The Grace of Baptism - Sermon on the Sunday after Theophany (2024)

The Grace of Baptism - Sermon on the Sunday after Theophany (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).  Beloved, we have spent the first couple weeks of the new year celebrating the beginning of Christ’s march against the devil and his works. The Church offers us these bright feasts now to start the new year off in triumph. We celebrate Christ’s victories in his incarnation and baptism to be correctly oriented for this new year. If we got carried away with the festivities, if we lost our spiritual sobriety, lost our tempers, lost our patience, or perhaps if we’re still stuck in the temptations that haven’t ended from last year, we’re given an opportunity to look again toward the Christ, the chief captain of our salvation as He marches on before us.

A few weeks ago we celebrated Christ’s Nativity. Here begins His fight with the devil. The world was subject to the devil and his minions because of sin. In Christ’s birth, we celebrate the divine infiltration into enemy territory. St. Ignatius the God-bearer tells us that the virgin birth was hidden from the devil. It was for this reason the Theotokos was betrothed to Joseph, not just so that other humans would not be scandalized at an unwed mother, but so that the devil wouldn’t know Isaiah’s prophesy about the virgin birth was being fulfilled there and then. In Christmas we celebrate Christ arriving behind enemy lines.

Christ came on earth that was held captive to the devil. As a young child, he slew the gods of Egypt. And now we are in the midst of Theophany, we celebrate Christ’s baptism. He was baptized to wash away the fall of Adam, to cleanse humanity of sin, and to sanctify the waters. He came to drive the demons out of the water as well. The next thing He does after cleansing fallen man and expelling the demons from the water, He chases the demons out of their lair—the barren desert.

Yesterday we read in the Gospel how Christ fasted for 40 days and nights and was tempted by the devil in the desert. Here Christ undoes Adam and Eve’s fall. He did what they failed to do—He was obedient to His Father. He took with Him the weapons of prayer and fasting and overcame the devil. It only after Christ has invaded enemy territory, cast down the idols of Egypt, cleansed humanity of sin and beat the devil in his own turf that He begins His public ministry in earnest. St. Gregory Palamas writes of this victory march, if you will, after Christ’s temptation in the wilderness:

[The devil] fled away shamefully beaten and Christ ceaselessly pursued him, chasing him out of demoniacs, healing diseased people in his power and raising the dead…He also expelled him from people’s souls by preaching repentance and showing that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He led souls towards faith and a way of life opposed to the enemy, transforming sinners and receiving them. Moreover, He gave His disciples power against demons.

This brings us to today’s Gospel. It is truly the good news. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, in case you missed it. God Himself has come and He’s already delivering fallen man from captivity to the enemy and relentlessly pursuing the devil all the way to the cross and hell itself. Beloved, this is the good news that Christ is bringing to us this day.

But in the meantime, life goes on. Some of us make new year’s resolutions and perhaps have already broken them and given up. Some of us haven’t even bothered, perhaps out of cynicism, perhaps because they take seriously making a good beginning each day. I find it appropriate that Christ’s baptism should be celebrated now. The beginning of Christ’s public ministry marks the beginning of the year.

But more than that, it’s appropriate to start the year off with Christ’s baptism because we need to be reminded of our baptism. St. Paul tells us, Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). It is in baptism that our sins are forgiven, we are given the grace of the Holy Spirit and united to Christ. The virtues that we struggle for in the Christian life are not given to us just through force of will. We don’t have the ability or the will to become good people on our own. It is Baptism that gives us the grace to struggle for and receive all the virtues. It is from the grace of baptism that we receive every grace we experience in the Christian life. The grace to overcome sin, the grace to become gods is given to us at baptism, if only we cooperate. And if we have discarded the  fruits of the Spirit that perhaps have grown up in us, if we have ripped up their vines and torn up the field of our hearts and completely buried the precious pearl of grace that was given us, let us not despair. The grace of baptism is indelible. It will not leave us no matter what we do. The grace of baptism does not even leave apostates who fall away from Orthodoxy until their deaths, that’s how powerful it is. At any moment, they can repent and the grace that was given them in baptism can start its work anew.

One final note about grace. Bishop Aimilianos of Australia, himself the spiritual son of Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, says that whatever experiences of grace we have in this life—whether its heightened attentiveness or experiences in prayer, or an overwhelming sense of God’s peace. Whatever experience we’ve had of God and His closeness to us, this grace that we experience, even if it goes away, is a token of God’s love for us. God gives us these things to know how much He loves us and cares for us. Bishop Aimilianos says that these experiences are like down payments, and in the next life, we will get all of this back, with interest, beyond our comprehension.

We celebrate Christ’s baptism to celebrate His victory over the devil, over human sin and we are invited to participate in the celebration by our repentance, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6) Amen.

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