Martin Luther on Baptism

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Midweek Lenten Services on Luther’s Small Catechism + March 29, 2017

One of the local organizations which will receive part of our midweek Lenten offering is the Church of Another Chance, a church whose membership is made up of men who are in jail in the Davidson County system, or who have been, and the volunteers who support them.

In the Church of Another chance, having a baptism means dragging a huge rectangular pool (thankfully, it is equipped with wheels) to the front of a room that looks more like an undecorated and unloved classroom than a chapel, then snaking a hose down the hallway from the janitor’s closet to fill the pool with warm water. They push some steps up against the outside of the pool so that the man dressed in a baptismal robe can climb in — with the help of a couple of other guys, since the steps get wet and slippery — and then the man steps down and sits in the pool, the water sloshing up around his chest.

I was in worship for a baptism at the Church of Another Chance once. The whole room felt electrified as the man took his spot in the pool. Pastor Scott stood behind the pool, held one of the man’s hands with one hand and supported his back with the other, and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” then plunged the man backwards and fully under the water.

The man came up out of the water, took in a deep breath of air, and the whole room exploded into applause. And then the man started weeping. He sat there in the pool in the plain room in the jail, his head in his hands, his back shaking, weeping and weeping. He went on weeping after the applause had died down; and he want on weeping as people started shouting encouraging things; and finally someone started singing “Amazing Grace” as the man continued to sit and weep. It took him a verse or two to catch his breath enough to stand and be helped back out of the pool.

How can water do such great things? Martin Luther asked in his Small Catechism. In his Large Catechism he spends a lot of time on this question. Because, he says, water is not a flashy thing. It’s “just” water. It’s everywhere. The act of sprinkling or pouring water over someone’s head, or even of fully immersing someone in a river, does not have the same power to awe as a healing miracle or even the grand authority of a letter bearing the pope’s official seal. But still Christians have held baptism in water as a central ritual for centuries and centuries; and for this simple act of applying water, we attend classes, we gather family and friends from far away, we buy nicer clothes, we throw big parties — and yes, we lose ourselves to smiling and weeping. How can water do such great things?

If we look at the “Holy Baptism” section in the Small Catechism, we can see how Luther answers this question.

The first question Luther asks is simply, “What is Baptism?” His answer is, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.”

Here Luther references the definition of a sacrament: in order for something to be a sacrament it must (1) use a visible, earthly element — baptism uses water; (2) have been commanded for us to do by Jesus; and (3) give to us the promised gifts of God, especially forgiveness. Lutherans across the board celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.

So, to be specific: the first thing that makes the water and the act of baptism holy is that Jesus commanded us to baptize; here in the Small Catechism, Luther quotes Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The command of God means that what’s going in baptism is more important than any old bath.

The second important thing that makes baptism holy is that through this ritual we receive the promised gifts of God. Luther talks about this in the second question of the catechism’s section on baptism. “What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes the promise of Jesus in Mark 16: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

Luther’s next question is, “How can water do such great things?” It’s like Luther is concerned that even after those last two questions and their focus on the Word of God, and even after all the core Lutheran teaching that nothing we do earns us the gifts of God, we still might think baptism is all about one person pouring water on another person. So Luther makes sure to say, one more time with feeling:

“Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit,’ as St. Paul says to Titus in chapter 3, ‘through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.’

Luther emphasizes this point over and over again. It’s not the power of water that makes Baptism so important. Nor is it the power of a human being pouring water over another, or the power of the human choosing to receive the water, or the power of the the human speaking the words. Like just about everything in the Lutheran faith, the power of baptism does not come from something humans do, but from the Word and action of God. It’s all something God does for us, not something we do for ourselves. That means it doesn’t matter whether we knew what was happening to us when we were baptized; it doesn’t matter if we were choosing to be baptized with a sincere heart, or if we weren’t choosing it at all; it doesn’t matter whether we were baptized in the Lutheran church of the Catholic church or the Baptist church; it doesn’t matter if the pastor who baptized us was a “good person” or believed exactly the right things. All that matters is that God worked through the baptism, because God promised to do so.

And God promises to continue working through our baptism. While we only get baptized once in our lives, that baptism is a daily gift to us. That’s why we “remember our baptism” so often in the church and in our private lives. Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “…a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”

Here, in the last part of the Small Catechism’s section on baptism, Luther talks about how our baptism is part of our lives every day:

“What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?” he asks, like asking, “But how do this ritual and those old scripture verses actually apply to my life?”

He answers: “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Luther draws on Romans chapter 6: for this teaching; I’ll read most of that chapter for you now.

