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How do you use Baptism?

12/17/14

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I don't think most of us really know how to use Baptism. I know I don't for I don't use it daily as Scripture says it is meant to be: Romans 6 says we are to literally "walk about" in a new life, and Ephesians 4 speaks of putting off the old self and putting on the new in our daily walk. Daily use is what our Catechism confesses as well: "daily contrition and repentance" and "daily emerge and arise." Our Baptism is an aid to faith and answers to life daily, but I don't use it daily.

Let's start with how it's not to be used daily or at all: as a cloak for sinning. When we use Baptism this way we're perverting it. Yes, Baptism is the certainty of our forgiveness and salvation, but also of our new life. We confess in the Large Catechism that when "the old Adam is given free reign and continually grows stronger, Baptism is not being used but resisted" (IV, 75-6). Our Confession gets even plainer spoken than this. "Now when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, and haughtiness" (67).

If Scrooge doesn't awake from the visit of the spirits a changed man, it's not only the grave for Tiny Tim but him. Think of all the Christmas specials where the recalcitrant, hardhearted kid comes to believe in Santa. If he goes on being a brat after that, what a bummer of a story. Let me take the point out of Christmas specials and into life. Does it annoy you to find immigrants in America that have been here 20 or more years and still don't speak our language or accept our culture? When the baptized are still speaking the language of the world and accepting its ways, they aren't using Baptism; they're resisting it.

A gruesome tale from the Soviet Gulag can illustrate this. Solzhenitsyn tells of bound prisoners piled on carts 5-7 at a time and driven to the camp cemetery. There they were tipped into big pits that had been dug and were buried alive. This wasn't done out of brutality but because it had been discovered that when dragging and lifting prisoners it was much easier to move living people than dead (Gulag, II, 245). How does this apply to using your Baptism? When we're not using our Baptism our Old Adam is still very much alive and kicking doing what it wants. The language of unbelief and the life of the world are easily spoken and adapted by a living Old Adam.

We use our Baptism when we return to what it indicates. You see that in the question Luther poses for Baptism IV: "What does such baptizing with water indicate?" And then he uses that dreaded law-filled word should. "It indicates that the Old Adam should..and that a new man should." But this is the standard way Scripture speaks of the Christian life. First the indicatives of the Gospel, then the imperatives of the Law. "The imperative becomes the practical realization of the indicative here in this life" (Teaching Luther's Catechism, II, 57). The dying of the old and rising of the new should happen in this life because that's what Baptism indicates did happen.

Baptism indicates that judgment and grace are pronounced upon us, daily. Daily the Old Adam is exposed as unbelieving, irredeemable, lost and condemned, and daily the New Man is proclaimed alive, free, forgiven, and reborn. Rather than seeing your life in terms of healthy/sick, happy/sad, successful/failed, rich/poor, see your life in the terms Baptism indicates judged/redeemed, condemned/graced, dead/ alive. That's using Baptism.

I'm telling you what C. S. Lewis advised, "Die before you die. There is no chance after" (Till We all Have Faces, 279). If we don't die in our Baptism, we die eternally, forever and ever, and then some. Your scientific mind or sense of fairness may dismiss the concept of punishment that is eternal and of death that never ends, but why then do these things resonate so deep within us?

But don't just die before you die by using your Baptism; rise and live too. Daily emerge and rise like Neo in "Matrix," Dorothy in Oz, or Scrooge on Christmas Day. Be reborn to a new life of amazing power, wonderful colors, and second chances which expose your old life as a living death. You are using your Baptism when you daily walk about "just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of Father." I said earlier the NIV mistranslates "walk about" for "live" making it sound that being Baptized means you had better live a new life. And that's what the Law would say, but this is Gospel.

Being baptized, meeting judgment and grace, death and resurrection each day means you get to walk about just as Jesus did after being raised from the dead. Ask yourself? Was sin an unpaid debt for Jesus, then? Was Death something that still overwhelmed His soul? Was it Satan's hour any longer? No, no, and no. That's how you get to walk about every single day in your Baptism singing: "Sin disturb by soul no longer;" "Death you cannot end my gladness;" "Satan drop your ugly accusation."

