In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches a Pharisee named Nicodemus about what our Church calls, The Necessity of Baptism. In other words, according to Jesus, if anyone is to enter the Kingdom of God, he MUST be born again from above! I once saw a bumper sticker that read I don’t need to be born again, I was born perfectly fine the first time! Oddly enough, I saw this bumper sticker on a Christian’s car!
John’s gospel reads, “Jesus answered and said to [Nicodemus], ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ It is quite clear, from a Christian perspective, at least, that Baptism is the means by which we are saved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (C.C.C. #1257 – 1261) says it like this, “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them (MT 28:19-20). Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude;…God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” Notice, three important things about the Catholic position on baptism: 1. FOR Christians, this is THE way God has revealed the means by which salvation is assured, 2. Christians who know are bound by the Sacrament, but 3. God ALWAYS has the freedom to pour out the generous grace of salvation in Christ on whomever God chooses to do so, with or without the sacrament itself.
Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ teaching and seeks some important (I’d say) information! He asks Jesus, “How can a man once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus makes it clear that there are two births in a person’s life, “What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.” Jesus tells him. All of us are created by God and born of flesh, and enter as human beings into this kingdom called earth as human beings. But to enter into into the Kingdom of God, we must be born yet again–this time not of the flesh but of the Spirit. And this we believe begins at Baptism! Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
Notice that there is no certain time frame associated with baptism. Jesus does not anywhere say that being born again must take place at a particular age! So many Christians wrongly condemn some Christians church’s as “unsaved” simply because they practice infant baptism. I was told by a Southern Baptist minister that my infant baptism did not count and that unless I received baptism as an adult, I had no hope of salvation. My friends, baptism is not something WE DO, it is a celebration of what God does and is doing in the life of the believer. It is always God who takes the initiative in bringing us to the knowledge and experience of salvation. It is God who saved, is saving, and who continues to save!
Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 8, shows a wonderful example of three ways of coming to a relationship with and being healed by the Lord Jesus. First, a leper, aware of his need, approaches Jesus and asks to be healed; and Jesus does (and that’s an example of adult baptism). In the second story, a centurion approaches Jesus with news that his servant is home paralyzed and suffering, but knows that Jesus can help. Jesus offers the example of the centurion’s faith as that greater than all he had found in Israel, and Jesus says to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour the servant was healed–but not by his own faith in Jesus, he wasn’t even there! It was based on the strength of the centurion’s faith that Jesus performed the healing miracle (and that’s a great example of infant baptism). It is the based upon the faith of the parents and god parents that bring the child into the healing relationship with Jesus in the Church, a community of faith. Finally, Jesus enters into Peter’s house. Peter’s mother-in-law was lying in bed with a fever. Jesus just walked right over, touched her hand, and she was healed. She didn’t ask for it, Peter CERTAINLY didn’t ask for it, but Jesus just does it anyway. Such is the freedom of God to save anyone God wants to save. Indeed, “The wind blows where it wills.”
So Baptism is important. It is necessary for salvation, and all who know of it’s necessity should rightfully attend to it and experience the saving work of Jesus Christ through the holy waters! But what about people who through no fault of their own, for whatever reason, are ignorant of Jesus Christ and His Gospel? What about them? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God is the giver and sustainer of all life. God brings life into existence, nourishes it, blesses it, and makes all people partakers of the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus died for the whole of humanity and no one enter the Kingdom of God except through Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (JN 14:6). If anyone is saved it is by Jesus’ work of redemption and by following Him, who is the way, the truth, and the life–even if they don’t know Him by name.
The Church believes both in a baptism by blood and a baptism of desire. With regard to those who die for their faith before receiving baptism, “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. (C.C.C. 1258)
And with regard to those who are not Christian, “‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” (C.C.C. 1260).
Finally, baptism is not an event in time like when someone asks, “When were you saved or born again?” Baptism, like all sacraments, is an event-ing. It is an event that occurs in history yet transcends the historical moment in which it is anchored. Our Baptism in the Spirit happens (and must happen) at every moment for all time. Every time the Spirit brings me to a deeper and more meaningful reality of the Christian mystery I experience a new birth! Every time I am opened to the reality of the impact of my own actions, for good or evil, upon myself, others, and God, I am reborn anew. We are called not just to be reborn, but to be reborn again, and again, and again until we experience the fullness of rebirth into the everlasting and eternal Kingdom of God.
Catholics answer the question, Are you saved? with, “I have been saved at my baptism, I am being saved even now as I am reborn daily in the Spirit, and I will be saved as long as I continue to participate in the grace of Christ offered to me each day.” Let us all enter into the waters of salvation every day of our life. Amen?