The challenge (and promise) of baptism
By Paul Lutter
Before God promises, God threatens the status quo in the waters of baptism. For through baptism, God challenges how we hear, see, speak and live in the world. Through it, God also challenges how we relate to God and those around us. Further, in baptism, God even challenges how we see and know ourselves.
As it is often practiced and talked about in the church, baptism might not seem all that threatening a way for God to meet and deal with us. Perhaps it’s in the words we use to describe it: Rebirth. Washed. Named. Claimed. Adopted. As helpful as they are, these images have lulled us to the challenge stirring underneath them.
Baptism is death and resurrection
Joined together with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism, we, too, are put to death and raised up with Christ. In and through these waters, God not only challenges but also makes good on the warning to put us to death in order to raise us up to new life.
Startled by this possibility, some will want to soften the challenge by suggesting that this is metaphorical, symbolic of the ways God works, but not actually what God does for and with us in the waters of baptism.
Others want to de-emphasize the challenge by focusing instead on the unity brought about through the waters of baptism. Before unifying us, however, God puts real sinners to real death and really raises up new beings in Christ, in and through the waters of baptism.
The more ardent the attempt to avoid this challenge, the more loudly the likes of the apostle Paul, Martin Luther and some later interpreters of Luther’s theology call attention to it.
Emerging from the waters of baptism
On account of Christ Jesus who dies and is raised from death for us, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Emerging from the waters of baptism, we hear this challenge anew, no longer as a challenge, but as sheer promise.
Our lives are not our own. We are Christ’s own, and Christ is ours. Nothing -- not one thing -- is going to sever us from Christ, whose death and resurrection is our “forgiveness, life and salvation,” as Luther writes.
The author of Colossians proclaims it this way: “…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). No longer a threat to us, death and resurrection -- Christ’s and ours -- is a threat to those things that seek to stand between us and Christ and us and one another.
Yet for us, death and resurrection is nothing but promise. It is our hope made flesh. Out of the promise of death and resurrection, God in Christ pours out upon us promise upon promise in the waters of baptism. Naming the promises given in baptism, Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to those who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.”
Heaven ripped apart
In the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel, heaven is “ripped apart,” or “torn apart,” depending on translation. The late theologian Don Juel helps us better understand this phrase. His interpretation more clearly shows us this God whose promises come to us through the baptism of Christ.
It is Juel’s great insight to point out that once heaven is “torn apart” after Jesus is baptized, God is no longer separated from the world. Rather, God is always, everywhere, and forevermore “on the loose” in the world.
God is “on the loose” among us in Jesus Christ. We are never again the same. Filled to the brim with the promises of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to whom we’re joined in the waters of baptism, we, too, are set free to be “on the loose” in the world.
While God’s freedom unleashed in Christ points to death and resurrection for us, our being unleashed is not about saving the world around us. We are baptized in Christ Jesus. We are not Christ.
Rather, we are unleashed, by the power of the Spirit, to be about the work of proclaiming forgiveness to those who are sin-full, working for and with others toward reconciliation, making room for those who have been marginalized, and listening to those who have been silenced.
The list goes on and on, but it all points to the same thing. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection alone, we are called to love and care for our neighbors.
We don’t need to plan how we’re going to live out our vocations, though. God, who is “on the loose” in Christ, will set us loose in places where our gift s can be used to threaten death itself with God’s gracious promises.
Paul Lutter is working on a Ph.D in theology at Luther Seminary and is interim pastor of Fields of Grace Lutheran Parish in Lafayette, Minn.