‘Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands.’
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews in giving his hasty review of fundamental religion, passes at once, and quite naturally, from repentance—i.e. recognition of sin and human weakness, and of faith towards God—to the doctrine of baptisms and of laying on of hands. In writing, as he does, to Jews, I would ask you to notice that he uses the plural, ‘baptisms,’ because they would have to be taught to distinguish between their own baptism—of proselytes, for instance—which was symbolical, and St. John’s baptism, which was symbolical, and that of Christ, which conferred grace, grace of a particular kind suited to a particular need.
I. Christ Jesus emphasised, ordered under the most strict sanction, and laid it upon the Church as a fundamental obligation, that all who called upon His Name, all who were admitted to His society, should be baptized. That is to say, approach Him through an outward ordinance, which now for the first time gave what it symbolised, and effected that which it seemed to suggest. The Christian sacrament of baptism has equal power now in those who will accept it by repentance and faith; but we must be careful to regard it not as a charm acting automatically on all who receive it, so that in spite of themselves they are saved from the corruption that is in the world through sin. To say so would be to contradict experience. Not all baptized persons are even moral; and to say so would be equally contrary to the Word of God and to the testimony of His Church. Baptized persons are put into a state of salvation; a state in which, if they will, they may be saved, but are not mechanically saved in spite of their own will. Placed in the good ship of the Church, they may, if they will, navigate the rough waters of this troublesome world, but they may also cast themselves out and perish. But there is one thing that no thoughtful reader of the Bible can for one moment ignore, and it is this: the immense stress which is laid in the New Testament on the sacrament of baptism.
II. In the early days of the Church, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, it was customary for the Apostles to lay their hands on the newly baptized, and they received the Holy Ghost. There are few ordinances of the Church so misunderstood as Confirmation, or more unpopular with those who just now are seeking to impose a mutilated form of Christianity on the nation in the education of our children. Confirmation is not a mere renewing of baptismal vows by those who come to this ordinance. It is only, so to speak, by accident that this renewal of vows has anything to do with Confirmation at all. It has only been made part of our Confirmation Service in the Church of England since the seventeenth century, and it is not so used in any other part of the Church, and really only serves to emphasise that most important side of all God’s means of grace: the preparation of and the willing participation of the recipients. A child is in a condition to receive God’s grace if from his heart he can renew his baptismal vows. Confirmation, the laying on of hands, is something far different. It is an ordinance of strengthening, again as we believe, designed by Him Who being Man knew what man needed—namely, Divine strength. Here is a child just going out into the world. The world lies before him, in all its seductive temptations. And it is strength the Church offers him in a special ordinance, in a special way, through the laying-on of apostolic hands, that he may continue God’s child for ever, and daily increase in God’s Holy Spirit more and more until He come to His everlasting kingdom.
Rev. Canon Newbolt.
‘The history of the actor is well known who in the days of Imperial Rome was set to parody this sacrament of baptism on the stage; and in submitting to be baptized before the jeering heathen audience, he, by the grace of God, you will remember, experienced the full force of that sacrament which he had set himself to deride. In and through that sacrament God met him, and he declared himself as indeed a Christian, and received the crown of martyrdom.’
‘Of resurrection of the dead.’
It is as a present fact of practical everyday importance that the Christian teacher insists on the resurrection of the dead. For it means that the life he is developing, the mind he is informing, the body, soul, and spirit which he is moulding, form the nature in which the inner self makes its shadow and which is to last for eternity.
