God’s Word concerning Baptism is from the third chapter of Titus:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. (Titus 3:3-8a)
What is Baptism? We need to know if we are going to use Baptism as God intended for it to be used. We need to know if we are going to teach others toward Baptism and out of their Baptism. What is it, this thing called Baptism? The Small Catechism gives as good a start as any. “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.” Baptism, then, is two thing, or three, depending on how you are counting them. It is water and God’s Word, and that Word is a Word of command and a word of promise. Water, command, promise, Baptism.
Baptism is not just plain water. This is true. But it is water. That we must acknowledge, and acknowledge first. No water, no Baptism. How much water, God didn’t say. Certainly enough water to get you wet. Water is the material substance of Baptism. God works through material means, through creaturely instruments.
Water is the creature of God over which the Holy Spirit hovered in the beginning when God created and ordered the heavens and the earth. By water and the Spirit all things were made. By means of water God judged the unbelieving world at the time of Noah, and through f the same water He saved Noah and his family in the ark. Through water, God made Himself an Israel. His people passed through the water on their exodus to freedom and life. By means of water, God cleansed Naaman, the Syrian army commander, of his leprosy and restored his skin to that of a young boy. Into water Jesus stepped to “fulfill all righteousness” in John’s baptism. Washing water became wedding wine at Cana in Galilee, the first of Jesus’ miracles. Water and blood issued forth from the spear-pierced side of Jesus on the cross. Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and Spirit, He cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” He commanded that disciples be made by washing with water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Water plays an important role in our lives. We all remember the impact of a drought. The crops fail, our lawns and gardens wither, man and beast suffer. We are all born in water, literally. And so it should not come as a surprise that our second, heavenly birth is also through water, in which we are conceived anew by the Holy Spirit and born from above by our heavenly mother, the Church. Water sustains life. Our bodies are over 75% water, and without water we ill quickly die. The 3rd century church father Tertullian likened Christians to little fish swimming about in the water with their big Fish Jesus. Take the Christian out of the living water of Baptism, and he or she will surely dry up and die of dehydration. Water cleanses. We wash our bodies and our clothes with water. Just think of life without baths or showers, and you will get an appreciation for the gift of water.
The apostle Paul calls Baptism “a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is a washing of regeneration, rebirth, re-creation. It is a birthing, creating, life-giving water. It is a water through which we are born anew with a heavenly birth, not of the will of our flesh but of the will of God. Here the Spirit again hovers over the water, as He once did at the creation. Here God again speaks His creative Word. Something new takes place. We become new creatures in Baptism, born of the water and Spirit by the Word of God. “If anyone is in Christ (and “in Christ” means baptized for St. Paul), he is a new creation.” That’s why the baptistries of the early church had scenes from the Garden of Eden painted on the walls. That’s why candidates in the early church were baptized completely naked, even without jewelry. Baptism is Paradise restored through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The old has gone, the new has come. God and man are once again reconciled, at peace, at one, in harmony, as it was in the beginning, is now in the water of Baptism, and ever shall be.
Baptism is also a washing of renewal. It is not only a life-giving water, it is also a life-sustaining and cleansing water. This is living water, made alive by the Lord and Giver of Life, poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, washing us from the leprous stain of our sin. The filth of our lies, our deceits, our adulteries, our lust, our anger, our prejudice, our greed, our gossip, all that proceeds out of hearts unbuckled from God is washed away in this flood of God’s grace. Our guilt and shame is dissolved and lifted from us. At His transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing shined brighter than any soap on earth could bleach them. In Baptism, our priestly vestments shine before God in heaven with the same heavenly brightness, brighter than any work of ours could bleach them.
We must not despise this water. It is fashionable in our materialistic day to despise material things when it comes to religion. We are a most material people when it comes to what we will eat, and what we will drink, and what we will wear. But when it comes from God, then it must be “spiritual,” non-material. That is the way of the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato. The old Adam is a good Platonist, dividing the spiritual and the material, sticking God in heaven and us on earth. But what God has joined together, we must not divide. Water, word, Spirit are all together in Baptism. Keep them all together. The water is the setting into which the precious jewel of God’s Word is set by the Holy Spirit. We must not tamper with it, lest by despising the setting, we lose the diamond; by despising the water, we lose the Word.
