My homily from last night's Lent Evening Prayer (again, with special thanks to Pr. William Cwirla from some years ago):
“The A-B-Cs of Lent” – Baptism II
Romans 6:1-11; Small Catechism, Baptism, Parts 3-4
We continue our theme of “The A-B-Cs of Lent” as we focus on the sacramental life of the Church. Last week we heard what Baptism is – water combined with God’s Word, His promise to be present in Baptism and save us through it. We also heard what gives Baptism its great power – the Word of God in the flesh as the great “detergent” in Baptism. We also recalled the wonderful blessings of Baptism – that it’s a washing of rebirth, a rescue from sin and death, the gift of eternal life. In short, Baptism actually does something: it saves us. And finally we heard how faith is necessary as it trusts the promises of Christ in the waters of Baptism. To believe in Jesus your Savior is to believe in the Baptism that now saves you in His death and resurrection.
Tonight let’s consider what Baptism means for daily life. What does such baptizing with water indicate for daily life? Now, that thought of Baptism as a daily thing might surprise some people. If we look at Baptism as merely an outward symbol, or as merely a way to identify ourselves as Christians, then we might conclude that Baptism is only a one-time thing. We might think that it was done once, a long time ago, and then we simply remember it with a certificate or a picture in the photo album – just like we do with anniversaries or graduations.
However, many one-time things have lasting effects. Many one-time things shape and govern our lives for days and years to come. Marriage vows are exchanged only once, but they have daily importance for married couples as they live out their marriage day to day. Ordination vows are spoken once, but they set the daily agenda for what a pastor is supposed to do. A contract is signed once, but it stays in effect for the life of that contract.
So, being baptized means that your whole life is one of God speaking to you and acting upon you. Baptism is God’s act of saving you, not only once a long time ago, but each and every day of your life. You might say that you’ve been caught in the cross hairs of His promises. Baptism is not a one-time thing; it’s a daily thing. It’s a daily garment we wear each and every day. In Baptism God has branded us with His seal of ownership, made us sheep of His pasture, covered our sin and its shame with Christ. In Baptism we wear Christ like a coat. The Christian life, then, is a daily life, and Baptism is the daily life of the Christian. It’s a daily dying and rising. Just as we go to sleep each night and wake up each morning, in our Baptism we daily die to sin and daily arise to live in Christ. Daily dying and daily rising—that’s the life of Baptism.
What does this mean, and what does it look like? First, the dying, then, the rising.
Baptism is a daily dying in the death of Jesus. As we heard from St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” The Apostle writes as though everyone would know this and agree wholeheartedly, right down to the smallest child. Baptism unites us with the death of Christ.
You see, death is the necessary lot for a sinner. “The wages of sin is death.” Sin and the sinner must be put to death. No way around it. And we know that intuitively. That’s why we hate death and fear it so much. Deep down we know the consequences and fruit of our rebellion against God. Even the unbelieving person whose life is in shambles from his/her sin might say, “I just want to die.” And God says to that person, “I can arrange that. Repent and be baptized.”
In the death of Jesus on the cross, God has given us and the whole world a death in which we can die now and live forever. There are really only two options: 1) Die now in the death of Jesus and live forever in His life; or 2) live now apart from Jesus and die forever in your own death. Jesus died for sin and rose from the dead. “For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives he lives to God.” Baptism joins us to the death of Jesus. It nails us to His cross. It buries us in His tomb. In it God has put our sin out of sight. He has killed it in the death of His Son, hidden it in His wounds, and buried it in His grave.
And so our baptismal death in the death of Jesus is a death in hope. “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” We know how the story ends. We know how the last chapter turns out for those who are in Christ Jesus. Christ has died, and we have died with Him. Christ has risen, and we will rise with Him. So, whatever comes our way in this life—poverty, disease, pain or persecutions—our present sufferings cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in us. Whatever burden or cross we must endure now, it does not compare with what will be ours in the Resurrection.