I. And here the teaching of our Blessed Lord comes in with startling emphasis.—In the words of His great discourse at Capernaum, in which He treats of life eternal and the food and support of life, he says, ‘Whoso eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ He Who taught and worked for eternity provided the food of immortality, the food of eternity. And so it is that if it be true whenever we examine the teaching of the early Church we find great prominence assigned to the doctrine of the Resurrection, it is also true that whenever we have a glimpse of early Christian worship it is concerned with this food of immortality in the worship of those who had learned the truth of these words: ‘Whoso eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’
II. There can be little doubt that our Blessed Lord desired this Holy Communion, as I have said, to be our food in the wilderness, food for the way, and not a victor’s feast for those now putting off their armour. ‘I receive daily, because I sin daily’ is an attitude which, if the words are rightly understood, explain the position of this heavenly feast in the economy of Christ’s Church. There is nothing incompatible between youth and Holy Communion; to refuse to remember our Creator in the days of our youth is not a sign of virtue, but rather a sign of a spirit niggard towards God, which wishes to exhaust the supposed pleasures of this world while they last, and then providentially to turn to God in time to secure anything there may be to be had in the world beyond the grave. We do not value a present which has first been used, damaged, and defaced, and consigned to us only when the owner has no further use for it. There is no incompatibility between Holy Communion and innocent and proper amusements. It is a sorry thing to divide our life into sacred and secular, and to let religion lie outside our ordinary existence. The Christian has to learn that whether he eats or drinks, or whatsoever he does, he must do all to the glory of God. There is no incompatibility between Holy Communion and business. The Lord Who called St. Matthew at the receipt of custom still visits us at our business, and would wish us to be tried money-changers for Him.
III. Only if this attitude be the right attitude, the obligation it lays on us is a very severe one.—There is a great deal of irreverent tripping in and out before the presence of God, without love, without preparation, without repentance. Even in our ordinary physical life the doctor will warn us that things which would do us good in conditions of an ordinary healthy life may become deadly in case of unarrested disease. How little care or attention is paid to the very solemn warnings conveyed by the Church as to the need of preparation of the soul before we approach this feast.
Rev. Canon Newbolt.
‘Surely to push away this most prominent feature in our Blessed Lord’s system and one engrained in the whole history of the Church as denominational and unnecessary is the height of insolent presumption. Surely to treat it with careless levity is dangerous and unworthy of a serious Christian. To come to this Sacrament on the spur of the moment without preparation or repentance, with no aim or object in view, is the very height of folly. Every communion we make ought to make itself felt in the formation of our spiritual life. Each Communion should be a spring upward on which some solid superstructure can be raised, so that we grow in grace, living the Eucharistic life as the Church meant us to live it.’
‘Of eternal judgment.’
In the incarnate life of the Son of God we have been allowed to see once for all what a perfect life might be, lived under the conditions of a world like this, such as we know it.
I. Who, then, is so capable of judging as He Who knows what man is, and what he can attain unto, how a man is tempted, and how a man is helped? If He Who knew what was in man, because He was Man, left us the Catholic Church, it surely is only fitting that with this knowledge He should ascend the Judgment Seat and pass the final judgment, not only on what we are, but on what we might have been. God be thanked, we may count on His sympathy. We do not need to erect a throne of compassion over against the throne of justice. For who so compassionate as He Who in all points has been tempted like as we are, yet without sin? But, if we may count on His sympathy, we feel, too, that we must reckon with His justice. We must not be for ever calling out, ‘poor human nature!’ We must not be for ever saying, ‘Man is frail and God is merciful.’
II. It cannot be a matter of indifference whether we accept or reject the estimate which God has made of our nature, the revelation which He has vouchsafed of our destiny, and the provision which He has made for our salvation. There are certain conditions in which neglect is the most serious fault which can be committed.
III. The sense of a judgment to come is a doctrine of present importance to all of us. So important is it that God seems to have provided within each of us that organ of self-consciousness which we call conscience, whereby we can look at God’s law, and look at our actions, and say of each of them whether they are good or bad.
Fundamental Christianity is Christianity as Christ taught it, where there is nothing superfluous, nothing which we can regard as negligible. And among the doctrines which take their place as absolutely essential to a right view of Christian life and character, is that highest sanction for human responsibility, which invests our simplest thoughts and actions with the importance which is enshrined in the certainty of eternal judgment, which every child is taught to anticipate, as he says in the simple word of the Apostles’ Creed: ‘From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’