Recovering the Practice of Baptism
by David Pearcy
The central teaching, the key article of our Confessions, the premier doctrine of all Lutheran theology is justification before God, as a gift of God, on account of Jesus. Luther calls it “the first and chief article.” It is the foundation on which the church stands or falls. And of all our practices and teachings, baptism reflects that central teaching most clearly and brightly. So much so that baptism is described as the whole gospel in a nutshell.
In baptism, the entire gospel is boldly shown forth. Luther in his Large Catechism is absolutely over the top in his claims and praise of baptism. “Martin Luther,” writes Eugene Brand, “made baptism fundamental in his theology and classical Lutheran theology followed his lead. Baptism not only initiates one into the life of Christ, it also provides the ongoing dynamic for that life.”
For many American Lutherans, the practice of baptism ends once the actual baptism has taken place. There has been little appeal to anything of an ongoing influence. As my pastor said to me once, “We teach baptism as a big deal but we don’t practice baptism as a big deal.” Why this is the case is open to interpretation, with plenty of guesses and plenty of blaming to go around. There have been sweeping religious movements militating against a Lutheran view of baptism: the Reformed tradition especially in its Zwinglian form, certain kinds of pietism, rationalism, certain kinds of Lutheran Orthodoxy; and there have been more culturally American movements: individualism, revivalism, fundamentalism. And then there is our own indifference, our carelessness and lack of attention. The culmination has been a nefarious loss of rich and meaningful practices that once carried baptism into every corner of daily living.
The first and surest step in reclaiming the richness of baptismal practice is to rebuild our common understanding of the substance of baptism. Baptism is both water and word bound together. God is the primary actor and so it is about God’s forgiveness and the triumph of God’s grace. To see baptism as both a single brief event but also a process that continues to develop and work throughout all of life adds a dynamic and excitement about baptism that substantively changes our understanding of it. We are different from many Protestant denominations in our view of the sacraments, and we need to be bold in saying so.
Many Lutherans who noted the tragic loss of this dynamic role of baptism within the church’s life began a serious effort to recover and reclaim the practice of baptism fifty to seventy-five years ago. While liturgical practice is always changing, the glacial speed is never very satisfying.
“The best and most direct way of discovering the substance of baptism is by examining what the New Testament has to say about it. This may be obvious, but the obvious is all too easily overlooked.” The lectionary of the three-year cycle offers many opportunities to preach and teach on baptism. There are many good resources available to help identify those occasions: Daniel Stevick in By Water and the Word: The Scriptures of Baptism covers eighty-seven Old Testament passages and 146 New Testament texts; Beasley-Murray in Baptism in the New Testament claims to cover every New Testament passage, and Jean Danielou has eighty pages on baptism in The Bible and the Liturgy.
Baptism could be proclaimed frequently, as the clearest and most certain expression of faith and grace. A brief review of any section of the lectionary will demonstrate how often baptism is an appropriate preaching theme based on the texts of the day.
A good place to begin preaching more on baptism is the season of Lent, especially Year A.
Lent 2A: John 3:1–17. Nicodemus’ Visit at Night. Although the word “baptism” is not used, baptism is present in every other way. Not, born “again”, but born “from above.”
Lent 3A: John 4:5–26. Woman at the Well. Give me this water; water gushing up to eternal life. The earliest church had no problem applying the image of drinking water to baptism. Profound forgiveness and outrageous acceptance.
Lent 4A: John 9:1–41. Man Blind from Birth. Darkness vs. light. I see no light, and I am the light. A marvelous opportunity to play with light as does John’s gospel. And those baptized were illumined by Jesus. All of us experience this blindness. Baptism transforms us. I was blind, but now I see.
Lent 5A: John 11:1–45. The Raising of Lazarus. Clearly images that transfer to baptism. Real death, real new life. John saves the biggest for last. When Jesus shows up, people get unbound. No breath remaining to the sound of lungs filling with breath. How loud did Jesus need to call, or did he just whisper.
Easter Day, of course, from the church’s early days when this was the favorite time to be baptized because of the clear association with Jesus death and resurrection, believers not only carry the light but they become the light and the season of Easter offers some wonderful stories to proclaim baptism, and the natural connection with the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost.
Easter 3A: Acts 2: 14a, 36–41. Peter and the First Converts. The promise is for you, and for your children. Not what shall be believe, but “what shall we do.” Peter’s words of gospel lead them to the waters of baptism.