As we confessed in the Catechism, Baptism means that by daily contrition and repentance the old Adam in us should be drowned and die together with all sins and evil desires. Baptism engages us in a struggle. Let’s not kid ourselves that the Baptismal life is an easy one. It’s not! We have become the enemy of the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures. The devil roars and fumes against the baptized. He will stop at nothing to turn and keep us away from Christ in our Baptism. The world hated Christ and crucified Him, and it will seek to crucify all who are joined with Christ. And our old, sinful nature? It despises the water combined with God’s words of promise. The old Adam is a very good swimmer. He daily resists Baptism; he refuses to be drowned by it. And St. Paul says that his works are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. But we don’t have to wonder where all the evil in the world comes from. We know. It comes from deep down within each of us. And it needs to be drowned daily in the bath of Baptism.
That’s how Baptism also means freedom. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin. “For the one who has died has been set free from sin.” Sin is no longer our lord and master. Christ is our Lord and Master. And He lords His death and resurrection over us so that sin cannot harm us. Once we were slaves to sin; now, in Baptism, we are slaves to righteousness. Now that’s true freedom! Once we do could nothing but sin. Now we are free to not sin. That’s freedom!
Baptism, then, initiates an ongoing struggle. We are dead to sin, but we still sin. We have been justified, reckoned righteous by Jesus’ death, but we must now continually reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. How do we do this? By confessing our sins—by acknowledging our sinfulness before God, by admitting our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, by seeking His mercy, by imploring His grace. This is where we Lutherans have stumbled. We have forgotten this fourth part of Baptism. And so we have long neglected the third Sacrament of personal Confession and Absolution. But as Luther said, it is nothing else than a return to and an application of Baptism.
One of the great tragedies of Christianity today, including among Lutherans, is that the baptized do not know how to use their Baptism rightly. We fret and fuss and wring our hands over our sins. We scold ourselves, and one another, over our sins, but we don’t confess them. We seek the help of professional counselors for our shortcomings, but we rarely go to our own pastor to confess our sins, bury them, and be forgiven of them. Let’s call it “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace” is Baptism without repentance. It is Absolution without personal confession. It is Christ without a cross. When dealing with our problems, we would rather seek the over-the-counter, self-help remedies at Borders, but we don’t want the strong—and most effective!—medicines that Christ prescribes for us. We would rather recite slogans like “Just say no” instead of simply saying, “Yes,” to our Baptism. We would rather work on and work out our “problems” and “issues” instead of dealing with the fact that we are the problem, and that we need to die in Jesus every day so that Jesus might live in us.
By confessing our sins, we bury them in Baptism; we drown them in the cleansing flood that flowed from Jesus’ side. This is what St. Paul means, when he says, “Consider yourselves dead to sin.” Confess your sin and your sins. Disown them. Throw them away at the garbage dump called Golgotha. Nail them to Jesus’ cross. Bury them in Jesus’ grave. In Confession, we set Baptism to work for us. We unleash the life-restoring power of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives. We cannot conquer sin. Christ alone conquers sin for us and in us. And He does it through the daily application of Baptism. As St. Paul says, “Sin will have no dominion over you.” Once sin did have dominion over you, causing you to distrust God, bringing shame and guilt and doubt and death. But now Christ has claimed dominion over you. He covers you with His blood. He frees you with His forgiveness. He lords His death and resurrection over you. Baptism, then, gives you permission to enter God’s presence and confess your sins to Him, counting on Him to forgive you.
And so, finally, Baptism means life—new life in the life of Jesus. In Baptism we can say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). His life is now our life, and it’s the resurrected life of Jesus. He works in us and through us. We are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Apart from Christ, we die. In Christ Jesus by Baptism, we live.
In John, chapter 15(:5), Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” Branches receive their life from the vine to which they are joined. Sap flows from the vine into the branches, and brings life, leaves, buds, and fruit. In Holy Baptism, the “sap” of the Spirit flows from Christ into us, thus producing in us the Spirit’s fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). That’s the sweet harvest of Baptism!
So, Baptism is a life-giving water. As Jesus says, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). Baptism is our daily spring, our daily refreshment. It’s God’s healing, cleansing bath that makes us alive in the life of the Lamb who once was slain but now lives. Yes, Luther was right. He said there’s a whole lifetime of learning in Holy Baptism. Yes, there is! And there’s a whole lifetime of dying and rising in the water with Jesus, each and every day between now and the Last Day, when Jesus will give us yet more life for all eternity. Amen.