Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life Overflowing: Visible Words

Life Overflowing: Visible Words

In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.
Dr. Martin Luther, Large Catechism (1529)

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I Corinthians 11:26

Walking to the Font

Recently I witnessed a baptism of two little boys. Though both were old enough to walk to the font, their parents still carried them. Have you noticed how we’re seeing more and more baptisms of children, youth and adults—not just babes-in-arms? In a missionary time, in a missionary church, smack dab in a mission field like North America, we can expect to see that sort of thing with greater frequency.

Later in the worship service, the two new “baptizees” got a little wild. Refusing to stay put in the pews, they kept “escaping” into the aisle of the church, making a small scene.

“Oh boy,” I thought to myself. “Those little guys and their parents have some learning to do, about how we ‘do church’ around here.” And almost immediately my own self-righteous words convicted me, making me realize that…. I was 100% correct.

Everyone, mark me, everyone who comes through the waters of Baptism has a whole lifetime to grow into the saving act and the enlivening identity God graciously bestows in the water-wed-to-the-Word. This washing is neither cheap fire insurance nor a precaution to be taken “just in case.” It is for life—full, free and eternal. Baptism and the Supper that nourishes the baptized is for life overflowing.

God’s Kiss

One of my favorite terms for the sacraments comes from the great church father, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) whose long-suffering mother Monica prayed fervently for his conversion from a sin-drenched existence into the fullness of the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When he was finally baptized, ordained and chosen to be a bishop in the church of northern Africa, Augustine distinguished himself as one of the greatest theological thinkers of his age.

In describing the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, St. Augustine said that they were “visible words.” That is, the sacraments function in the same way that the bare Word works. The promise embodied in our Lord Jesus—the Word made flesh; the promise that grabs us by the ears in preaching; the promise that overflows from the printed Word—this same promise splashes in the water of Baptism and nourishes in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. God’s claiming, naming promise scrubs our skin, fills our mouths, gets deep down inside of us.

But if Baptism and the Supper convey the same Lord, utter the same promise we receive in the bare Word itself—why bother? Isn’t the spoken Word enough? God seems to think we need more--just as a married couple needs to do more than say they love each other. The sacraments are like the hugs, kisses and other wondrous acts that “seal the deal” in marriage. God wants to make sure that we don’t miss his promise, so God wraps the promise in syllables (for our ears) and signs or elements (for our other senses).

Elizabeth Ahola, baptized at Faaberg Lutheran Church, Rindal, on Mother’s Day, 2009.

A Fuller, Richer Sacramental Life

If the sacraments impart the overflowing life of God in Jesus Christ, why don’t we Lutherans always celebrate them with commensurate gusto? For a host of historical reasons, we Lutherans allowed ourselves to descend into a sparse, Spartan sacramental practice. Baptisms were all too often enacted away from the worshipping community, and the Supper was celebrated as infrequently as possible—sometimes only quarterly in the churches of our ancestors. I still remember the wry comment of one of my seminary teachers, when asked how he’d respond to a Lutheran who was concerned about Holy Communion losing its “specialness” if it was offered too frequently: “What’s the matter? Don’t you like to be forgiven?”

Thankfully, over the last few decades, we have welcomed a renewal in our church’s sacramental life. Baptism is not just celebrated “out in the open,” but baptismal theology permeates our faith, worship and witness. The Supper is available to more of the baptized, and on a more regular basis—in some of our congregations, every Sunday, if not every worship service.

Hunger for the Word

Although scholars and other proponents of liturgical renewal have played a part in this resurgence of God’s visible words in our churches, I believe that pure, simple hunger has also played a role. We hunger for the richness of the baptismal act—with colorful banners, blessed oil, and a blazing candle all complementing the confession of the Word and the splashing of the water. We hunger for the life, freedom and forgiveness that reaches down deep inside us every time we “taste and see that the Lord is God” (Psalm 34).

Parish pastors are most often the ones privileged to preside at the sacraments. And yet, over the past year I too have been delighted to exercise this aspect of my calling as regional pastor (bishop):

• In the baptism of little Elizabeth Ahola last May, at Faaberg Lutheran Church of Rindal, with Pastors John and Kelly, able to bring her to the font, living out their vocation as mother and father;

• In the scores of hungry young adults and others who stepped forward to partake of the Lord’s Supper during the August 8th wedding service for our daughter and her new husband, Kristen and Aaron Haddorff, in Sioux Falls;

• In the eager, open hands of Telegu-speaking communicants half a world away, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Vishakapatnam, India, during the Pastors Day Celebration of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church last November.

Aaron and Kristen (Wohlrabe) Haddorff, married August 8 in Sioux Falls. Their first meal together as husband and wife was the Lord’s Supper, during their wedding service.

Under the Gun

But sometimes we share the sacraments under less exuberant circumstances. Pastors are called to NICUs (neo-natal intensive care units) to don gloves and gowns, using eyedroppers to administer Baptism to tiny ones struggling to survive the perils of premature birth. The Supper is occasionally celebrated around a hospice bed, the elements hard to swallow for tearful family members with lumps in their throats.

In seminary I remember a classmate asking one of our teachers about so-called “emergency” baptisms. Stroking his beard, the wise professor reflected, “Well, in a way, every baptism is an emergency, wouldn’t you agree?” I’ve never forgotten that. We all live, every day, “under the gun” and therefore in need of the constant comfort of God’s promises in baptism. That’s why every prayer or act of repentance entails a return to our Baptism. It’s why we never outgrow our need for the assurance of Christ’s Real Presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Counting the Cost

When Joy and I visited India last autumn we were told that some persons, transitioning from Hinduism to Christianity, put off receiving baptism as long as possible because of the high cost they will pay. Going under the splashing promise of God signals a break with their past, often rupturing relationships with family and friends. Indian believers—like many across the world— “count the cost” before they hand themselves over to God at the font.

Disciples in the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church receiving the Body and Blood of Christ during Pastors Day Celebration in Vishakapatnam, India, November 2009.

We may not experience such pressures in North America, but I am grateful for the recovery of missional language in the baptismal service—especially at its conclusion. In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, we now make explicit what has always been implicit in the rite for Baptism, that God saves us in order to send us. “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.”

Soon another Lenten season will begin, with signs that are profoundly sacramental—the sooty cross of Ash Wednesday on our foreheads, the Body and Blood of the Savior broken and poured out. Lent is no head trip. It is a “full body experience” of the Word—piercingly audible and stunningly visible. During these forty days of preparation for Holy Week may you and your fellow disciples return to God’s baptismal grace and “mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.”

Marked by the Cross of Christ,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

Some questions for reflection or discussion:
1. How does your congregation help Christians grow into a whole lifetime of baptismal grace?

2. In what ways have the sacramental practices of your congregation grown fuller and richer in recent years? What “next steps” might you take in that direction?

3. Recall some of the most memorable baptisms you have witnessed. Remember some of the places and circumstances under which you have shared in the Lord’s Supper.

4. What do you think about celebrating the Lord’s Supper during a wedding service or a funeral?

5. How do God’s sacramental gifts help you when you’re conscious of being “under the gun?”

This is the second of twelve articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

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