Easter 3C: Acts 9: 1–6 (7–20). Conversion of Paul. Again, lots of opportunity to deal with blindness and light. Paul is blinded, but he couldn’t see anyway. Light, the metaphor for God’s very presence. Jesus, the light from heaven, and in the Nicene Creed calls Him light from light. And those who are baptized are the ones illumined by Jesus.
Easter 5B: Acts 8:26–40. Philip Teaches and Baptizes an Ethiopian. Another example that word and baptism are connected. The word leads to baptism. Word, conversion and baptism are connected. That connection is pretty clear throughout the Book of Acts. The sequence may change, but receiving the Spirit and baptism with water clearly go together.
Making use of typology in Old Testament texts, baptism is easy to include in almost any passage, Old Testament or New Testament, that includes or focuses on water, light or breath of life. Likewise, nearly any passage with spirit, or the word “baptism.”
Proper 5C: Galatians 1:11–24 (this continuous reading goes on for several Sundays). St. Paul is sorting things out nicely. The choices are clear: live by keeping all the rules, earning points and credit from God, meaning righteousness, or, live as a gift from Jesus. Metaphorically two games played out on the same board. Baptism is the entrance to one way of life. For Paul, believers have been re-created into a whole new thing.
Proper 10C: Luke 10:25–37. The reading contains the parable of the Good Samaritan, and folks and preachers are drawn to the favorite story and are tempted to move toward a conclusion that its about being a good/better neighbor. “I need to try harder to be a good neighbor.” Sounds good, but it’s not. And then we realize we are the guy in the ditch, and baptism becomes the perfect fit, just as we see we are beyond helping ourselves. We need God’s gift of grace. Luke never just tells a story, but always wants to draw in the hearer.
Proper 12C: Colossians 2:6–19. Paul connects baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus. All the paperwork that claimed “guilty,” is nailed to the cross. Others, even church people, dream up a bunch of dos and don’ts. But you are free. Alive, forgiven and adopted. The ultimate gift.
Proper 14C: Genesis 15:1–6; Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16; and Luke 12:32–40. “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Fear vs. faith touches many of our shrinking congregations. Baptism is a powerful antidote of fear. Luther declares, “But I am a baptized child of God.” Abram and Sarah ready to step out, as we think beyond our comfort zone—when serving others, feeding the hungry and speaking for those with no voice. How often Abraham and Sarah must have stepped out of the tent to marvel again at the stars—to remember the promise.
Luther, in both catechisms, is a ready resource for teaching about baptism. He is so bold that just a few quotes from the Large Catechism should nearly overwhelm everyone, whether previously familiar or not with these teachings: “It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted.” “This is the simplest was to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves.” “Believe firmly what baptism promises and brings – victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.” “But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body….And live forever.”
The theology so clearly stated by Luther encourages Lutherans to laugh and dance in absolute certainty. That seems important!
Offering conversations and discussions instead of scripted lectures about baptism might be helpful, by making them different enough each time to encourage repeated participation by the same people.
Maintaining a visible presence of baptism is important. It is about the fullness of sign and symbol, and the strength and power of those signs and symbols. A tiny little font pushed over in the corner or into a closet when not being used, and dry most of the time, hardly reflects the power of baptismal teachings, or the power of God to forgive sins and change lives.
It was about power of symbol when Luther recommended immersion. The amount of water does not make the baptism better or worse, but it does empower the symbol. A wet finger touched to the forehead of the person being baptized might well be a valid baptism, if that was an issue, but it does not convey the sense of washing, drowning and dying with Christ. Not what little water is needed; we need to be thinking of strong full symbols, full signs and great amounts of water, running water, bucketsful of water, bubbling-gurgling water. And it ought to be there when the people are there, to see, hear, feel, and think about.
The traditional location for the place of baptism is near the entrance to where the community worships. There should be enough space around the font to gather a sizable baptismal party and all the children (so they can see, participate and learn) and maybe even get “accidentally” splashed.
In the examples I have observed, a baptismal facility consisting of two levels seems to serve the community well, is attractive in appearance, and seems to be very popular – with a large font type structure elevated in order to dip infants, and then the water flowing down into a lower container, large enough to immerse adults with lots of water. St. Paul, as in Romans 6:4, always seems to equate baptism with drowning more than with washing. That is worth remembering! So perhaps we need enough water in both parts of the facility in order to “look like burial.”
The placement of the baptismal facility near the entrance, the sound of flowing water, and the amount of water are all important reminders which together build and strengthen the full sense and sign of baptism.
