The Worship and Music Committee at my church asked me to write five short reflections on Luther’s Small Catechism for use in our Wednesday night Lenten services. I’m republishing those reflections here. Eventually I will publish a book with slightly expanded versions of these reflections for congregational use (adult or Confirmation study) or anyone seeking to understand more about Luther’s Catechism.
Reflection 4 (read at Trinity Lutheran Church, Chelmsford, MA on Wednesday, March 29, 2017)
The first three parts of the catechism convey information. The Ten Commandments give us God’s intentions and expectations for how we’re to live our lives. The Creed tells us who God is and what he’s* done for us. The Lord’s Prayer instructs us on how to ask God for help living according to his will.
The last two parts of the catechism are also informative, but they do more than convey information or instruction. They describe how God continues to be active in our elemental world.
Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Therefore baptism is the means through which we are first received into the Christian community, the church. In baptism a person is literally or symbolically dipped in water and then drawn out again. This represents death and new life, or as Luther puts it, the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man. The apostle Paul describes how in baptism our old selves are crucified along with Christ.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:1-11 (NRSV)
We die to sin and are united with him in death, and we’re raised along with him in a new and everlasting life. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and participating in those events through baptism brings us into that faith.
But different churches have different baptismal practices. Some pour a small amount of water over the new disciple’s head. Others have full immersion pools built into their sanctuaries. Yet others insist that baptisms must take place in a lake or river, just as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. Some baptize infants, others believe that a person must be old enough to be taught God’s Word and choose for themselves whether or not to enter into the Christian community. These endless variations in practice have caused many people to question whether their baptisms are valid, and more than a few have been re-baptized according to their new congregation’s standards.
Re-baptism is unnecessary. If a baptism involves water and God’s Word and is done in God’s name, then it’s valid. And the reason why any and all of those variations are valid is because baptism is not something we do. It’s not a work we accomplish or perform in order to earn redemption. Our inability to obey the Ten Commandments shows us that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s, and God’s works are absolutely necessary for salvation.
Water is water, and there’s nothing we can do to it to make it holy. Baptisms have been done with river water, lake water, rainwater, tap water, and in one rather unfortunate case, saliva. (The deacon forgot to fill the baptismal font before worship, so the pastor had to improvise.) There was absolutely nothing special about any of that water until God’s Word was added to it. Then it became a sacrament, a holy and divine sign. Yes, even the spit. Because baptism doesn’t depend on the source or amount of water used. It doesn’t depend on the worthiness of the one doing the baptism. It doesn’t even depend on the faith of the one being baptized. Faith doesn’t constitute baptism; faith receives it. And baptism doesn’t become invalid if it’s wrongly received or used, because it’s bound not to our faith but to God’s Word. And even by our grossest misuse or blasphemy, we do not have the power to invalidate God’s Word.
The full truth of God’s Word is incomprehensible to us. That’s why he was born into our history, so we could see the depths of God’s love and mercy in a familiar form we could understand. Baptism is no different. God attaches his Word to water. We understand water. We know what it looks like, how it tastes, how it smells, how it feels. So this elemental substance is something we can perceive, attach our faith to, and bring into our hearts.
Baptism is forever, but our obedience and commitment wavers. We sin daily. But we don’t need to be baptized daily. We only need to remember that we are baptized, and that remembrance allows us to die to sin and rise to new life again. And again. And again. The ubiquity of water in our lives is symbolic of the ubiquity of God in our lives, and it serves as a reminder that even when we abandon God, God never abandons us.
The Spirit calls us to become the church. Baptism is our entrance into the church. And we receive forgiveness for our sins in the church. That forgiveness remains with us day by day as long as we live, and no matter how far we’ve fallen, it’s never too late to remember our baptism, die to sin, and rise to new life again.
* To see my inclusive language policy, click here.