The Baptism of our Lord
Texts: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22;
Isa 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Pz7uhkb-_ao?t=735
REVITALIZING OUR THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE OF BAPTISM:
GOD WILL NEVER ABANDON ANYONE
Nearly forty years ago now, I sat for my oral examination for being ordained as a pastor. There’s little I remember about it except for feeling nervous . . . and one of the questions that I’ll never forget. It went something like this: A young couple in the congregation have just birthed a newborn child with serious medical problems. They call you to the hospital to baptize their baby. While you are in-route, the baby dies. When you arrive, the parents nevertheless ask you baptize their deceased child. What do you do?
Over forty years of ministry, I’m grateful that I’ve never had to face quite that scenario — though I did perform an emergency baptism for a newborn who died several days later. As you can imagine, it was a gut-wrenching thing to help a family try to get through. And it never ceases to amaze me how many times that I’ve sat having pastoral conversation with members, especially with women, and they share with me the loss of a child — maybe forty, fifty, or even sixty years earlier. So in what I want to say about baptism today, I offer it as a word of comfort and hope for that painful, painful situation of losing a child.
Returning to that ordination exam question, I remember emphasizing the need for pastoral care. This situation is not a time to address the theology of baptism. It’s a time to attend to the deep grief of the parents for such an unthinkable loss. Yes, I would baptize their baby as a tender expression of God’s embrace of love. If there were still theological issues to address in the weeks to come with those parents, they could be woven into conversations that helped to progress the grieving process. The bottom line would always be that their precious baby is held in God’s power of life. It’s all a matter of the mystery of God’s love, which, as we read last week from John 1, is the power of life itself.
As I look back now, though, the troubling part of that question is that I did feel a theological tug at the time. In the background I was aware of several centuries of debate about whether unbaptized babies would still receive salvation and go to heaven. So I could imagine how a young couple, who had just suffered one of life’s most terrible tragedies, might have their grief compounded by worries of whether their child would go to heaven if unbaptized. Thus, even if the most urgent need it to provide pastoral care by baptizing their baby, some theological questions might still need to be dealt with down the road.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, does this whole scenario even feel right to you? The fact that parents who have just lost their newborn baby might worry about salvation in the first place — doesn’t that point to something having gone drastically wrong with our theology? Isn’t this the kind of thing still lurking in our messaging that our children and grandchildren are running away from? ‘A god who would send an unbaptized baby to hell? I don’t want any part of that kind of god.’ Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing for which we desperately need a revitalization of our basic Gospel message?
Forty years later I’ve undergone a conversion of sorts that reframes and recenters all of my theology so that my baptismal theology never again feels any tugs with this kind of scenario. Let’s spend a few minutes today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, to get straight on what baptism means.
Why would the hypothetical parents of forty years ago have worried about getting their child baptized? I talked about reframing and recentering our message. The frame of the Good News about salvation when I grew up was the afterlife: that is, whether a person goes to heaven or to hell when they die. The center, then, was the means by which a person achieves salvation in heaven. For the Catholic Church, the means of salvation has primarily been through the church’s sacraments. Well, that puts a high premium on baptism, the first sacrament. What happens to a person who dies without being baptized? For centuries, the basic answer has been that they are damned to hell for an eternity.
Protestants began to hedge our bets a bit by making “justification by grace through faith” a more central theme in the means to gain salvation. For the best of Lutheran theology, the emphasis has been on the grace part so that we might relax a bit in answering the question about the unbaptized. We leave the matter up to God’s love and grace. We hesitate from making pronouncements and commend it to God’s grace.
But for many Protestants the emphasis fell to the faith part of justification by grace through faith, such that an increasing premium for salvation focused on what one believes. You have to believe certain things to be saved. Anabaptists even argued for practicing a “believer’s baptism” at older ages, since newborn infants aren’t known to believe much. One shouldn’t be baptized until you believe the right things. The question became even more thorny about whether unbaptized children are saved if they die. It seemed extra cruel to say they are damned, since Baptists generally make their children wait ‘til they’re about twelve, so they came up with an answer that smacks of angels dancing on the head of a pin: ‘No,’ they said, ‘children under twelve who die aren’t damned as long as a parent is baptized and plans to bring them to baptism.’
So here’s the bottom line on what our baptismal theology has been about in recent generations: whether you were Catholic or Protestant, forty years ago you had reason to worry as parents if your child died before being baptized.