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.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Each day Christ’s death and resurrection work in us; each day we are granted another chance to turn from the things we wish we didn’t do and to become more and more the person God made us to be. Thanks be to God for that daily gift. Amen.


A Light Shines in the Darkness

Text: Ruth 2-3

Shared December 10, 2014 at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN

I’ve read the story of Ruth a few times before, but this is the first time I’ve tried to imagine it as a Disney movie. Roll with me on this. The section we read today is basically a Cinderella story: a young woman’s life is torn apart by the death of her father-in­-law and her husband, and she must toil her days away to take care of her family. Okay, so we’re
missing the evil step­mother – Naomi seems pretty great, actually – but I’m sure we could create another villain. Maybe a big scary Philistine or something. Anyway, Ruth and her awesome mother-­in­-law find themselves a prince charming – Boaz the rich relative – and hatch a plan to marry him to Ruth. Throw in a talking sheep who follows Ruth around the fields, and we’ve got ourselves a heartwarming family movie.

Whither Though Goest, Sandy Freckleton Gagon (oil on canvas)

Whither Though Goest, Sandy Freckleton Gagon (oil on canvas)

Of course, today’s reading left us in the middle of the story – we’re still waiting for a happily­-ever­-after. And so are Ruth and Naomi: they’re waiting, hoping, striving for a happy ending to their suffering. I can imagine the morning after Ruth and Boaz spend the night on the threshing­ floor: Ruth labors in the fields, sweating in the heat, her little talking sheep in tow, both of them wondering whether Boaz will bring back good news. Both of them dreaming of a wedding and a better life for Ruth and Naomi. A song plays over them as they work the fields:

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er.
Though her voice would be merry, ‘tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Maybe some of you recognize the tune: it’s an old American song by Stephen Foster (“Hard Times Come Again No More”), the same guy who brought us “Oh Susannah” and “Camptown ladies sing this song, doo dah, doo dah…” I learned it in college with a choir, and it’s stuck with me ever since. But I heard this familiar piece in a new way this week, too. I heard it as an Advent song.

It feels kind of strange to stick “Hard Times Come Again No More” in with the hymns our congregation is singing this Advent: they have titles like “Prepare the Royal Highway” and “All Earth is Hopeful.” It feels even stranger to fit it into the holiday music we’re hearing all over the place. It’s not an easy transition from the last excited strains of “Joy to the World” to the first lines of Foster’s song: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor…” But let me explain why I’ve added it to my own Advent playlist.

Advent is a time to reflect on an essential part of living as Christians: that we are living in “a time between times.” Jesus has come, but we are waiting for him to come again. Jesus is with us, but not in the way he will be with us. We live in a time when we are still “preparing the way of the Lord.” We live in the “hard times.” Even though we know that “unto us a Savior is born,” we also know that there are many in need of saving: from hunger, from cruelty, from slavery. We know that we all still need to be saved daily from sin. Even though we find joy in gathering together with family to celebrate Christmas, many of us find that the celebrations only bring back our grief over the ones we love who cannot be with us. Like Ruth and Naomi – and Cinderella – we long for a real end to these “hard times,” and Advent is a perfect season to let loose our longing, to express our deep desire for the Messiah to come and bring us a happy ending. And so I sing the old Stephen Foster song as an Advent prayer:

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

But this song is missing the most important part of Advent: hope. Ruth and Naomi have hope: they have seen that Prince Charming – I mean Boaz – is a good man, and he has promised them that he will care for them. And we have an even greater hope than the hope for our own Prince Charming; we have the hope of Emmanuel, “God with us.” We hope for our happy ending when the Messiah returns. But we also have hope for right now. We have hope that even in the hard times, God will grant us peace. God will surround us with love. God will be the embrace that sustains us. Because God is with us.

In a few minutes we will recite a verse from the gospel of John: “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). This is how I see the “Advent” part of the Christian life. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Baptism brings this verse to life – especially if we can imagine being baptized as an adult, full-immersion style. Imagine walking down five stone steps into deep, chilly water. You renounce the devil and the ways of sin. You profess your faith. The pastor puts one arm behind your back. You cross your arms over your chest, like a body laid in a casket, and the pastor takes hold of your wrist. Suddenly you are underwater. The world is gone. You can’t see. You can’t breathe. You can’t get up on your own. Your heart pounds in your chest, certain that it is having a near­-death experience.

The Baptism, Christina Ramos (Acrylic on Canvas)

And then you are out of the water. You take in a big gulp of air and stand in the sunshine on your own two feet – resurrection. You have died with Christ, and you have been raised with him. With Christ you went into the darkness, and you were not overcome.

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That light is Christ. That light is in us. Even in the hard times, that light burns in us, warms us, and gives light to the world. And the darkness can never overcome it.