It was beautiful day and today’s service was held outdoors. Unfortunately, we are unable to stream in our parking lot and there is no video for today’s service.
Proper 7 (12), Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
25 June 2023
Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Last week got a bit short on me. If I could go back and preach last Sunday’s sermon again, I think I would say that our time is tempted to clothes itself in virtue, usually virtue that is somehow political, that suggests that we do not need saving because we’re pretty good already, or at least trying.
Of course, this stands in contradiction to the saving work of God in Christ, and to what Paul teaches about justification, reconciliation, and sanctification. It is all God’s work.
The other problem is that by focusing on our virtues (not that we shouldn’t be virtuous – that is what sanctification is about), we shut ourselves off from our neighbour, for we see our presumed virtue and their lack of it.
So, it is important to remember that all the heavy lifting is done by God, not by us, yet that God invites us to join in the work of the Kingdom.
When I was in Winnipeg, one year a young man started to attend our services. I mean lots of people started to attend our services off and on but I am thinking of him in particular. He joined the choir. And after a few Sundays he said to me he was disappointed I hadn’t asked him yet to be baptized. I answered that we should meet, which we did.
In a way he was right. I should have connected with him sooner. I acknowledged that when we met that week. Then I asked him whether he had been baptized before and he replied, “Yes, lots of times.” And I said, “Let me tell you about how Lutherans understand baptism.”
How do we understand baptism? Why do we baptize small children who cannot choose to be baptized?
When I was growing up in West Germany I had a number of friends whose parents had thought exactly that – that their children should choose – and thus their children were not baptized. So before my friends’ confirmed their baptism, they needed to be baptized because you can’t confirm something that hasn’t happened. Confirmation was still a right of passage in that culture.
And then there are those who feel an urgency to have children baptized and I always thought that their urgency is rooted in a combination of the knowledge of child mortality and the understanding that baptism plays a role in our salvation. A verse from the last chapter of Mark is likely somewhere in the back of their head, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” But it is always problematic to take a verse out of the larger biblical context. I mean, did God send Jesus to save the cosmos, does God love the world, is it God’s desire for everyone to be saved? (1 Tim 2) So, if we consider the larger story of God’s salvation in Jesus we know that God will not condemn you for not being baptized.
But if God does not condemn you for not being baptized, how is baptism important?
Almost all Christian churches baptize and the majority of them baptize infants. It is only the Salvation Amy that has no sacraments.
During the Protestant Reformation the baptism of children vs the baptism of adults (or believers) was source of a major division, with Luther and Zwingli maintaining infant baptism, while Anabaptists rejected it and instituted “believers’ baptism.” Tragicaly, Anabaptists were persecuted for their convictions.1
Baptism remains a church dividing issue to this day. This is likely due to the fact that there are no unambiguous biblical statements to prove either position. In Acts 10 we read about Cornelius, in Acts 16 about Lydia, and in Acts 18 about Crispus, who all with their whole households were baptized. But while we must infer that the baptizing of a whole household would have included children, it is not an instruction to baptize children.
At the same time, while we know that the early church baptized adults, and certainly Cornelius, Crispus, and Lydia sought to be baptized because they had come to believe in Jesus, we do not have a biblical mandate to only baptize adults. It is also hardly surprising that new converts to a new faith would be adults.
This means that the question cannot be settled historically but only theologically.
Before we look into that more closely we must remember that since we are unlikely to find agreement on this side of heaven, it would be wise for all to assume the other’s earnestness and treat each other with respect. Respecting each other includes recognizing each other’s baptism.
The short argument for baptizing people regardless of their age is that if our own faith were a requirement for baptism, then how would we measure whether we have enough faith and whether we believe rightly? And what do you do when your faith wavers, should you be re-baptized, and if so, is there a limit as t how many one may be baptized? In the case of the young man I mentioned earlier, his baptism functioned also as a membership ritual for not the holy catholic church (i.e. the universal church) as we say in the creeds but each time for a particular community only.
