Text: Luke 7.28. Jesus said “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (the Baptiser); yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’
How can someone be, in Jesus’ mind, the greatest human being ever born, and yet the least in the Kingdom of God? It’s a puzzle isn’t it? Well…let me try to un-puzzle it! I’m afraid that to do so, we need to get a little bit theological.
First we must focus on the intriguing question of whether John was a Baptist or a Baptiser…as it’s a subject which I know is of some interest to some of our online community. Recent translations of the Bible by the more (small ‘c’) catholic churches have insisted on calling him the Baptiser specifically to denote that he wasn’t an actual member of the Baptist church.
Anabaptists (meaning ‘second baptisers’) grew out of the Reformation. They believed that the church’s practice of baptising infants didn’t have the warrant of Scripture. They were concerned that baptism, as practiced by John in fact, required first an act of repentance, on the part of the baptisee. So they offered ‘second baptism’ – also known as ‘believer’s baptism’ to those who had been already baptised as children.
They also held that the mainstream church’s practice of baptising infants was a form of ‘cheap grace’ – an idea which got them very exercised. ‘Cheap Grace’ is the doctrine of baptism without repentance, or communion without confession. In other words, the mainstream church supposed that God’s gracious salvation could be offered without any repentance actually being expressed by the ‘baptisee’. This led, said the Baptists, to a lot of people claiming that they were Christians (because of their infant baptism) when in fact they had never repented of their ways, and never made a conscious effort to walk The Way of Christ. They were ‘cradle Christians’ – brought up from childhood in the faith, but never actually taking seriously.
You can see where the Anabaptists were coming from, can’t you? They rightly sought to purify the church, and to make active repentance a real thing in the life of all Christians. They wanted people to get serious about their faith…to actively and purposefully engage with it. For this, I gladly commend them! But I also have some theological questions about their approach.
The Baptist approach implies that our salvation relies on us, making a decision to follow Christ (and to repent of not doing so up to now). The mainstream churches, on the other hand, have always taught that salvation is a gift of God, given through his church. It is God who saves us, through Christ, and not as a result of anything we ourselves can do about it (as St Paul taught). This is a picture of God to which I am drawn. God’s whole will is bent towards the salvation of the world…whether I repent or not, God desires, offers and, through the church, confers my salvation.
The (small ‘c’) catholic church’s approach to baptism is therefore to baptise anyone who will accept the gift. It’s such a precious gift that we want to do it just as soon as it’s possible – with parents’ permission if the person is not old enough to assent, themselves. Through baptism, they are given the gift of salvation. The fight is over, the battle won. Salvation is offered to all. It then only remains for us to decide, perhaps as we grow older, whether or not we will grasp hold of that salvation, and to choose to follow The Way of Christ. In the catholic churches, that moment of decision comes at Confirmation – when we confirm that we wish to carry on in the state of salvation-grace that we have been freely given.
So, for catholics (and most Anglicans) Salvation is offered, even conferred, through baptism. But it is still possible to subsequently reject God’s loving, merciful, graceful gift. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said that there is one unforgiveable sin – the sin of ‘grieving the Holy Spirit’. For what could be more likely to grieve the Spirit of God than to have his loving gift of salvation refused, and rejected.
So to summarise - the Anabaptist’s view, I think, is that my salvation depends entirely on my action of repentance to have effect. Whereas the (small ‘c’) catholic view is that Salvation is entirely God’s gift, and God’s action – though I am free to reject it. Theologically, we are splitting hairs. Baptists are just as saved as Anglicans – so Baptists reading this - you’re my brother or sister! Because however you come to the waters of baptism, it’s the baptism itself which confers God’s grace and salvation. But it’s on these kinds of hair-splitting exercises that entire religious movements get born – so it important to wrestle with them.
Understanding this distinction might, finally, give us a handle on why Jesus thought that John was the greatest human being to ever live, and yet was also the least in the Kingdom of God. You see, I think Jesus saw that John was rooted in old ways of thinking – which included the notion, prevalent at the time, that human beings had to earn their salvation. Salvation was earned under the Law, by living well, and following all the many laws of God – that’s what the Scribes and the Pharisees taught. John the Baptiser’s call for repentance prior to Baptism was the latest iteration of this idea. ‘Repent (first) and then be baptised’. In other words – meet God half-way, and he’ll do the rest.
John was rooted in this old way of thinking – but he also saw that in Jesus, God was inaugurating something new. He pointed to Jesus, he declared his coming – and in this respect, his eyes were open. That’s why, I suggest, he was the greatest human being to have ever lived at that moment – because he saw the Messiah, and recognised him.
But, John failed to grasp the radical new thing that God would do in Jesus. He failed to see that through Jesus, and through baptism in his name, salvation was being offered as a free gift. This gift could be accepted or rejected, but never earned. John, it seems, was unable to make the transition into the new Kingdom of Grace. He never actually became a disciple of Jesus. And so, sadly, Jesus was forced to pronounce that even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John. Because Kingdom People see the overflowing love of God for all humanity, not just the repentant.
However you or I came to be baptised, Baptist or catholic, it’s the baptism itself that matters. That’s where the grace pours in. Just as Jesus comes to us in Bethlehem, he comes to us again in the waters of baptism, and again and again in the Eucharist. He speaks to us of God’s favour, and announces good news for all the people, on whom that favour rests. Amen.