Baptism is water connected to the Word of Christ’s command. Jesus established Baptism. He commanded this water. It is His Baptism, not the Church’s, not ours. Christ commanded baptism when He said to His disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And He promised to be with His church in this baptizing and teaching. “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
The Church obeys the command of Christ when she baptizes and teaches. That’s what the Church and her Ministry are given to do. That’s how disciples of Jesus are made, and Jesus has given us no other way. There are no special gimmicks, no slick programs, no clever methodisms to replace baptism and catechesis. Everything that a congregation does, ought to orbit around these twin activities of baptizing and teaching. As the Church we need constantly to ask ourselves, how does this or that relate to baptizing and teaching? Are we teaching people into Baptism? Are we teaching people out of their Baptism? If we can’t make the connection, then the Church shouldn’t be doing it. Let some other institution take care of it. We have no mandate from the Lord except to make disciples of Jesus by baptizing and teaching.
This disciple-making command of Jesus connected to the water gives us confidence. Jesus is with us in this activity. He approves of it. He authorizes it. He promises to be with it and in it. Though we see a man’s hand pouring the water, it is nonetheless God’s hand. Though we hear a man’s voice speak the words, it is nonetheless God’s voice. Baptism is God’s Word and work, not our work. We are on the receiving end of the gifts. God is the Giver. When the world asks why we are baptizing, we need only answer, “The Lord commands it.” Why do we baptize our babies? The Lord commands it. Why do we insist that Baptism is necessary for salvation? The Lord commands it. It is His Baptism; we only work here.
This water connected with God’s command is also combined with God’s Word of Promise. Plain water couldn’t do what Baptism does. Not every washing can be called a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. Not every bath is a Baptism. What makes baptismal water a holy, life-giving, and cleansing water is the Word. Baptism is a washing of water with the Word. When a Christian says the word “Word,” He means first and foremost Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh. Baptism is a washing of water with Jesus, His perfect life and suffering, His death and resurrection. Jesus is the Source of this water, the fountain opened to the house of David (Zech. 13:1), the font of forgiveness, the Rock from which refreshing streams of water flowed to quench the hot thirst of our sin. The prophet Zechariah said, “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” On the Friday we call Good, God opened the cleansing fountain with the thrust of a Roman sword. In our Baptism, we are cleansed in that fountain.
The Promise of God in Baptism makes the water bloody with the blood of God’s Son which cleanses us from all sin. The blood of Jesus is the detergent in the water, the cleansing agent into which our robes are plunged to make them white in the blood of the Lamb once for sinners slain. It is the Word that delivers the blood. It is the Word that makes baptismal water “a divine, heavenly, holy, blessed water,” for it is the Word that makes holy, and without the Word of God nothing can be called holy. With His Word, God puts Himself into Baptism. He stakes His honor, Name, power, and reputation on it. Jesus is there with us, in the water. The Spirit is there with us, hovering as a dove. The Father is there with us, saying, “This is my beloved child.” All of this He does through the Word which is joined to the water of Baptism.
To despise Baptism is to despise God and His Word. To make Baptism into some kind of symbolic ceremony, a pious little work for friends and family, a religious little thing to do to the baby when the aunts and uncles from out of town can make it, a good excuse for a family gathering, a “christening” or dedication to have the baby “done,” is to diminish and deny the power of God’s Promise. No one who believes that the Word of God is living and active, and that the Word became Flesh and made His dwelling among us, can with the same mouth and breath deny that the Word is living and active also in the water of Baptism.
What blessing and benefits are given with this water connected to God’s command and combined with God’s Word? “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.” St. Paul in Titus chapter 3 says it in one word. Baptism saves. “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” Through Baptism God saves us. Peter says the same thing, when he writes, “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body [like an ordinary bath] but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Salvation means release, rescue, the removal the barriers and confines that hem us in. It is to be brought out of a cage into an open field, out of a narrow prison cell into a wide open place filled with light and air. Baptism gives us room to breath, to work, to pray, praise and give thanks, to serve others. “To be saved is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with Him forever.” Through the Red Sea, a people in bondage were set free. Through the “Red Sea” of Baptism, we are set free to be God’s people, to live under His lordship, to serve Him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Order is called out of chaos. Life is called out of death. Resurrection is called out of crucifixion. We, who are born in bondage to sin and death and cannot free ourselves no matter how hard we try and how much money we spend, are set free from our captivity by the death of Jesus applied to us.
When were you saved? St. Paul would say, “When you were baptized, washed with the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” In one sense, you could say that you were saved from before the foundations of the earth. But you weren’t there. In another sense, you could say that you were saved when Jesus died on the cross. But you weren’t there either. But you were there at your Baptism. And God was there for you to save you through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There Jesus was applied to you personally, by name. There His death became your death. His life became your life. His perfect righteousness became your perfect righteousness.
Baptism requires all hearts to believe. It is not enough that we have water poured on our heads. We must believe the Word of God’s Promise attached to Baptism. To receive the blessings and benefits requires faith. Baptism works the faith it requires. Sometimes God creates faith through His Word first, and then He bestows Baptism, as with an adult or an older child. Sometimes God gives Baptism first, and then creates faith. The order is God’s business. He alone raise the dead. And He does it when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel.
To believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior is to believe in the Baptism Christ has instituted to save you. Trust His Word on this: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Grant this Lord, to us all. Amen.
Last week we heard about what Baptism is. It is water that is comprehended in the mandate of Christ to make disciples; it is water combined with God’s Word, His promise to be present in Baptism and to save us through Baptism. We considered what gave Baptism its great power – the Word of God combined with the water. We recalled the blessings of Baptism. It is a washing of rebirth and renewal, the delivery of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. In short, “Baptism saves.” We noted the necessity of faith, how saving faith trusts the promise of Christ attached to Baptism. To believe in Jesus as your Savior is to believe in the Baptism that now saves you through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Tonite we are going to consider what Baptism means for daily life. “What does such baptizing with water mean for daily life? The idea that Baptism is a daily thing may come initially as a surprise to some people. If we look at Baptism only as an outward symbol and ceremony, something we do to identify ourselves as Christians, or even something God does to identify us in the way of a sign or symbol, then we might logically conclude that Baptism is one time thing, something done once and then simply remembered with a certificate, much like graduations and anniversaries.
Yet many things done once have lasting effects. For example, marriage vows are exchanged once, but they have daily importance to those who are married. Marriage is living out the vows once made at your wedding. Ordination vows are spoken once, but they daily set the agenda for what a pastor is supposed to be doing. A contract is signed but once, but it is in effect for the life of that contract.
To be baptized is to have God speak to you and act on you. It is a decisive act of God. It is to become the object of God’s Word, a Word of both Law and Gospel. God has focused His attention on you in Baptism, you have been caught in the cross hairs of His Word. Baptism is not just a one time thing. It is a daily thing. Baptism is a daily garment, something we wear each and every day. In Baptism God has marked us with his seal of ownership, branded us as sheep of His pasture, covered the shame of our sin with Christ. In Baptism we wear Christ like a coat. The Christian life is a daily Baptism; and Baptism is the daily life of a Christian. It is a daily dying and rising. Just as we go to sleep each night and get up in the morning, we daily die to sin and arise to live in Christ through our Baptism. Daily dying and rising is the daily life of the baptized.
What exactly does this mean? And what exactly does this daily dying and rising look like? First the dying, then the rising.
Baptism is a daily dying in the death of Jesus. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The apostle Paul writes this as though everyone would know this and agree wholeheartedly with it, right down to the smallest child. We were buried with Christ by baptism into His death. Baptism unites us with the death of Jesus.
Death is the necessary lot of a sinner. The wages of sin is death. The soul that sins must die. Sin and the sinner must be put to death. There is no way around it. We have an intuitive sense of that. That’s why we hate death and fear it so (unless we are in denial of it). We know deep down the consequences of our rebellion. We know that we must die. The person whose life is in shambles and who feels the stinging shame of his or her sin says, “I just want to die.” And God says to that person, “I can arrange that. Repent and be baptized.”
In the death of Jesus on the cross, God has given the world a death in which a sinner may die now and live forever. It is either die now in the death of Jesus and live forever in His life; or live now apart from the death of Jesus and die forever in your own death. There is no third option. Jesus died for sin and rose from the dead. “The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” Baptism joins us to the death of Jesus. It nails us to His cross, buries us in His tomb. God has put our sin out of His sight. He has buried it in the death of His Son, hidden it in His wounds, sealed it up in His grave.
Baptismal death in the death of Jesus is a death in hope. “If we have been united with Jesus in a death like his, we shall also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We know how our story ends. We know how the last chapter comes out for those who are joined to Christ. Christ has died. And we have died with Him. Christ has risen. And we will rise with Him. That means whatever may come our way in this life – whether poverty, disease, pain or persecutions – our present sufferings cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in us. Whatever burden the cross of Christ may bring to us now, it does not compare with what we will be ours in the resurrection of the righteous.
Baptism means that by daily contrition the old Adam in us should be drowned and die together with all sin and evil desire. Baptism sets us in a struggle. Those who think that the baptized life is an easy life are kidding themselves. We have become the enemy of the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures. The devil roars and fumes against Baptism, and will stop at nothing to keep us away from it. The world hated Christ and crucified Him, and it will seek to crucify all who are joined with Christ. Our old, sinful nature despises this water combined with the Word. The old Adam is a good swimmer. He daily resists Baptism and refuses to be drowned by it. St. Paul says his works are plain: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. We don’t have to wonder where all the evil in the world comes from. We know. It comes from deep within us, and needs to be drowned daily in the bath of Baptism.
