There's something in the Water
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
For those of you who have been baptized, I wonder when you were baptized, if you remember the exact date? Where did it happen? Who was there? I wonder if you remember these things for yourself or if you had to be told about them. For those of you who have not been baptized, I wonder about your story too. Perhaps you are new to the church. Perhaps you never really saw a reason for it or weren’t sure why it was necessary. Perhaps you are curious about the mysteries it entails.
In the Lutheran church, we recognize two sacraments – Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Sacrament means literally to make or mark as holy or sacred. We set these particular gifts apart for 3 reasons: They are commanded by God, they reveal a divine promise, and they involve an earthly/tangible element. So for baptism, we just heard where Jesus commands his followers to baptize all the world. The promise baptism holds is new and everlasting life. And it conveys this promise with simple cool clear water. These gifts highlight that there can be no such thing as abstract spirituality that does not also meet our physical life. Someone once said that “Christianity is a most material religion: you cannot even get it started without a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a river.”
We can begin to wrap our minds around parts of it, but baptism is a thing full of mystery. Let us turn to Martin Luther’s reflections on its significance.
What then is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.
Which is that word of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)
Baptism is the coming together of water and word. The Word is a living word, one that isn’t only spoken or read, but as it is spoken is a creative force that moves us and shapes our being. The Water is the same as we get from our river, our bayous, our lakes… People often asked me if the water in our baptismal font (which is almost always open) is holy water. The water is holy but it is also ok to touch. It’s okay to splash a little. That’s why it’s there. That’s why it’s open. You can dip a finger into the water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead to remember the cross you receive at baptism.
Water is refreshing, but also powerful beyond measure. Baptism isn’t only the peaceful trickle of water over our heads. It’s not gentle, it is a drowning. In fact, an ancient baptismal font intentionally looked essentially the same as a stone coffin, filled with water. All that separates us from God…our old selves, our brokenness, the world’s brokenness…is drowned away. The waters of baptism are moving living waters and moving water has the power to cut through solid stone. The stone of our darkened hearts, the stone of apathy and indifference, the stone of oppression and injustice. Baptism refreshes but it also stirs up and agitates, troubles, resists, mobilizes.
What benefits does Baptism give?
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are these words and promises of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
The promise of Baptism is new and everlasting life. Not only in some heaven hereafter, but here and now, in this place and time. God promises us a new way of being. In the liturgy of baptism, we the people, respond with our own promises. We promise to renounce the devil and all the forces of evil, all the forces that go against God and God’s promises – not only for ourselves but for all people. We promise to renounce, to resist that powers of this world that rebel against God. And to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. And following Christ’s command we promise to learn, to grow, to listen, and to teach.
How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5–8)
It’s not water from some mystic fountain of youth, it is common water made holy by God’s work through it. Baptism is less about what we’re doing and entirely about what God is doing. This is why the Lutheran church is a-ok with baptizing babies who can not yet speak or comprehend, because none of us can truly comprehend the mystery of baptism. Baptism is not about our goodness, our right believing, our readiness…it is about what God does, what God is doing in us.
What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore 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.” (Rom. 6:4)
Baptism is not a moment, it’s a movement. It can not be compartmentalized or framed and hung on a wall and then forgotten. It is a continual way of being, it is a daily walk, a daily dying and rising anew, being created with renewed capacity each morning. Not just so that we would be some better version of ourselves, but so that we are renewed in Christ, that we are given God’s own Spirit which is always about the work of ongoing creation in us, in the whole world.
In baptism we are made one with the whole body of Christ, connected to every other beautiful child of God, made one family, we are inescapably bound to one another. That means in our baptism we are made one with refugees, with those being told to wait, with black lives and the white supremacists, with the drag queen, and those who foster fear of trans people even in the name of God, with those in prison, with the hungry and the addicted. In baptism, we are tied to one another not with chains but with hope. Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman of Australia said “of upi have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied bound up with mine, let us work together.” In our baptism we are set free together, only by the mysterious but somehow tangible promise of water and word that stirs up the Spirit.
So I want to invite you, if you haven’t been baptized before and you’re feeling a tug in your heart, a curiosity…let’s talk. Shoot me an e-mail or give me a call. If you have already been baptized and want to re-affirm those promises of baptism made long ago…to claim your faith anew…now is the time. We will celebrate baptism as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter. Whether or not you understand this mystery (as if any of us could), I want to make one thing clear: these promises are for you. God’s love is for you. God’s love is here at the beginning and at the end. In the font, in the bread, and cup, and beyond it too. God is with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.