A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Baptism


Baptism icon by Andrij Vynnychok 

Baptism of Isaiah Leslie Martin
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Ezekiel 36:24–28, Psalm 27, Romans 6:3–5, John 3:1-6

Dear Isaiah.

Today is the day of your baptism. This letter was the sermon for the day, which means that it was read in the church, and this is as it should be because although in one sense your baptism today is for and about you, in another sense your baptism is actually for and about the church. In this individualistic age, it is important to remember that there is no solo Christian. Salvation is not a private event. We are baptized into the church, into the body of Christ or in some sense we haven’t been baptized at all.

In another very real sense, baptism is about Christ. It’s not a bad shorthand, Isaiah, whenever you see the water, whenever you hear the word baptism, to think Christ. It is in Christ you are baptized with water and the spirit. It’s not the water that’s the main thing. Without Christ all you are doing today is taking a very public bath and that’s very, very weird. But with Christ and by Christ and through Christ, you are immersed, not only into the water, today you are immersed into the very life and love of God. Ordinary water can both kill like a flood or make alive like a drink for a man who is almost dehydrated. Put Christ into the waters of baptism and it actually does both at the very same time. And this is a good thing because that’s what we humans need to be killed and made alive by God.

By the time you are old enough to want to read the letter Daddy wrote you today, you might just be beginning to understand this a little bit, and it will get more and more clear with the passage of time. We have thoughts and feelings and habits in our lives that are not very good. Actually, don’t let me spare your feelings and thereby lie to you. What they are is evil. “Our very being,” Saint Augustine once said, “is incurvatus in se.” That’s Latin and it means that we are turned inward, self-absorbed. We are at a very basic level only concerned with ourselves and what we want. That may mean that we will lie or cheat or steal or hide away in secret to do what we want. Sometimes, too often really, my son, we can do even worse.

Now I want to believe that you’ll be the kind of nice and sensitive boy that won’t want to be this way. That would make me very happy, but sadly it won’t help. Don’t let the culture of self-improvement seduce you. You cannot make it better, and by the time you are my age, even a positive and healthy self-assessment of yourself, if honest, will leave you with only one conclusion: Humanity left to its own strength is not just less than ideal. It, we, me, all of us are dead in sin. We don’t need a self-help book. We don’t need a makeover, we don’t need a renovation. We need a resurrection. And that’s what you get today.

In the waters of baptism your sinful nature is killed, is killed, and buried with Christ and you begin to live a new life in God. That’s what Paul is saying in the sixth chapter of Romans, part of which we read as you were baptized today. Your mother and I named you Isaiah. Hopefully, even your name will help you understand and remember what happens today and how the name means, “God is salvation.” And your namesake perhaps best among all the prophets testified to this fact that in Christ the warfare of our lives is over and our sins are pardoned. God does it.

We had a reading from Ezekiel today and it makes it clear. Listen again just to a few verses, “I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you. I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. God will take the initiative,” he says.

He says, “I will,” 10 times in just three verses. God will. Not Isaiah or mommy or daddy or your godparents or Saint Brendan’s. There’s an old hymn daddy loves that goes, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” That’s what you get today. How? Through water infused with Christ and his promise. The blood and water of his crucifixion flow into the font, and much to the wonder and amazement of old Nicodemus and, indeed, to the wonder and amazement of us all, by water and the spirit, you are not just killed but born again, born again.

Over time, the words of others and the persistence of sin in your life may cause you to doubt these words, the truth of the fact of today. Allow me to encourage you ahead of time. You are baptized today. You are born again. In the recent history of the church, there has risen a novel theology of baptism in being born again. It is a theology that forgets that God does the saving without our help. You may find some people who will say that your baptism didn’t take somehow. That what was needed was a decision or a mature belief or a walk-up to the altar in a time of repentance. Love these people, Isaiah. They are your brothers and sisters. Beyond that, however, pay them no mind.

Our family stands within an older strand of faith with a different understanding of what God does today. A decision? Christ made one for you. Mature belief, well, that’s confirmation, but since when does understanding contribute to what God does? A walk-up to the altar? You will do that every week as you make Christ in the Eucharist. Give no heed to these new trends in theology. They’re a mere 300 years old. Trust instead in the testimony of the apostles, Araneus, Apolatus, Cyprian, Cyril, Basil, Athenasius, Ambrose, the Gregorys, Augustine, Luther, Cranmer and, yes, even your dad.

Today on account of Christ’s work for you, you are born again. Luther was once asked by an anxious, fearful man, “How can I know if I am saved?” He replied, “Remember your baptism.” Remember Isaiah. Remember your baptism in the dark days of your life. And by dark days I mean those where the pain in you or others is all your fault. Where you squandered your inheritance in a land that is waste. The hope the old man within us hangs on in our life until our dying breath. We are somehow at the same time justified and sinner and so those dark days are quite likely. And just like when certain Christian friends challenge your salvation, when you come to the end of these dark days and you awaken to a renewed faith, you may be tempted in your thinking that you need to do something. As if Christ hasn’t already done it. Or that a re-baptism, as if there was such a thing, is in order. That would be a mistake.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism. So says our liturgy, so says Ephesians. It is true that we repent. We do begin again and again and again, but never confuse the need for confession and absolution with some kind of need to be washed a second time. Unlike the baths mommy gives you, this one’s once for all. In absolution you are clothed once again in the vestal robe of baptismal grace that is now your birthright and Christ forgives your sins again. You feast at His table again and again and again just as if you were still immersed in that water because in a very real, yet mystical sense, you will be always immersed in that water.

One baptism for the forgiveness of sins plus absolution plus the holy mysteries. That’s it. But for that you will need to stay a part of the church. We will soon pray a prayer asking God, not only to deliver you from destruction, but also to allow you to be received into the ark of Christ’s church. Just as old Noah escaped the decadence of his culture and destruction being saved through the water in the ark, so the ark of the church is the only place, my son, that you will find the means of grace that will sustain you in today’s flood of decadence, confusion and hectic consumerism.

Here in 2023, I say this to your brothers and sisters of St. Brendan’s, to any Christian I encounter, I say it ad nauseum, my son, you need to be here, not because God will love you more if you come, but because you need to be here. Here is where the Word and sacraments are found. Here is the healing for your wounds. Here you can learn how to love the God who first loved you and your neighbor as yourself. Despite what you’re going to think in a few minutes, my son, here is where you will not drown.

By the time you are my age, Isaiah, it will be the year 2077. If we at St. Brendan’s can’t really survive a solo individualistic Christian life now, how will you possibly be able to manage then? Please, my son, do not graduate from church. Do not allow it to become a part-time affair or something your family was into. Stay in the ark. I beg you.

And if you are reading this letter again at one of those dark times when you have gone far away and are full of pain, just go right back now. Your sisters and brothers are waiting for you and your heavenly Father will run to embrace you anew. Just stumble through the door.

That’s about all I want to say to you today, son. It will likely be years before you read this, even more years before you understand. Today just let me conclude by saying that this is the best thing your mother and I know to do for you. We bring you to this font as your parents. We adore you, we cherish you, and so we give you back to Him who first gave you to us eight short weeks ago. Jesus is making all things new, through the blood and water from his side through the Holy Spirit, through the ark of the Church. And today it is your turn to be made regenerate, better and safer and more loved than your little mind will ever know or comprehend. We can’t wait to see who you will become in Christ, and we love you so very, very much.

Enough words. Let’s get you wet. Jesus is waiting for you in, with and under the water.

With my complete devotion,

Dad.

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