The problem with making faith a requirement for baptism is twofold:
First, the requirement of faith turns faith into a quasi work, and thus the gifts baptism confers become conditional2 because we can only be baptized if we have faith and have the right kind of faith. How does one make that determination?
Second, and this is even more important: By making baptism dependent on my faith, I move to the centre of the story when it is God who is and must be at the centre of the story. Baptism is not about my commitment, it is about God’s commitment.
For modern people it is hard not to see themselves at the centre of the story. From an early age we are told that we can be whatever we set our mind to, and the consumer economy has made everything about us. We have long learned to apply the analysis of costs and benefits to pretty much anything. What does it cost me and what do I get out of it? When we look at the world in this way we become the centre of our universe, which we then mistake for the universe.
Assuming the centre of the story places an enormous burden on us since it assumes that there is no meaning in life except the meaning we create for ourselves. There is no salvation except the salvation we bring about, through political activity, good works, or having enough and the right kind of faith. In the secular society this is about meaning-making, and the individual decides what constitutes meaning. Sometimes the Christian faith is turned into a self-help religion, as in ‘living our best life now.’
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, “We live at a time called modern, when we believe we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story. … We call this freedom.”3
I imagine that so-called influencers, aside from the substantial income some of them generate, create stories precisely because they have no story. But to live in a world that places us at the centre deprives us of receiving life as a miracle because in that paradigm only the stories we create ourselves can matter, which I think also accounts for so much sentimentality in the world.
When Hauerwas says that our choosing of our own story is what we call freedom, he points to modern loneliness. If we choose our own story, we no longer see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us, or carrying the sins of our fathers and mothers. It means that our life is isolated from others except for the stories we choose. It is not a surprise that societal consensus is waning.
In Romans six Paul speaks beautifully of our life in Christ. Paul tells us what baptism accomplishes. In baptism our life becomes enfolded in the life of Jesus Christ. As Christ died and rose, so do we with him.
Sam Wells, Vicar at St Martin in the Fields in London, tells of a story when someone gave him a devotional gift called “the cross in your pocket.” It came with a devotional text and the idea was that by putting this little cross into your pocket you take Jesus wherever you go and Jesus is always with you. It’s a beautiful sentiment. I mean, thinking that God is with us is essential to our lives, and there are many times when we know we could not face situations if it weren’t for God being with us.
But what Paul tells us in today’s passage is that it is the other way around. It is not us who take Jesus with us in our pocket, it is Jesus who takes us with him wherever he goes, and so being a Christian means to die with Christ and to rise with Christ. “… 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.” The doing is all God’s. The commitment is all God’s. The saving is all God’s.
And so it is not so much that Jesus goes with us wherever we go, even thought that is true because God pursues us in love, but what Paul tells us is that being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection means that Christ carries us wherever Christ goes. What more could we want?
That is more than personal comfort, and while it brings us salvation, it also speaks to our calling. Thus we are no longer enslaved to sin but can walk in newness of life. That then is where sanctification comes in. God makes us holy and enables us to do the works of God.
Those who carry the name of Christ are freed to see Jesus at the centre of their lives and the universe, and they are freed from the pressure to write their own story, for their life is enfolded in God.
1 https://elcic.ca/2010/07/23/lutherans-take-historic-step-in-asking-for-forgiveness-from-mennonites-assembly-participates-in-powerful-service-of-repentance/ and https://www.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/dtpw-lutheran-mennonites_2016.pdf
2 See Martin Luther: Von der Wiedertaufe – An Zwei Pfarrherrn (1528), in Luther Deutsch – Die Werke Luthers in Auswahl, Kurt Aland ed, vol 4 Der Kampf um die reine Lehre, UTB Vandenhoek, Göttingen 1990, page 95ff
3 See “How Real is America’s Faith?”, or in a lecture at Trinity Wall Street in 2014, or as quoted here: “The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.”