Tuesday, January 27, 2009

God's Love Letter

(Commentary on Baptism at the "With One Voice" ecumenical concert, sponsored by Oak Grove Lutheran School and Shanley High School, Fargo, on January 25, 2009.)

In his Large Catechism of 1529 the German church reformer Martin Luther made this remarkable statement about Holy Baptism.

In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In short the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true.

Luther loved to make wild, audacious statements like this. In the heat of a debate, he sometimes went too far…contributing to years of discord between Roman Catholics and Lutherans…discord that thankfully, in our own day, has given way to renewed respect within the Body of Christ.

But on this matter, with respect to Holy Baptism, Luther was never at odds with the Roman Catholic church of his youth. To this very day….baptism is a great gift that unites us as Catholic and Lutheran believers. We and a growing number of other Christians agree about what Baptism is, what it accomplishes and how it works itself out in our daily lives.

Let me say three things about Baptism that come out of the Lutheran tradition but are widely shared among Catholics and other Christians:

1. First in Baptism God rescues us sinners, wrapping us up in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul put it this way in Romans chapter 6: 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.

Baptism is not something you and I do for God.

Baptism is something God does for us.

Baptism is God’s overture to us, God’s love letter, God’s “I love you forever” writ large in our lives.

But isn’t simply hearing that promise enough? Why do we need both to hear God’s promise and to be washed in Baptism?

Think about how we express love to one another. We speak our love to another, to be sure. But love never stops with words. We say I love you and we kiss the one we love.

Baptism is God’s kiss on our forehead. We hear it, but we also feel it. Baptism is God’s first move toward us, opening us to receive all that Jesus has done for us.

When we are baptized it is as if time is telescoped. Our baptismal day and Good Friday and Easter are all brought together. Jesus’ death and resurrection overtakes us in the present, bringing home to us all the rescuing work of Christ….unmistakably conveying to us all that Christ has done for us.

2. This brings me to a second word about Baptism: In Baptism God signs and seals us forever.

When we are baptized God sets his stamp of ownership upon us—and that is a brand, a mark that cannot be erased.

In Baptism we receive something that can never be taken away from us: God’s unconditional claim upon us, washed over us with promises that God will never go back on.

Back in the 1970s the TV comedy series All in the Family revolved around the lives of Archie Bunker and his long-suffering wife Edith, their young adult daughter Gloria and her hippie husband Michael.

When Michael and Gloria had their first child, Grandpa Archie insisted that little Joey be baptized. But Michael and Gloria didn’t want that. Their wish was that Joey would grow up and find his own religious path. They would not have him baptized.

Beside himself with worry, Archie reminded his atheist son-in-law that he (Michael) had himself been baptized.

“Yeah, but I renounced it years ago,” declared Michael.

…to which Archie Bunker responded: “Go and renounce your belly button, ya still got it!” [1]

You cannot erase your baptism. You can try to run from God, but God will come after you.

Your baptism is part of your permanent record. You can always return to it, reclaim it, live back into it.

3. And that leads me to this third word about baptism: Baptism is for life. Baptism launches us into an adventure of faith, following Jesus. Baptism sends us into God’s mission in the world.
When someone is baptized a candle is given as a reminder of what Jesus our Lord said: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Baptism is sheer gift—from start to finish—and part of the gift is the calling that we receive. If you are baptized, you are called to take the light of Christ with you, wherever you go. It’s the job of a lifetime and the joy of a lifetime. Martin Luther, that 16th century teenage Catholic, had it right: In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdW6as1bSg8&NR=1

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