesh we share with Jesus. This is reality: our very human nature, body and all that once hung upon the Cross, this day participates in the interior life of God the blessed Trinity. Human nature, body and all, has been assumed into the life of God, taken up into the life of the God who is God, without annihilating Jesus’ human nature. It makes all the difference that you understand what I have said — specifically two points. First of all the Incarnation is the event in which the Word of the Father entered into the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and as Athanasius put it, to the end that our flesh “being knit into the Word from heaven, may be carried into heaven by the Word.” What I want to you understand is that the flesh that Word assumed into his divine life was the flesh of Mary, the Mother of God. The flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, his human nature, came from his Mother. His flesh was not created out of nothing by fiat outside the body of Mary and then placed in her womb, as some people have taught in the past. Absolutely any understanding of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ that invalidates Mary’s title as the Holy Theotokos, the Holy Mother of God, is not Christian. 

 

It is because human nature, body and all, has been assumed into the life of God, that we human beings may now participate in the life of God. And this is where the second point is crucial: The human nature that our Lord Jesus Christ receive from the Blessed Virgin Mary even after his humanity was assumed, even after his crucifixion, even after his resurrection, even after his Ascension remains true human nature: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Grace perfects nature. The flesh of our Lord, his humanity, was perfected by being knit into the life of the Word; by participation in the life of the Word all the wounds of the Fall were healed — but Jesus’ humanity was not made more than human nor was he made less than human. Grace perfects nature, grace perfects human nature, grace does not annihilate human nature and that divine principle shined the brightest when the Word was made Flesh. 

 

This is all about our participation in the life of God, or as Peter put it our partaking of the divine nature and that brings us to the understanding of what grace is. As I have said when I was growing up we were taught that grace is unmerited favor; the free and undeserved help that God gave us in order that we might respond to his call be to his children. Though that is partially correct, I want to give you another understanding of grace that is not so utilitarian and that is grace as a state of being: Grace is participation in the life of God. To be in a state of grace is to be participating in the life of the God who is God which is equivalent to participating in eternal life. And the way that happens is receiving the good and perfects gifts that come down from the Father of Lights. 

 

How does that happen, how do we appropriate the good and perfect gifts of God? The way we normally begin to participate in the life of God is though our incorporation into the human nature of Jesus Christ. This is why it is so important that the human nature of Christ remains human nature. The very first thing necessary for our incorporation into the human nature of Jesus Christ is that he is one Person with two natures — both God and man. We are incorporated into the human nature of Christ in order to participate in the divine nature. How are we incorporated into the human nature of Jesus Christ? The way we are normally incorporated into the human nature of Jesus Christ is through Holy Baptism and once incorporated we are nurtured in the Church as we appropriate the other sacraments especially the Holy Communion. The sacraments are instruments that infuse and nurture a state of grace. 

 

I was raised in a church that had such a low view of humanity, because of their belief in total depravity, that one came to see sin as a constituent, an essential part, not far practically as being a faculty of our nature. It is impossible for human nature that is so depraved, so attached to sin, to participate in the divine nature, the life of God. Furthermore, from that point-of-view actual sin is  unavoidable for Christians just as much as it is unavoidable for anyone else. But that is not true, sin is not an elemental part of humanity and for those who are in Christ, baptized into Christ and infused with heavenly virtues — those most certainly do not have to sin. Human nature is not “sin-nature,” so when I say that, “Grace perfects nature without destroying nature,” I mean that our participation in the life of God perfects our human nature and being “more than conquerers” of sin is not perfecting our nature, it is eliminating the unnatural so that nature may be perfected. Grace does not make us something other, either more or less, than human beings.  It enables us to achieve our full potential as human beings.

 

We have to have some way in, some access to the Holy Other of the Divine Life and our Lord’s human nature is our way in. This is what is meant by salvation, this is what is meant by deification, this is what is frequently meant by sanctification and holiness. Salvation is not merely salvation from sins. Salvation in the most complete sense of the word means to be made whole, to grow into our full potential as human beings, to realize our destiny as deified creatures bound for the beatific vision, meant to behold God face-to-face, to see and to worship the God who is God through the eyes and the sacred heart of God himself. That is our true beatitude, our true happiness, our portion as human beings, the perfection of our nature by grace.