Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Baptisms are 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 cold, Sunday in January, one of our worshipers brought a pyrex chaffing dish used for baking casseroles. That became our baptismal bowl, and it was never used for casseroles again. 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, 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. Well, they don’t use the chaffing dish in Riga anymore. His Royal Highness Prince Charles once visited and presented the congregation with a proper silver baptismal bowl. The chaffing dish was ceremoniously retired.
Of course, there were individual baptisms that I do remember. Yes, I do remember the baptism of our two sons Vitali and Alexei. 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 convinced 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 to be baptized himself and it was according the Chinese tradition to be closest to his birthday. He wasn’t strong enough to stand during the worship service and sat in a chair, 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 the way of “joining the Jesus club.” For others, baptism is a sort of “fire insurance.” I’ll never forget one of the old, pietistic Norwegian grandmother in my first congregation who insisted that her granddaughter be baptized before the family went on a vacation. The Grandma didn’t want to have that baby in an accident and go to hell. 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.”
There is, however, another view which is deeply linked to the Lutheran heritage. Martin Luther believed that baptism is a re-birth. It is a new beginning which opens the doors to a new life of freedom which ultimately leads to salvation with God. And that is what I would like to share with you today.
For Martin Luther, this good news of freedom is proclaimed over the waters of baptism. It is God’s promise that he will watch over and protect the newly baptized from the devil and all his empty promises. For me personally, this is one of the most humbling aspects of my role as the pastor standing at the baptismal font. In baptism, you are given God’s word, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. Nothing. That is the power of baptism. It is a promise that cannot be taken back, even for those suffering from old age and dementia, and who cannot remember their own name. God will not forget yours, and there is nothing that can separate you from his love.
Your assurance of this promise is then nurtured and strengthened by the Holy Spirit throughout your lifetime by the study of scripture and through a life of prayer. Baptism, you see, is not simply a one time, magical act which prevents harm from drawing near. It is the beginning of a new life of freedom which leads to salvation, as is remembered every time you wash and remember God’s word. And how powerful is God’s gift at baptism? Luther wrote 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.
This freedom is God’s gift alone, and no evangelist underscores this more emphatically than St. Luke. Simply look at this morning’s scripture and ask the question theologians have raised for nearly 2000 years: Who baptized Jesus? Our answer, of course, is John the Baptist. We know this from the other gospels, but St. Luke’s makes a point of never stating clearly that John was even present. Why, you may ask? In the early years of the church, even before the gospels were written down, new believers proudly announced who had baptized them. They were convinced that the degree of their giftedness or blessedness was dependent upon who had presided over their baptism. That is why St. Luke leaves John the Baptist out of the picture. In fact, in the verses edited from this morning’s scripture, St. Luke states that John had already been arrested and was in prison when Jesus was baptized. No, St. Luke wants his audience to know that God was the one who baptized Jesus. He was the one that sent his Holy Spirit upon him and no other. I often tell families as they are preparing for the baptism of a child that as the pastor I am merely God’s instrument. The unseen, but present God is the one who truly baptizes their child. I just sign the certificate.
Now, you may be wondering- so what is this life of freedom that God offers? It is my conviction, that baptism frees you 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, now empowers you as well. The Holy Spirit 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 of freedom, 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 that God offers simply an assurance that his Spirit is with you, so that you need not be afraid. These are important aspects of freedom to be sure. But the unique Lutheran heritage which we share is the freedom to act for the good of our 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 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 – 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. Throughout life, we often ask ourselves, “What would I like to do with my 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 new question waiting to be answered. “What would God like me to do with my 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 free, 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. But I think 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, All Who Believe and Are Baptized, 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 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 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.