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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Baptisms is important to me. Throughout the course of my pastoral ministry, I have performed hundreds of baptisms. Now, I wish I could say that I can remember every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. There are, however, some baptisms that I remember with clarity and fondness, and others I remember for my own human error. As a missionary pastor in Riga, Latvia I had several embarrassing moments. When my wife and I first arrived in Riga in 1992, we didn’t have a baptismal font in the church. Truthfully, we didn’t have anything in the church. During the years of Soviet occupation, every religious adornment had been removed from our 150 year old sanctuary. Even the name had been changed. The former Anglican Church of St. Saviour’s was known affectionately to the majority of the students in the city as the Anglican Disco. The cross and altar, benches and stained glass windows, as well as the organ were all gone. Each Sunday, as we slowly renewed the church and congregation, we added a worship item as it was needed, but I wasn’t prepared for the first baptism. On that Sunday, one of our worshipers brought a pyrex chaffing dish used for baking casseroles. That became our baptismal bowl, and it was never used for hot dih again. Mind you, it was just as effective as the salad bowl I used several years later as a missionary in Lithuania. That was the same occasion when I baptized a child speaking in very, basic Lithuanian. The congregation smiled. To this day I am convinced that I baptized the poor baby in the name of the “Father, Zone and Holy Toast.” In the church in Riga, we had no hot water, so during the winter months we had to heat the water for baptism in a coffee pot- after all we didn’t want to freeze a poor child. One Sunday morning, the church assistant left the baptismal water on a little too long. As I poured the water into the pyrex chaffing dish, I could see steam rising from the bowl. There wasn’t much to do, but to add a few more prayers to the liturgy and hope that the water would cool down.
Of course, there were individual baptisms that I do remember. Yes, I do remember the baptism of my two sons. They were four and six years old. They were a bit disappointed. Somehow they expected that baptism meant a public shampooing of their hair- and there was neither soap nor warm water. One son was also positive that water was poured over his head only two times. One Pentecost Sunday, I baptized a Chinese scientist who was dying from cancer. He had chosen the day himself to be baptized and it was according the Chinese tradition to closest to his birthday. He wasn’t strong enough to stand during the worship, but when it was time for the baptism, he stood boldly and proudly at the baptismal font, as I poured the water over his head, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. With the assurance and strength of the Christian faith, and with the promises of Christ in baptism, he died peacefully a week later.
As Christians, we don’t always agree on the significance of baptism. Even in the most Lutheran of churches, you would find a variety of meanings given to baptism. For some people, baptism is “just joining the Jesus club.” Everyone knows what it means to join a club such as the Lions, the Boys Scouts, and the Rotary. We have all joined clubs and every club has its rules and regulations and membership fees. For some, baptism is simply joining the ‘Jesus club.” For others, baptism is a sort of “fire insurance.” I’ll never forget one of the old, pietistic Norwegian grandmothers in my first congregation insisting that her grand daughter be baptized because the family was going on a trip. The Grandma didn’t want to have that baby in an accident and go to hell. Yes, for some baptism is a form of fire insurance. For others within the Protestant tradition, baptism is not some superstitious rite at all. Baptism is the true confession of faith, and should wait until children are older. They want to let the child grow up and be accountable so that they can “make a decision for themselves.”
On this Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that there is a theological heritage which links baptism to our understanding of freedom. St. John’s gospel offers a glimpse into this freedom which is at the heart of the Reformation heritage and our own calling as disciples of Christ. We read. “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” The crowds were puzzled by Jesus’s words. Yes, of course, they remembered that they had been slaves during the time of bondage in Egypt and that Moses had led them out of Egypt through the Red Sea to freedom, but surely they weren’t really enslaved, were they? Political and personal freedom are important, to be sure, but the true freedom which God offers is even greater. And the freedom which Christ offers runs deeper still. It is a freedom that not only frees you from the powers of the world, but it is a freedom that frees you to do something in this world.