My hope, however, is that with a revitalization of our Christian message we can put such worries behind us for good. I’ve been here for ten weeks now (beginning November 7, 2021). Let’s see how the message we’ve been talking about reframes and recenters our experience and practice of baptism. The new frame I’ve been suggesting is to move the afterlife to the background and see that God in Jesus Christ is working to save the entire creation by bringing it to fulfillment.1 Salvation is about much more than the afterlife. God loves the creation that God has been creating — it isn’t done yet. God will never abandon any of it. So for a precious baby who is born will severe medical issues and soon dies, there should never be any question! Of course, God doesn’t abandon such a precious one! God enfolds that child in love, with the power of life itself, and sees to its having a chance on the Day of Resurrection to grow up in the New Creation. That’s the new frame — nothing less than a New Creation that’s all about the flourishing of all life.
Let’s take a moment to consider the new center. The means to salvation are wider than the church’s sacraments or a person’s faith. Yes, those are means to experiencing God’s salvation. But not exclusively. God’s work to save the creation from our sinful reliance on division and violence goes far beyond those things. Ever since raising Jesus on Easter and unleashing the Spirit on Pentecost, God has been working to create one new humanity out of all our divisions. More on point than justification by grace through faith are all the ways in which St Paul talks about becoming human in a new way through Jesus Christ.
For example, that’s the new center I talked about last week from Ephesians 2:14-15: “Christ is our peace . . . , that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” God will continue to use all kinds of means to heal our brokenness so that we might be better partners with God to care for the whole creation. Last week we even talked about scientific truth as part of those means, because science proceeds by suspending the lens of Us vs Them. Science brackets out the divisiveness to look at the unity which is built into creation, the interconnectedness of all things.2
So science is also a means of God’s salvation, but the church’s sacraments are also intended to be so. How can they be if they are co-opted by our human divisiveness? What do we see when we examine our practices of baptism? Can baptism be a means of God creating one new humanity out of the two if our practice of it chiefly marks the separation of the saved and the damned? How can God possibly be working to heal our divisions if we experience baptism as an eternal separation between saved and damned? Don’t you see how wrong this whole way of thinking about baptism has been? Baptism should be marking our new way of being human that begins to heal our divisions.
That’s how St. Paul talks about baptism! In Romans 6 he talks about baptism not about as a washing that separates the clean and unclean — another division — but as a drowning!3 We must die with Christ in baptism so that we rise with him! Why? Because we are to become new human beings who are marked by unity and love. The old way of being human, based on conflict and division, must be drowned so that we can arise as God’s children in the one new humanity, the united human family.
In Galatians 3, Paul is even more on point regarding baptism. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” writes Paul, “[you] have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”4 Do you see? Baptism is about healing all the ways in which we have divided ourselves into two. We are one in Jesus Christ! This includes all the ways in which religion divides us instead of uniting us. Baptism should never be about dividing in any way. To that extent baptism is not about marking us for a new religion. It doesn’t make us a Christian over against a Muslim, or Buddhist, or anyone else. No, baptism marks us as being human in a new way, following in the way of Christ. We are no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, American or Chinese, Democrat or Republican, white or black. No, in the waters of baptism we are to drown those old divisions and rise to be one human family in Jesus Christ.
So here’s my Pastoral Care book5 that I carry with me to hospitals. It’s really quite good. It has liturgies and prayers for almost every occasion. One day I hope they might even add a liturgy for baptizing a baby who has just passed into her creator’s loving arms. It’ll be a liturgy which makes it clear that it’s never been about being separated into the saved and the damned. But instead a liturgy that makes it clear that God never abandons any precious creature which God has made. “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son; in you I’m well pleased.” It will be a liturgy that carries the promise of being held in God’s love, the power of life itself, until, on the Day of Resurrection, each precious baby will arise to grow up in the New Creation. That’s the liturgy of baptism I’d like to see as an expression of an overall revitalized Gospel message. And that, I think, is the kind of message which our children and grandchildren might run towards rather than away from. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 9, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Pz7uhkb-_ao?t=735
1. This has been part of my message since my first sermon at the two churches All Saints B (November 7, 2021).
2. See the sermon for Christmas 2ABC (January 2, 2022).
3. Romans 6:3-5.
4. Galatians 3:27-28.
5. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pastoral Care, AugsburgFortress, 2008.