Baptism of Confession
I. I can still feel the waters of baptism.
They were tepid but exhilarating. They were the waters of death, signifying hades, in which I’d be plunged. They were the waters of life, out of which I’d rise a new creation. My priest dunked me in first, “In the Name of the Father,” again, “In the Name of the Son,” and again, “In the Name of the Holy Spirit.” Yet, at that third immersion, I felt pressure holding me down. He held me under the water, just for a moment, but long enough to never forget. Then he let go. When I rose, baptized, I turned to see a big grin on his face. “I wanted to be sure,” he said, “that you were baptized inside and out.”
So we too must let our baptism in Christ be thorough, inside and out.
II. Today, our Lord and Savior is baptized in the Jordan.
“Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
You can imagine John’s wonder. Why should Jesus Christ be baptized, being purity and perfection itself?
It was not for his sake, however, but for humanity that Jesus was baptized. He stood, that day, on behalf of all of us. It was the first real baptism in the history of the world. A perfect humanity was washed and redeemed. All of us, who have been grafted into Christ, were there with him, in his body, being cleaned.
The baptisms of the Old Testament were symbolic, but not like this baptism. They were gestures, mere rituals reminding us to repent. Yet, they didn’t save the soul. Something new happened this day. Jesus Christ came to the Jordan to represent the human race. He carried a new human race into those waters, and was plunged, not symbolically or half-heartedly, but body and soul. The waters of God saturated every pore.
He was baptized inside and out. So, we too must be baptized inside and out into Jesus Christ. We must be saturated.
III. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
This is an interesting verse. It sounds like it’s a done deal…saved and finished…nothing more to it. However, the Greek word, “clothed,” is in the imperfect aorist tense. This means the act has begun, the clothing has started, but it is an unfolding event, not finished till the very end. The seed was planted, but it hasn’t fully blossomed. Our baptism into Jesus Christ is an ongoing venture. It is a life.
Our salvation isn’t over. Scripture is clear about this. To Timothy, St. Paul writes that we’ve been saved, to the Corinthians he writes that we are being saved currently, and to the Romans he says we have not yet been saved but are waiting for salvation. Salvation is a process. After all, what are we saved from? The wages of sin are death, weakness, and brokenness. Until you are absolutely perfect, your salvation hasn’t transpired. So St. Peter urges us, “like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (I Peter 2:2). We are all babies, and a whole world waits us.
Do you remember the story of the Gaul warriors? Missionaries were puzzled at first when they baptized these ferocious people. When a converted warrior was dunked into the baptismal font, he’d hold up one arm high in the air. Everything else was dunked, but that arm remained dry. This seemed peculiar to the missionaries, at first, but they realized the meaning. When the next battle arose, that Gaul would yell, “This arm is not baptized!” grab his sword and ride off to destruction.
Our life in Christ must be a life of total saturation.
IV. Today, I want to talk about confession.
The sacrament of confession isn’t just counseling or psychotherapy. It is a baptism of the heart.
In the Gospels, Jesus Christ gives the authority to forgive sins to the leaders of the Church, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19)…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:22-23). So, in his epistle, St. James urges the Christians to go to the priest for healing and “forgiveness of sins” (Jam. 5:14-16). In this spirit, through every century, the Church has taught confession as the heart beat of the Christian life.
In the first few centuries, Church documents talk about this sacrament as though it’s equal to the Eucharist. Christians were forbidden to even attend Mass without first revealing their sins. Even then, the Church Fathers recognized how difficult it is to confess, and yet how necessary and transformative. In 200 AD, Tertullian wrote, “Some flee from this work (confession) as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians…When you cast yourself at the knees of the brethren, you are dealing with Christ, you are entreating Christ.”
The saints and bishops then and in our times teach continually that it is only in confession that we really become alive. St. Silouan the Athonite explains, “Tell everything to your spiritual father and the Lord will have mercy on you and you will escape delusion. But if you think that you know more about the spiritual life than your spiritual father, and you stop telling him everything about yourself in confession, then you will immediately be allowed to fall into delusion.” I should add here that confession has little to nothing to do with the wisdom of the priest. It is a sacrament because it is a union with the Holy Spirit. It is his healing. Silouan continues, “Whoever wants to approach prayer without a guide, and proudly thinks that he can learn from books, and won’t go to an elder, is already halfway into delusion. But the Lord helps the humble, and if there is no experienced guide, and he goes to a confessor, whoever he may be, then the Lord will cover him because of his humility… The Holy Spirit acts mystically through the spiritual father, and then when you go out from your spiritual father, the soul feels her renewal.”
V. What is confession?
It is Epiphanytide. In this season of the year, we are celebrating the incarnation. The Son of God came down to earth, born in a manger as a tiny child. God is flesh. He’s palpable. You can touch and see Him. God is no longer invisible. Our relationship with God is no longer distant or mere spirit. Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). What the historic Church has always understood is that since that day Christ first walked on earth, he continues to walk on earth. In the Church, in the sacraments, Jesus Christ is with us as literally and physically as he was in Jerusalem.
We should confess our sins to Jesus privately. It’s a type of confession, a shadow, like all things that the people had in the Old Testament. It doesn’t save. It doesn’t transform the soul, but it’s a beginning. Private confession is the start of a heart warming up. If you have cancer, the first thing you need to do is admit it to yourself. You’ll never get healed if you don’t. But you’ll also never get healed till you take yourself to the doctor.
We believe in an incarnate God. We confess to an incarnate God.
VI. What is confession?
Confession is the baptism inside and out. It is the real journey of a Christian. It’s when we choose not to hide anymore. When we choose to let God come inside and meet the real you. Then we are baptized not just on the outside, but in the inside. The waters of Christ flood down to the heart and make everything new.