For Martin Luther, this good news of freedom was first offered as a promise in the waters of baptism. This assurance was then strengthened by the Spirit through the study of scripture and a life of prayer. As a Christian, you don’t need to be preoccupied with the necessities of this world. You don’t need to be a slave to the latest trend or to what is trending. Nor do you need to fear the forces of the world. You can be free. Luther wrote of this human struggle in his commentary on Galatians, Even if all things are in confusion, heaven and earth are merged, all the gates of hell are moved, … in most cruel fashion, all you have to say is: “I am baptized.” Then all is well with you; in this confidence you will conquer, for God is taking care of you. That my friends, is the promise that God offers through Holy Baptism. It is his promise to set you free, and protect and defend you from the powers that are against you- sin, death and the power of the devil. For, if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.
It is my conviction and experience, that baptism frees you as well from the fear and anxiety that you are alone in this world. In baptism, you have been drawn into the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same Spirit that descended upon Jesus, and allowed him to do extraordinary deeds, is now empowering you as well. The Holy Spirit of baptism gives you strength and power to cope with life. And more than cope, but to be victorious. This Spirit gives you strength to cope…with the marriage struggles that you are going through right now. …with the kids who may be driving you insane right now. … with your mother’s aging, your father’s aging, with their death. …with all the injustices in the world right now. When the Spirit is inside of you and the people around you, there is a power which prepares to fight. There is an old, but wise saying, “Remember… The Spirit of God will never take you, Where the grace of God cannot keep you, Where the arms of God cannot support you, Where the riches of God cannot supply your needs, Where the power of God cannot endow you.”
That is your assurance, as one who has been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You need not be afraid. In your baptism, the Spirit descended upon you, just as it descended upon Christ. You have the freedom to live, because you know that Christ lives within you.
But my friends, the freedom that baptism offers is not simply about being set free from the power of sin, death, and the works of the devil. Nor is the freedom that baptism offers simply an assurance that God’s Spirit is with you, so that you need not be afraid. These are important aspects of freedom to be sure. But the unique Reformation heritage which we share is the understanding that freedom to act for the good of your neighbor. In baptism, you and I have been called and challenged to serve our neighbors in need. In his work, The Freedom of the Christian, Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Of course, Luther recognized the contradiction in these two thoughts. How can a Christian be both free and a servant at the same time? And Luther pointed to Jesus as our example. Although Christ is the Son of God, he willingly chose to serve – and even to die as a servant – upon the cross for our sake.
In baptism, you and I have been set free to enjoy a new relationship with God and with our neighbors. In baptism, Jesus sets you free to a new relationship and accountability. In baptism, God gave you a purpose for all the world to see. On a cold January day, a small, country Baptist church was celebrating a “baptism” in the chilly water of the nearly frozen river. The preacher asked one baptismal candidate, “Is the water cold?” “Naw!” he replied. To which one of the deacons standing beside the pastor shouted, “Dip him agin’ preacher, he’s still lyin’.” No, it’s not that baptism makes you perfect before God. You will still undoubtedly fall short of his glory. But in baptism God gives you a freedom and purpose to serve your neighbor. We often ask, “What would you like to do with your life?” And as graduates of liberal arts schools, we often answer, “I’m keeping all my options open.” But in baptism, with all its freedoms from the powers in the world, there is a new freedom for the world. And there is that question waiting to be answered. “What would God like you to do with your life?” My friends, have you struggled to answer that question. What purpose does God have for you and your life- Or are you still simply keeping all your options open? Remember your baptism. God has called you to live a new life full of possibilities.
My friends, baptism is important to me. Certainly, it is about freedom: freedom from the power of sin, death and the devil. And certainly it is about the freedom to serve the neighbor. That is the divine call we all share in baptism. But I think that in my most honest moments, I must confess that baptism is about the wonder of salvation. I recall as a child when I heard the organ in the church playing the familiar hymn, “Es ist das heil,” and I saw the parents coming forward to the baptismal font with a child in their arms, I knew something wonderful was going to happen. Even then, I knew that this was not water only, but it was water and the Word together doing a marvelous thing. In the Small Catechism, Luther wrote, “Through baptism God bestows the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all those who believe.” The words of the hymn echoed that teaching- Through Christ’s redemption they will stand among the glorious heav’nly band of every tribe and nation. It is that divine promise of salvation, my friends, that sets us free and allows us to serve our neighbor freely. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.