Thursday, July 11, 2013

Baptism the rear view mirror or front windshield?

A whole bunch of talk about baptism in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod -- the theme of our Convention this year, the topic of a Lutheran Witness and For the Life of the World edition... and timely...

John Pless writes that baptism is never the rear view mirror for Christians.  But that is exactly the point.  We are vulnerable on baptism precisely because it has become an event, in the past, that may be recalled but is not definitive of our present reality.  Pless suggests that just as the question "Were you married" is off, so is the question "were you baptized?"  You ARE married and you ARE baptized.  If you said "I was married" people would assume that you are not married any longer.  If we say "I was baptized" it means in our minds that this was just an event and that it does not affect who I am.  In this way we have pretty much swallowed evangelicalism lock, stock, and barrel.  We talk about faith but not about baptism, about our faith but not about who we are as the baptized people of God.

Baptism is in our rear view mirror and many of us can tell you exactly when we were baptized.  But when Lutherans are asked how or in what way this baptism impacts their present day life and piety as a Christian, you generally get vague answers that attest to the reality that we either do not know or have never thought about it.  This is a glaring weakness in our catechesis and preaching.  Baptism remains is the lens through which we see our future as well as in our rear view mirror.  I am baptized.  Read Luther's catechism about the power, promise, blessing, and nature of these words.  It is from baptism that the daily drowning of contrition and repentance flows and through which the new persona is raised up by faith in righteousness, holiness, and godliness forever.

I also picked up on a phrase from Dr. David Scaer.  He cites the old phrase from the catechism (baptism is not simple water only) but reminds us that water is never plain, simple, or ordinary.  As we make our way through summer we are constantly being told to keep hydrated, especially children and the aged.  We recall the surging waters of the seas and the great damage they have done as well as the summer storms that have caused flooding and tornadoes.   No, Dr. Scaer is absolutely right.  Water is neither plain nor simple -- ever.  But as true as that is for the water we drink, we wash with, and we use to water the ground, it is even more true of baptism.  The water of baptism is the water of life.  It does not merely symbolize or recall, it bestows the life it promises.  It is the water of God's purpose, connected with His Word, that delivers what it says.

Everyone remembers Genesis and the Spirit that hovers over the water.  The water of creation is not a small part of God's unfolding creation and continues to nurture all things.  But baptism is also the water of creation -- the water of the new creation through which we die and are made alive in Christ.  So St. Peter can say that baptism is the ark that saves us just as Noah and all his family were saved.  This is the reference that we cannot escape when Luther's "flood" prayer is used in the baptismal rite.

No, if there is confusion about baptism it is not because we talk too much about it.  It is because we speak about it too little.  It has become something we see only in the rear view mirror and because of this we are susceptible to the challenges of the modern and unScriptural idea that baptism is a symbolic act best suited for those who can appreciate its symbolism.  Without a baptismal piety, we are tempted to pit what is entirely reasonable (believer's baptism) against what is thoroughly Biblical (infant baptism) and further banish baptism to the periphery of our piety and faith.  That is something that dare not happen.

Sadly it seems that those bent upon modernizing Lutheranism are also those who appreciate and talk about baptism the least.  Watch some of the sermons from those kind of "missional" churches in the LCMS and you will find sacramental themes and words banished from the weekly preaching and teaching of the people.  It is for this reason we need our own baptismal renewal as a church body so that we remember the past not as event but as identity and ground our piety and preaching upon this life altering event that now defines us.


Janis Williams said...

I was baptized in the Baptist church. It was in the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though the minister who baptized me used the words, "We are baptized into Christ's death and raised to newness of life," It was simply a symbolic ritual to him. I have to smile now as I realize that those words, water and Name did exactly what they promise to do.

God's own child, I gladly say it; I AM baptized into Christ

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: I really meant to lay off any comments for a while, having raised, I felt, too many passions. But Baptism is hyper-important, so I had to go back on my good intentions.

The good Prof. Pless is, of course, right. But I find it interesting that it is also a matter of language. In German, Russian, and French you would say, “I am baptized.” This does not affect the truth of what he says, either for English speakers, or any other, but it is simply not that obvious an issue in other languages.

The other thing is abut Baptism itself. The full statement from the Small Catechism, which you paraphrased, reads, “Fourthly.
What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?--Answer.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” I simply cannot understand what this means in terms of the nature of Baptism.

If the old Adam should (German, “soll”, “should” or “must”) be drowned and die daily, then why is he alive again on the next day? Who brings him back to life? It is not a question of somebody being fooled; that the old Adam did not really die. “Drowned and die”, or “soll ersäuft werden und sterben”; this does not seem to leave any wiggle room for the old Adam to bounce back the next day so we can repeat the procedure over and over again. Does the new man “daily come forth”? As I understand simul iustus et peccator, that means that we are both righteous and sinners all the time and simultaneously. The reference to Romans 6 says nothing about any daily dying and rising up again; it speaks of a one time event which is good for all time.

About “water and the Word.” We Lutherans seem to have removed the Holy Spirit from Baptism. Only in the section on Infant Baptism in the Large Catechism do we find a clear teaching about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have made the Word an independent agent, with a will and powers of its own, similar to the broom under the influence of the sorcerer’s apprentice. But Scripture is clear that the Word is, Eph. 6: 17, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So that when we speak the words of the Word, it is the will of God Himself that is done in each case. The Word does not do it; God does.

Finally, we do not clearly teach about the new nature of the person newly born of water and the Spirit. It is all there in our Confessions, but inasmuch as we do not clearly understand what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, we fail to understand that this is what makes us different from the world. It is not a question of understanding, or gratitude; in Baptism God has given us a new nature and He has come to live in each one of His Children in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Only because of this can we do anything that pleases God, including understanding the Gospel, being grateful to God, and believing in Him.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart