[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday morning, September 22.]
One thing that people taking lifesaving training are taught is that if a person you’re trying to save from drowning fights against you by thrashing and flailing to save themselves, you must not allow two people to drown. Sometimes, no matter how perfectly a lifesaver does her or his job, drowning people, by their actions, will choose not to be saved.
As we come to part three of our series, Living Out Our Baptism, I offer this as an incomplete illustration of Holy Baptism.
God is our Lifesaver. He has sent His Son into this world to die and to rise so that we can be saved from sin, death, darkness, and separation from God. The Holy Spirit gives us an undeserved share in Christ’s victory over these things, accomplished on the cross and confirmed by the empty tomb when the Word about Christ meets water. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God claims us as His own.
But just as the drowning person must stop thrashing and trust the lifesaver, we too must trust the One Who has claimed us as His own.
We need to trust in the One Who died and rose for us.
Jesus puts it succinctly: “Whoever believes and is baptized,” Jesus says, “will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
In Holy Baptism, God saves us; but unless we trust in the Savior, if we insist on thrashing around, intent on being gods unto ourselves who try to save ourselves, we will be condemned.
“The work of God is this,” Jesus says elsewhere, “to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)
Faith is jettisoning all attempts to save ourselves--through good deeds, high achievements, sterling relationships--and clinging only to the God we know in Christ.
Holy Baptism is usually the beginning of our lives with God. Whether we’re baptized as infants or adults, our call will be the same: to live out our baptisms by doing the work of God, believing in Jesus.
Baptism plays the same role today in the lives of all believers in Jesus as circumcision once played in the lives of male believers in Yahweh in Old Testament times.
In circumcision, God called Israel to faith in Him, not to thrash around, seeking after other gods or going their own ways. And every circumcised boy was called, usually at about fourteen years of age, to make a confession of their own faith in God.
Today, a person is baptized, then called to confirm their faith at a point when they’ve been instructed and are able to confess for themselves their belief that, “Jesus us Lord.” We call the rite in which a person confesses Christ as their Lord for their own lives, Affirmation of Baptism or Confirmation.
The apostle Paul shows us how Baptism has replaced circumcision and brings even greater blessings in Colossians 2:11-12: “ In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Last Sunday, we talked about the importance of the Church in helping the baptized to believe in Jesus. But for children, especially, there’s a more intimate community that God has given to help the baptized to trust their lives to Jesus. It’s the family. Martin Luther called the family the little Church.
Through the years, I’ve asked Christians who most influenced them to believe in Jesus. Sometimes, but rarely, they tell me it was a pastor. Far more often they say things like “my father,” “my mother,” “my grandmother,” “my grandfather,” “my brother.” “my sister,” "my husband," "my wife."
Families can be places where the baptized are instructed or catechized in the faith. To catechize someone is, according to the dictionary, to “instruct…[them] in the principles of Christian religion…” People who are catechized are people who learn the basics of Christian faith. And no matter how advanced any Christian disciple may appear, no Christian disciple ever advances so far as to not need daily refamiliarization with the basics of our faith, things like salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed (which faithfully summarizes the Bible's teaching about Who God is), the Lord's Prayer, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion. Luther spoke of the importance of Christians reconnecting to the Catechism, by which he didn't mean the Small and Large Catechisms that he wrote, but the basic truths of Christian faith.
But Luther did write his Catechisms to help Christians do this. In fact, he wrote them in response to what he saw as an urgent need. Not long after those who adhered to the principles of the Reformation were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, it was decided that in Saxony, where Luther lived, theologians would be sent out into the congregations to determine how well the Reformation was being instituted. Luther himself visited some churches and was appalled by what he saw.
In the preface to The Small Catechism, written for use by families in their homes, Luther minced no words:
The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.
In our baptismal liturgy, there’s a point in which parents bringing their children to the font are asked to make certain commitments. The pastor tells them:
In Christian love you have presented this child for Holy Baptism. You should, therefore, faithfully bring her to the services of God’s house, and teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. As she grows in years, you should place in her hands the Holy Scriptures and provide for her instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of her Baptism and communion with the Church, she may lead a godly life until the day of Jesus.
The pastor then asks,
Do you promise to fulfill these obligations?
And the parents are called to respond,
The parents are asked to make these commitments for their baptized child so that, when she or he has received some basic instruction in the faith, they will be able to say, for themselves, “I believe!”
God has always intended for children to receive their most influential instruction in discipleship in the home.
This pattern--God claiming children as His own and calling their families to teach them the faith so that, like their parents, the children can believe in God and be saved from sin and death--goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Take a look with me, please, at Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Deuteronomy is an address by Moses given to the people of Israel just before their entrance into the land God had promised them. In this passage, Moses begins,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.
Now, the word translated here as commandments is, in the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written, haddebarim, from the root word, dabar. That literally means not so much commandments, as words.
Moses is telling Israel to remember the words of God, God’s commands and promises, Law and Gospel. Israel was to keep at the center of their beings the Word of God, which is filled with God’s life. (As Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, "...the word of God is living and active...")
Moses goes on:
Impress [God’s words] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
God’s Word needs to be at the center of not only our own lives, but of the lives of our families.
Without attending to God’s Word, without commending this saving Word that points us to repentance and faith in Jesus, it’s too easy for us and our loved ones to thrash around without hope or peace in the dark waters of a world fallen into sin and death.
Some of you have heard me speak of the time when, after a spring rain, my great-grandmother and I walked out into her front yard. I was about six years old. In the sky to the southeast, there was a rainbow. My great-grandmother told me that because of God’s love for us, He made rainbows a sign of His promise to never destroy the human race in waters and to save all who believe in Him. She catechized me and obviously, her words had an impact because I still remember them some fifty-nine years later!
Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members: You have an important role in ensuring that the other baptized people in your families know to take hold of the lifesaving Jesus.
He has done everything needed to save us.
But unless we impress God’s Word on our families, talking about it when we travel, when we lie down at night, when we rise in the mornings, those precious baptized people in our lives may not remember that Christ’s outstretched hands are there to be grasped, that Christ’s gospel, His promise to never leave us, and His promise to give us eternal life with God can be trusted, are free to all who will let go of saving themselves and trust in Him to save them.
Jesus gives us a great commission to make disciples around the world. That disciple-making starts in our own families, in our own homes, among the baptized people under our own roofs.
May we fulfill this part of Christ’s great commission.