|SEPTEMBER 2008||DEVOTIONAL MESSAGE||
REGENERATION THROUGH BAPTISM
The cited scripture portion from the Gospel according to St. John is quiet familiar to us. It has long been recognized by our Church fathers that the Gospel of John got great sacramental importance. It contains variety of statements, information and apparent revelation regarding the sacramental nature of Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Holy Confession of repentance, Holy unction of sick with oil etc. Among the more conspicuous and significant differences, John's Gospel involves strong logical pronouncements that are unlike the dictum of the Synoptic Gospels.
Jesus told the quoted verse to Nicodemus. In the prior portion of this verse, it has ascribed about the person Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and he asserted Jesus as Rabbi and told 'we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.' But Jesus did not want Him to be known as a leader who does miracles. Nicodemus desired to know about his own soul and its salvation from Jesus.
Who this Nicodemus was?
One of the important lessons we learn from the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus is that Nicodemus approached Jesus without any pre-judgment. If our approach to Jesus and His Church are with pre-conceived notion or foregone conclusion, it is impossible to adhere to the faith and doctrines of Christianity. A criticizing approach reaches us for an unfulfilled discipleship. When we involve with the sacramental experience, if we question or doubt the mysteries encompassed in it, we can never get the benefit of it in fullness. Mother Teresa had told that, “We can not love full heartedly those whom we criticize.” Being a great judge in the Sanhedrim Nicodemus had taken away all pre-judgment, pre-conceptions and apprehensions of the society and religion, before he decided to approach Jesus. He revealed a broadminded approach in search of the truth.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night. He was a disciple of Christ incognito-in secret, a better supporter to Christ than he would willingly be known to be. As per precedence in Jew’s school, the law is taught in the calm and silence of night. Nicodemus preferred a secret prayer without any worldly disturbances with Jesus. In the early Church, baptism was preferred to be conducted in the night of the Holy Saturday, the Eve of Easter. Baptism is an emergence to light. The sun of light is resurrected on the next day of Easter. Nicodemus nurtured a private secret relationship with Jesus though it was not expositive. He concealed his affection to Christ for fear of the Jews, lest they should put him out of the synagogue and out of the Sanhedrim. Chief priests were so enraged against Christ that they made it a rule that any body who followed Jesus will be an outcaste. We are aware of the same fear in the parents of Bartimaeus, the blind. So Nicodemus was a man who searched for the light of truth in the pitch darkness.
Another theme of this discourse is that of 'Born Again' experience. As per the synonymous Greek word, it got three meanings: 1. Basic Change; 2. Again; 3. From the high or from God. As a Scholar, Nicodemus knew that an aged man's habits are deep rooted and he cannot undergo a basic change. So he preferred to take the second meaning. That is why he pleaded to Jesus; "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" We can get many explanations for the meaning of this text across the scripture. Having confirmed of the rebirth as a linkage in relation with Jesus, Apostle St. Peter goes on to describe that according to His abundant mercy God had begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fade not away, reserved in heaven for us. [1 Peter 1:3-5] Again we read in verse 23: 'For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.'
St. James says that we are born again by the living word of God. [St. James 1:18] St. Paul says of it that the Mercy of God saves us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. [Titus 3:6] Again he says in his Epistle to Romans that we are baptized to become partakers in His death. [Romans 6:3] These all scripture verses signify that an immersion and rising up is the basic foundation of baptism. As Baptism is death with Christ and resurrection with Him, through it the believer is granted the blessings of salvation that is accomplished by the death of Christ on the Cross and His resurrection on the third day. The natural method of cleansing the body by washing and bathing in water was always customary in Israel. It was a religious ablution signifying purification or consecration and part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. Baptism was practiced in ancient Judaism, first as a means of penitence. The Greek also was aware of this washing. So the concept of regeneration was prevailing in both Hebrews and Greek. To be born again is to be born of the Spirit. It is essentially regeneration by the Spirit, which is signified by washing with water, as the visible sign of that spiritual grace.
This new creation is that in Holy Spirit and not in the flesh. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. The experience of this new creation is the restoration to the purity of a newborn man. Just as God is the real cause in the birth of the body, so also is He the Creator of the New Spirit; and just as no one know whence the wind comes, or where it goes, yet all can feel its effects who come under its influence, so is it with the rebirth. It is the sanctification of the Spirit [1 Pt. 1:2] and renewing of the Holy Ghost. [Tit. 3:5]
It is worth to note that the regeneration take place in righteousness. That righteousness is the close relation between man and God. The relationship between God and man is broken by the fall of man in Eden and that between man and man is ruptured by the injustice of Cain to his brother. Relationship between God and man, and the relationship between man and man, both are being regenerated through the baptism. Both are based on the basic attribute of love. The corrupt nature, which is flesh, takes rise from our first birth; and therefore the new nature, which is spirit, must take rise from a second birth. This regeneration is initiated by God and not by man. Just as the first creation was from water and spirit, so also the new creation is from water and spirit; the Baptismal water upon which dwells, the Holy Spirit.
Through the regeneration of Baptism we inherit three distinct experiences.
Age is not a bar for the choice and grace of God. As per the covenant with God, Abraham and the entire family got circumcised, irrespective of age. The covenant, which Abraham and his seed must keep, is a sign and seal of Grace and it is everlasting. Our fathers, that is, the ancestors of Jews were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food. [1 Corinth 10:2] The king of the earth had established the Church and entering the Church is synonymous to entering the Kingdom of God on the earth. Also the Church is the mode of a Paradise. The Grace of God blessed Jeremiah, Isaiah and John the Baptist while they were in the womb of their mother. Then why the children cannot experience the Grace of God after they are born to this world? The early Church father Cyprian had recorded that children born to the believers should be baptized at the earliest possible. The change is not wrought by any wisdom or power of our own, but by the power and influence of the blessed Spirit of grace. To admire the height and depth of the doctrine of Christ we should realize that these are great mysteries of godliness. The mysteries in the gospel are heavenly matters, out of the route of the enquiries of human reason, and much more out of the reach of his discoveries.
He who is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned. Baptism is a redemptive Sacrament, necessary for redemption and entry to eternal life. We can ensure the Kingdom of God on this earth only by humiliating ourselves to the will of God. Entry to the Kingdom of God is the choice of God and not our self-choice. After entering the Church, we become partakers of the Holy Communion. Sacramental performances nourish the spirit and it cause for sonship and prepare us on the foundation of apostolic faith. We should dedicate our life so that God should work through us and by the time passes we should perfect in fullness of Christ. But this new birth has its rise from heaven and its tendency is to heaven. Our Soul must be re-modeled and molded in order that the natural man must become a spiritual man.
[Extract from Devotional Message delivered at Chengaroor Convention 2008
Original in Malayalam : Translated for LOL by Editor Dr. Rajan Mathew Philadelphia, USA]
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