To all appearances, Baptism looks pretty shabby. A little bit of water poured or sprinkled upon a baby’s head and this, in the poetry of Jaroslav Vajda’s hymn, means that the child of nature we brought to the font “home we take a newborn creature”?
This past weekend I got to thinking, as I poured this divine water upon another child, I got to thinking about how just the night before I drenched my children in bath water. And the sinful mind thinks, “What’s the difference?” Thus the question for tonight, “How can water do such great things?”
When discussing Baptism in his Large Catechism, Luther tells us that “we must not judge the person according to the works, but the works according to the person, from whom they must get their nobility.” This is good advice, advice we shall take. Advice we must take.
The opposition to Baptism comes from different directions. On the one hand some shout, “Faith alone saves! You’re putting trust in works!” On the other hand, some shout, “It’s just water! Only the blood of Christ matters!” Legitimate concerns. Immersed from the beginning in sola gratia and sola fide thinking, Lutherans don’t want to end up back in the clutches of self-righteous Romanism.
Which is why Luther’s advice is so good. Let us judge the work – Baptism – according to the person, not the person according to the work. Which means looking at Christ, not just the author and perfecter of our faith, but the author and perfecter of Baptism. Christ, after all, spoke the words we have so far heard in relation to Baptism this Lenten season: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them,” and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Jesus answers his own challenging question. “Baptism: from heaven, or from men?” He answers it decidedly in the divine: “From heaven.” Thus we can start judging this work by the person, the divine person who gives it. And our passion history tonight tells us what we need to know about the person who gives us the gift, the washing, the water of rebirth and renewal, as Paul calls it.
Tonight we heard Mark 14, an account of holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday. You can read about this night also in the other three Gospels. We will lean on them for some added illumination.
Jesus begins the night showing off his divine omniscience. He sends some disciples into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover meal and gives them very detailed, very specific instructions for what they will find there. And they “found things just as Jesus as told them.” Not because Jesus went in ahead of them and arranged things. Jesus knew them.
Then, as they ate the Passover meal, Jesus interrupted this divinely ordained celebration to give a new divine order: “Take it, this is my body. This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Jesus says that right there, in their hands and mouth was the body given for sins and the blood poured out for sins, which He would offer up on the cross that Friday. That is what it is. Because He says so. Because God says so. And God does not lie.
After eating the meal, they sang a hymn and went to dark Gethsemane. After Jesus’ hours in prayer the betrayer arrived with that detachment of soldiers. Jesus said, “Who is it you want?” They say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus doesn’t dodge at all: “I am he.” And “they drew back and fell to the ground.” These mere words, a simple answer, knocks them to the ground. Though as we’ll note in a moment, it wasn’t such a simple answer.
Peter, being Peter, can’t restrain himself. He draws his sword and strikes off the ear of one of the soldiers, named Malchus. Before more fighting can break it out, Jesus plays peacemaker, and more, he touches Malchus’ ear and makes him whole once again.
The soldiers then take Christ to the high priest and the Jewish ruling council for the trial. For most of the trial Jesus says nothing. They parade false witnesses in front of him. They hurl charges at him. And the lamb goes uncomplaining forth. Finally, the high priest can’t take it anymore: “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you? Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
Here it is. The moment of truth. And Jesus speaks: “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” He chose, when He spoke, to speak boldly, just as He did to Pilate. Pilate reminded Jesus, “I have the power to free you, don’t you get that?” And Jesus said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
And the word Jesus spoke damned him. “The high priest tore his clothes.” He nearly foamed at the mouth in his rage and apoplexy. “‘Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” And the council chants: “Death and cross! Death and cross! Death! Death! Death and cross!”
With a word Jesus brought death upon Himself, because He spoke the words they couldn’t abide, “Ego eimi. I am.” No equivocations. No double speak. No cleverness. Just, “I am.” Using the very same words by which the LORD defined Himself to Moses in Exodus 3 when Moses asked for something to tell questioning Israelites: “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Ego eimi. I am. Jesus.
That night Christ’s enemies condemned him, spit on him, blindfolded him, beat him, mocked him, and, eventually, got Pilate to nail Him to the cross. Because they couldn’t stand the “I am.” They couldn’t stand the explicit way in which Jesus identified Himself as God’s Son and God Himself, come in the flesh, that one like a son of man Daniel saw who “was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
How can one read words like this, hear Scripture’s words from and about Christ, and then say that Baptism is just plain water, that Baptism is just some superstitious faith-draining ritual, that Baptism is just a work and no faith? Because we too fall back at the “I am” Christ speaks. To take that word seriously means to damn ourselves. We are not God. Our word is not binding, or law, or miraculous. We have nothing, nothing except our own sinful flesh, nothing except these decaying bodies, nothing except these minds warped and perverted, curved in only on ourselves.
But oh how desperately we wish to keep those things, no? For at least then we’re all equally damned, and perhaps even, we can wistfully hope, unequally damned. Some of us can manage better than others and maybe slip into purgatory, or, perhaps, for that saintly few, into heaven. But if Christ is “I am,” then we all stand below Him. If Christ is “I am” then the only sane thing to do is to line up in that long line of beggars and plead for help and assistance.
But sin drives us insane. Sin won’t stand for water connected to the Word. Sin wants more or less than this, because sin wants things only on our own terms. “I will believe in Christ, you need give me no assistance.” “Don’t give me such a weak thing, I will show you my great and mighty deeds. I will move mountains to get myself into heaven.”
Good luck with that. That leaves you judging a person by the works, that is, it leaves God to judge us by His works. But Jesus would have us judge His works by the person. He heals. He knocks to the ground. He promises that He is the God of Exodus 3. He speaks plainly about bread and wine: “This is,” and just as plainly about the water: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Language Paul expanded upon to Titus and Luther appropriated for his catechism: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Without His Word Baptism is nothing, just the bath water I used on my children. The ear stays chopped off. The crowd doesn’t crumble. The priest doesn’t tear his robe. Bread and wine just fills our bellies. Water just wets and wakes up a sleeping baby. But with His Word, ah, with His Word, Jesus cries out “It is finished,” and rises from the stone slab in His tomb. With His Word Jesus pays the ransom price for our sins, is the atoning sacrifice for ours, and not only ours, but for the world’s, and then rises so that God can declare us not guilty through faith in Christ, no longer counting our sins against us, opening the gates of paradise to us.
And our God does the same, does all of this, to us in this washing: nailing us to the cross with Christ, burying us in the tomb with Christ, raising us to new life with Christ, making us those children to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. With His Word, in His Word, by His Word, through His Word, we live with Christ. Amen.