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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.
Two ladies in their eighties were enjoying sunshine on a park bench in Florida. They had been meeting in that park every sunny day for years, just talking and enjoying each other’s company. One day, the younger of the two turned to the other and said, “Now dear, don’t be angry with me, but I must ask you a question. After all the time we’ve been together, I am so embarrassed but I just can’t remember your name. Could you please remind me? ” The older of the two stared at her, looking very distressed, and said absolutely nothing for two full minutes. Finally, she broke the silence and said, “How soon do you have to know?” It is good to know that we can celebrate a God who never forgets our name or his promises.
Last Wednesday evening, I mentioned that prior to the Reformation, all Christians were required to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, so quite naturally, Luther’s Small Catechism included these three principle parts. To these, however, Luther added two of his own which he believed were integral to living out the Christian faith- Holy Baptism and the Lord’ Supper. This evening we will turn to the rite of initiation into the church and another portion of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altar painting.
Mrtin Luther once said, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.” Luther confessed that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he consoled himself by repeating the phrase, “I am baptized!” Yes, when it seemed to him that the whole church had left the teachings of the Gospel, when he was under scrutiny from Church officials as to the truth of his beliefs, when his own life was under threat, and when he suffered self-doubt he would boldly claim, “I am baptized.”
Not all Protestants at the time of the Reformation, however, were in agreement about the significance or purpose of baptism. Even in the city of Wittenberg, theologians and students debated the proper occasion for baptism, and whether children should be baptized at all. This group of dissenters became known as the Anabaptists. They argued, that if we are indeed saved by faith, how can we be certain that a child believes at all? They also suggested and argued for an age of accountability. Even Luther’s closet ally, Philipp Melanchthon questioned Luther’s argument for infant baptism. Lucas Cranach’s painting of Holy Baptism for altarpiece in Wittenberg was to portray both the debate and the evangelical understanding of the rite of baptism.
Cranach’s baptismal painting is a bit more personal and humorous than others. As the painter for the Saxon court, Cranach had painted many biblical and courtly women in beautiful settings. There was the painting of the hunt with Frederick the Wise along the Elbe River, and the allegorical painting of melancholy, as well the familiar image of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. Barbara Cranach, Lucas Cranach’s wife was a bit disgruntled that he painted portraits of so many women, but never her. Legend states that when Barbara discovered that her husband was including the faces of Wittenberg women in his altar painting for the City Church, Barbara insisted that her husband include her image. He promised, and he added, “I will paint you from your best side.” And so we Barbara’s best side, the rear, front and center, richly adorned in one of her magnificent dresses. She is there again standing beside the baptismal font- next to her husband. Yes, Lucas Cranach has made another cameo appearance. You may recall that he was the Godfather for Luther’s first born son Hans. He is once again standing in the Godfather positon. Barbara Cranach and her Leipzig fashions are unfortunately a distraction for the women in Wittenberg. They are oblivious to the child completely naked being baptized.
There is an awkwardness in the baptismal washing. The officiant is Philipp Melanchthon, a fellow professor and theologian at the University in Wittenberg. He was not a pastor nor was he ever ordained. His presence at the baptism teaches us the rite to baptize is not a special charism or gift bestowed in ordination. Indeed, in moments of medical emergency, every Christian has the authority to baptize. Perhaps Melanchthon is a bit awkward in appearance because he originally defended adult baptism. There is also an indication, that there is no prescribed way for the child to be baptized. Luther himself believed that the child should be completely immersed in the water since that the meaning of the Greek word, “baptize” Is to dip. In Melanchthon’s hands, the baby is almost upside down. It is not the water that does such great things, Luther’s explanation reminds us. It is the promises of God’s word that makes the baptism into new life happen. And so directly next to Melanchthon is a representative of the congregation holding the Bible open to the promises and word of God.. In many ways, this painting served as a corrective to the common held, superstitious belief that the baptismal water had some magical power. It was word of God that did powerful things.
Luther defended his practice of infant baptism with 5 arguments. 1) Infants come to faith through the faith of those who perform the baptism. 2) Baptismal faith is powerful. Luther said, “For the word of God is powerful enough when uttered to change even a godless heart, which is not less responsive than that of an infant.” 3) Children and adults alike receive faith passively. 4) Specific recall of the event is unnecessary. The people present remember and tell the story on your behalf until you believe. 5) The church has baptized children since its foundation, and they have been recognized as witnesses and martyrs, so why should God’s gift of baptism be denied them? One of Lucas Cranach’s poignant portraits of Jesus’s blessing little children defended this final argument. “Let the children come unto me.”
Now you may be wondering, but how can water and words offer such powerful promise? Light for life’s darkest valleys, consolation for one’s greatest sorrows, and strength for times of weakness? Martin Luther once said, that baptism is a once-in- a- lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill. It goes hand in hand with the words, “I am baptized.” Your assurance is nurtured and strengthened by the Holy Spirit throughout your lifetime through the study of scripture and through a life of prayer. Baptism is not simply a one time, magical act which prevents all harm from drawing near. Baptism is the beginning of a new life which leads to salvation, and is remembered every time you wash and recall God’s word. Yes, the assurance of God’s promise begins every time you recall the words, “I am baptized.”
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.