Perhaps updating the baptismal facilities in a parish could provide a special focus and be a significant help in renewing the teaching and practice of baptism in the congregation.
Understanding the historic role of baptism and the catechumenate in the formation of Holy Week and Lent offers many possibilities to use this time again to center on teaching and practicing baptism in a renewed and revitalized way. This season opens many possibilities in bringing baptism out into the open of our consciousness and study. The Easter Vigil still stands as a favorite time for baptism because of its close association with our Lords suffering, death and resurrection. Baptism is still our way to participate and make that our own.
Many worship resources now recommend certain fixed days in the church’s year to celebrate baptism (actual baptisms, baptismal birthdays and ceremonies of baptismal renewal for the whole congregation). Lutheran resources, at least back to 1978, recommended five to eight days each year. It is not difficult to lay out all these days for the year for planning purposes.
What take no planning whatsoever is to include baptismal anniversary days in the Sunday Prayers of the Church. Many congregations already remember birthdays and wedding anniversaries. To remember baptismal anniversary days could be very refreshing and appropriate.
The service of baptism should always take place in the main Sunday service of the local worshiping community. The rite should include words spoken by all present. Any one of the new rites can serve adequately as an outline.
The role of sponsors needs a new and serious look—for children and adults. Their role in the rite needs to be carefully maintained, and materials should be available to help them understand and carry out their important role during the time of the actual baptism and in the years ahead.
The service of baptism should be as full as we are able and as enriched as we can possibly make it. This calls on us to use every symbol at our disposal. Lutherans need not be afraid of confusing the meaning of baptism by using other things besides water.
Luther kept other symbols because they enriched the teaching and the rite. He also added a prayer and only removed the oil but kept the laying on of hands. Aiden Kavanagh has demonstrated quite convincingly that baptism has never been a simple washing with water as many suppose. Baptism has always been a complex of symbols and actions; likewise, the metaphor of washing, when used alone, has never been adequate in isolation. Following the recommendation of the ILCW rite to add the oil back into the rite seems appropriate. because it enriches the rite and is a marvelous way to draw the theology of baptism into the ministry to the sick and dying by anointing them with “the oil of baptism.”
The Oil of Baptism is easily pulled into the ministry to the sick, the homebound and the dying. It is a good strong connection. And of course, baptism ought to be part of every funeral and burial service.
Daily repentance is a daily exercise of baptism, a daily return to baptism. It is the first and biggest step in extending the meaning of baptism into all of life, and perhaps the most important. Pastors who consistently speak the confession and absolution from the font are building an important foundation.
We have all heard Luther’s recommendation about beginning each day: “make the sign of the holy cross and say…” What a simple way to be reminded “I am a baptized child of God” and how I might live out the day with that in mind. Maybe a little transparent sticker on the bathroom mirror, “I am a baptized child of God” provides a profound reminder of who I am. Thereby, baptism is extended into all of life.
I’ve always encouraged people to know when their baptismal “birthday” was, so they can celebrate this significant event in their lives. Those who could track the actual day down, we have encouraged to take a good guess-date measured from their birthday. Everyone had a date and it turned out to be fun, affirming and meaningful to them.
I have for years always given the family two baptismal candles, knowing full well that the mother will always save one. The second is to use on the baptismal anniversary to encourage marking this day.
Frequent contact with baptism and baptismal theology helps everyone see baptism as a centering point. Luther cites Romans 6:4 and adds his own emphasis of “daily.” Let Christians regard their baptism as a daily garment, so the old creature dies daily and the new person is born again daily, And finally the line that has the ring of pure Luther – “Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism – begun once and continued ever after.”
David Pearcy has been a student of liturgy for forty years and served as a navy chaplain for twenty years.
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1. Eugene L. Brand, “New Accents in Baptism and Eucharist,” in Worship: Good News In Action, ed. Mandus A. Egge. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1973), 71.
2. Paul Lang, Ceremony and Celebration (St. Louis: Concordia, 1965), Preface.
3. James F. White, The Worldliness of Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 132–133
4. Martin Luther, "The Large Catechism," in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) [hereafter cited as BC], 457.
5. BC 459.
6. BC 461.
7. BC 462.
8. Contemporary Worship 7: Holy Baptism (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), 10.
9. Aiden Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), XIII.
10. Contemporary Worship 7: Holy Baptism, 28.
11. BC 363.
12. BC 466.
13. BC 465.