Thursday, July 11, 2013
Baptism the rear view mirror or front windshield?
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.