But we don't walk around this way because we don't use our Baptism, and Part IV of our Catechism means to help. Here Luther introduces symbolism. Up to now the symbolism in Baptism has played no part in his explanation. Luther derived the meaning of Baptism from God's command to baptize and the promises He attached (Teaching, II, 56). But now Luther explicitly states in the Large Catechism, "So the external sign has been appointed not only on account of what it confers, but also on account of what it signifies" (IV, 72). In fact rather than translating "What does such baptizing with water indicate" you could translate "signify" (Teaching, II, 56).

Something actually happens to us in Baptism. The innocent life and holy death of Jesus is applied to us individually, but God chose to make this application through physical means of water. St. Cyprian said, "'As often as water by itself is mentioned in Holy Scripture, baptism is proclaimed" (Catacombs, 67). Frankly, I don't know about that, but I do know that a font full of water and maybe even gurgling water would call the water of Baptism to mind more readily than an empty one does now.

The eastern religions have water washing rites too, and they use gurgling fountains for aids to meditation, but we have Baptism, a life giving water, rich in grace. God is the one who attached Christ's redemption and His grace to water. Hearing the gurgle of water could remind you of that gift. So could dipping your hand in the font as you walked by.

You know Catholics speak of holy water and so think they are coming into contact with holiness when they touch baptismal water. Not so us. We don't contact holiness when touching the water in the font, but we are reminded of our Baptism. What happens physically to plants that aren't watered? They wither. We dry out spiritually because we don't use our Baptism. Dipping our hand in a water-filled font would be a more powerful reminder than seeing an empty one.

We are in the area of Christian freedom. You aren't a more faithful church if you have water in the font or have a gurgling one. You aren't a better Lutheran if you dip your fingers or lesser one if you don't. I'm saying that the Lord's instituted Baptism how He did to signify something. Water points us to what it signifies. Water sweeps away dead things while bringing life to living things. Seeing, touching, hearing water reminds you that your Old Adam has been swept away and your New Man is being given life. Trappist monks daily dig a spoonful out of their graves to remind them of their mortality. Water, even a trickle, digs out more than a spoonful. Your Baptism daily digs a complete grave for your sinful nature, so that a whole new man can arise.

Did you know that the dolphin has been a symbol for Christ since at least the 6th century? I don't know why. I do know that 400 years earlier Tertullian had said, "We, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great fish, begin our life in the water and only while we abide in water are we safe and sound" (Oxford Hit. of Worship, 801). You know the mob expression "to sleep with the fishes" means to send someone to a watery grave. Well, in the morning Christians wake in water, during the day they walk in water, and in the evening they sleep with the fishes because only in baptismal water are we really alive.

There are two symbols connected with Baptism. Water is one and the sign of the cross is the other. As you are free to use or not use water to remind you of your Baptism, so you are free to not use or use the sign of the cross. I don't keep track and I don't care who does and doesn't make the sign of the cross. I make kids in confirmation use it as part of their instruction and those who serve in the chancel for consistency, but once out of confirmation or in the pew I have no idea who does what.

The sign of the cross is an ancient symbol of Baptism. The pastor says to the about to baptized, "Receive the sign of the Holy Cross both upon the forehead and upon the heart in token [as a sign, as a symbol, to indicate] that thou has been redeemed by Christ the crucified." It was Luther who advised that upon rising in the morning and going to bed in the evening that the sign of the cross be made. It's amazing that a practice that dates to the very beginning of the Lutheran church should have ever fallen out of disuse among us and been labeled "Catholic."

No, morning and evening Luther wants you go back to the waters of Baptism by the sign of the cross. Morning and evening Luther would have you reminded that you've been redeemed by Christ the crucified. Morning and evening Luther would have you reminded by this sign that your Old Adam has been drowned and died with all sins and evil desires and that a new man has daily emerged and arisen righteous and pure in God's eyes.

Everybody uses outward things to remind them of inward realties. Baptists carry a wooden cross in their pocket to remind them of their salvation. Soldiers carry coins to remind them of serving in a particular command. Most carry pictures of people they love. In Baptism God Himself joined the gift of redemption to 2 outward things water and the cross. Using these outward things can remind us of not only inward realties but eternal ones. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Advent Midweek Vespers III (20141217); Baptism IV