So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. Sin will have no power over you, because you aren’t under Law but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14, CEB)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The movie, “There Will Be Blood,” begins in the New Mexico wilderness in 1898. It is the story of silver miner and eventual oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who gets his lucky strike when oil is discovered near Los Angeles. Plainview becomes a self-made tycoon, but, as his fortune grows, he falls further and further into alcoholism and moral bankruptcy.
In this scene, Plainview goes forward in an altar call in a local church. While it appears he is confessing, those in the congregation are unaware that he is, in fact, manipulating them to gain the trust of one of their members to complete a land purchase. Let’s watch.
Tonight, we’re talking about baptism. I chose this clip in part because it seemed so shocking to me in two ways. First, it seems shocking to me that Plainview would go to such lengths simply to build his empire. Second, and perhaps even more shocking to me, is the level of humiliation and shaming that happens in order to gain Plainview’s confession before his baptism.
Tonight we are talking about baptism. This clip raises many questions for me about what baptism is. I’m wondering if it raises any of the same challenges for you, as well.
In particular, if we watch the journey of this man to baptism, the public shame, the public humiliation, I have to wonder if this is truly what God intends. Irrespective of Plainview’s motivations, I have to ask the question if this is what God wants for us in baptism?
Over these past weeks, we’ve been working our way through the elements of Luther’s Small Catechism. If you recall our first week, I mentioned that Luther re-ordered the elements of the catechism from the way they had been traditionally ordered. In 1522, in his preface to the Personal Prayer Book, which was a forerunner of the Small Catechism, Luther wrote about this change in order, comparing it to one’s recovery from illness.
First, according to Luther, you receive the diagnosis (in the Ten Commandments), then you are told the source for healing (God’s grace as revealed in the Creed). You call the pharmacist to fill the prescription (the Lord’s Prayer). Finally, you take the prescription and begin the healing process (the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion).
In the Large Catechism, Luther reminded the reader of the same basic movement in the life of a Christian: our inability to fulfill the Ten Commandments, God’s mercy revealed in the creed, our cry for that very mercy in the Lord’s Prayer. And, then, receiving that mercy in the sacraments of baptism and communion. From law to gospel.
This basic principle of interpretation--moving from law to gospel--opens up Scripture for us. The distinction between the two was not intended to divide the Old and New Testaments. Instead, the distinction between law and gospel arises from a belief that God’s Word does something to us. Yes, the law provides order in our world and a guide to how to treat each other. But, more importantly, the law breaks down, strips bare, destroys, terrifies and puts to death by uncovering our desire to control God and our own salvation. By contrast, the gospel, which is God’s answer to our human predicament, builds up, clothes in righteousness, creates, comforts and brings new life by announcing God’s unconditional promise.
In addition to the movement between law and gospel, the Small Catechism also helps us read the Bible in a third way. Early in his career, Luther developed what he called the “theology of the cross.” This term isn’t at all related to why Christ died on the cross. Instead, it reveals a God to us who shows up in the very last place we would think to look. And, even further, it reveals the true nature of God, a God revealed in Jesus Christ. A God who did not come in power, but in the least of places we could imagine. In a manger. And on a cross. This is why the gospel is so very radical.
So what does all of this have to do with baptism anyway? This conversation around the law and the gospel, around the theology of the cross.
Well, baptism is one place where we get a glimpse of this foolish, weak God of ours. It is in the Small Catechism where Luther asks the question, “How can water do such great things?” The answer? It is not the water, but the Word that is connected to the water. It is here in baptism, through the power of God’s Word, the power of Scripture, connected with the earthly element of water that God puts to death this old creature. This creature that is wracked by guilt and shame. And, it is in baptism, that God brings a new creature out of this water. A new creature freed from the guilt and shame of sin.
As Paul writes in our text today, “we were buried together with Christ Jesus through baptism into his death.” And, if this is so, if our old selves are put to death through the power of God’s Word with the water, then we are also united together with Christ through the power of God’s Word with the water. This is baptism. It is where we are joined with Christ, both in his death and in his resurrection. It is where we shed this garment of sin and guilt and shame and where we are freed to live life fully. To live into the whole person God created each of us to be.
And that’s where this portrayal of baptism in this movie clip is just wrong. It is just wrong.
The truth about the human condition is not that we need to be made to feel guilty, but that we already are guilty. We already are ashamed. More guilt and shame is not what God desires for us.
What God desires for us is life. Life and freedom. And relationship. That we might be freed from the guilt and shame. That we might live into our relationship with God and with the community into which we are baptized. And that, together, we might share this life and freedom with the whole world.
This is what baptism is. It is where we are reborn as people of God. Alive. Free. Together.
May God bless us through our baptisms. Amen.