There is a great story in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 5, about Naaman, a general in the Syrian army. Naaman was a successful leader and greatly honored by his king and soldiers. He was also a leper. Naaman's wife had a Jewish servant, who told her about the Prophet Elisha. So Naaman received permission from his king to travel to Samaria, where Elisha lived, and seek healing from the "man of God," as many called Elisha. The prophet did not personally receive Naaman, but through intermediaries he gave him one instruction, "Go and wash in the Jordan [River] seven times… and you shall be clean."
This directive angered Naaman. "Are not … the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?" He turned around and started back home. Then his servants approached him. "If the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'? If God had asked you to do something big, you would have done it. Why resist doing something small?”
This story is read every year at the Vespers of the feast of Epiphany, the baptism of Christ. We celebrate Epiphany for a week, as we do several other great feasts of the Church, and I thought it appropriate to spend a few minutes today considering the meaning of baptism. The obvious symbolism of baptism is washing- i.e. in baptism our sins are washed away. Another symbolism is burial and resurrection. As St. Paul writes, “We were … buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). Still another symbolism is the passage from death to life exemplified in the passage of the Moses and the Israelites through the Red Sea.
I do not think that Naaman the Syrian is in most people’s minds when they think of baptism, but the Church connects his healing with baptism; for this reason the passage is read at Epiphany. Why? What can the story teach us? I think the lesson is obedience. Naaman asked why did he have to bathe in the Jordan, and what was wrong with the rivers near his home. The answer is “nothing,” nothing was wrong with the rivers near his home, but God through the Prophet Elisha asked him to make an offering of obedience. He did what he was told without understanding why. We could call this faith. At a certain point, reason or logic ends and we are left to respond in faith. Naaman responded in faith.
I want to present one more aspect of baptism in our Tradition, the aspect of immersion. We baptize by immersion. We are covered from head to toe with the blessed water. Not just one part of us but all of us is covered. In other words we make a total offering of ourselves – mind, heart, body – to God. The words of our Liturgy remind us, “Let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” Naaman teaches us obedience; immersion teaches us that we give everything and hold back nothing.
This is what the sacraments of the Church are all about. Why do we come, Sunday after Sunday, to the Divine Liturgy and accept a piece of bread and a drop of wine from the chalice, if not because God has commanded us to do so and told us it is for the remission of sins and life eternal? Why do we bring our children (and ourselves) and immerse them in a font of water? Don’t we have bathtubs at home? Is it not because we believe that this action is our mystical participation in the burial and resurrection of Christ? Why do we stand before the icon of Christ in the presence of a priest and expose our sins? Is it because the priest is smarter than we are? No! It is because Christ has said to the Apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23).
Why do we come to the Church to bless our marriages, when we have lovely homes and party centers? Is it not to express our obedience by traveling to His House? Is it not to express the sanctity of marriage indicated by Christ when He said, “What God has put together, let no one put asunder”? Why do we have a sacrament of ordination? Isn’t a university diploma in theology enough? No. The sacrament is one more way that we indicate our dependence on Him.
In the ancient church there was a theological controversy known as the “Monothelite” heresy. The word Monothelite comes to us from the Greek “mono” and “thelisi” – mono, meaning one and thelisi, meaning will or desire. We believe that the Lord Jesus was both divine and human at the same time. Some people, in their desire to better understand how this union of divine and human natures worked, tried to explain it by saying that Jesus’ divine nature overshadowed and completely controlled His human nature, and that thus, He had one faculty of willpower. The Orthodox position was that Jesus had one willpower as a divine being and another as a human. Just think of the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
The point is this: Christian life is an uphill struggle to grow closer and closer to God. It requires that we learn to prefer God’s will over our own, which is never an easy thing to do. The struggle never ends never ends until we are His in heart and soul, in mind and body, truly His. We do the little things that He asks, and we work toward the big. May He help us to be truly His! Amen.