Baptismal means freedom. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin. “For he who has died is freed from sin.” Sin no longer has lordship over us. Christ has lordship. He lords His death and resurrection over us so that sin cannot harm us. Once we were slaves to sin; now, in baptism, we are slaves to righteousness. That is true freedom. Once we offered our bodies to sin as instruments of evil; now we offer our baptized bodies to God as instruments of righteousness, living sacrifices holy and acceptable through Christ’s sacrifice. Once we could do nothing but sin. Now we are free not to sin.
Baptism initiates an on-going struggle. Though we are dead to sin, we still sin. We, who have been justified, reckoned righteous by the death of Jesus, must now continually reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. We do this by confessing our sins, acknowledging our sinfulness before God, seeking His mercy, imploring His grace. This is where I think we Lutherans have stumbled. We have forgotten this fourth part of Baptism. And as a result, we have neglected the so-called “3rd sacrament” of personal confession and absolution, which Luther points out is nothing else than a return to and an application of Baptism.
One of the great sadnesses of Lutheranism today, indeed of most of Christianity today, is that the baptized do not know how to use their Baptism rightly. We fret and fuss and wring our hands over our sins instead of going to our pastor, confessing them, burying them, and being forgiven of them. There are some who imagine that is “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is baptism without repentance; absolution without personal confession, Christ without a cross. I think one reason we are so easily seduced by the latest methodisms for solving our problems is that we don’t want the strong medicines that Christ prescribes for us. We would rather wring our hands and bend our knees; we would rather recite slogans like “just say no” instead of saying yes to our Baptisms. We would rather work on our “problems” and “issues” instead of dealing with the fact that we are the problem, and we need to die in Jesus so that Jesus might live in us.
By confessing our sins, we bury them in Baptism, we drown them in the flood that flowed from Jesus’ side. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “Reckon yourselves dead to sin.” Confess your sin. Disown it. Throw it away. Nail it to Jesus’ cross. Bury it in Jesus’ grave. In confession, we are setting Baptism to work for us, unleashing the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives. We cannot conquer sin. Christ alone conquers sin for us. He does it through the daily application of Baptism. This is what the apostle Paul means when he says, “Sin will have no dominion over you.” Once sin had dominion over you, causing you to fear God’s wrath, bringing shame and guilt and doubt and death. Now Christ has claimed dominion over you. He covers you with His blood, frees you with His forgiveness, lords His death and resurrection over you. Baptism gives you the permission to come into God’s presence and to confess your sin to Him, expecting Him to forgive you.
Baptism means life – new life in the life of Jesus. We no longer live. We died and were buried. Christ now lives within us. His life is our life. Our life is the resurrected life of Jesus. He is at work in and through us. We are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” it is only “in Christ Jesus” that we are alive to God. Apart from Him, we are dead. But joined to Him by Baptism, we live.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Branches receive their life from the vine to which they are joined. Sap flows through the vine into the branches, bringing life, leaves, buds, fruit. In Holy Baptism, the sap of the Spirit flows through Christ into us, producing in us the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control. That is the harvest of Baptism.
Baptism is a life-giving water. “…the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Baptism is our daily spring, our daily refreshment, God’s birthing, healing, cleansing bath that makes us alive in the life of the Lamb who was slain but lives.
Luther was right when he said that there is a lifetime of learning in Holy Baptism. There is also a lifetime of dying and rising in the water with Jesus, every day until the end of our days, and in the end, eternal life. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Last week we heard about what Baptism means for daily life. Baptism is not just a once in a lifetime bath, but an ongoing dying and rising of the Christian. Daily the sinner dies in the death of Jesus. Daily the saint rises in the life of Jesus. Daily the washing and rebirthing work of Baptism is effected through the Word of God. Baptism is the beginning of a dying and rising that ends with our own death and our resurrection on the day of Jesus’ appearing.
This daily dying and rising brings us what is sometimes called the “third sacrament” – Holy Absolution. And such a poor and neglected one it is! It shouldn’t be so in a church that pledges her allegiance to the Lutheran Confessions which call absolution the “living voice” of the Gospel, and say that “it would be wicked to remove personal absolution” from our churches. Tell a fellow Lutheran that your church offers hours for personal confession twice a week and point out the confessional bench and I assure you that jaws will drop and eyebrows will rise. At a recent pastoral conference, one brother pastor of our district was heard to say with a sneer, “We all know that private confession is in the Confessions, but who does THAT any more?” Who indeed! The church that does not practice what the Lutheran Confessions preach is hardly entitled to be called a “Lutheran” church. If it was wicked to remove personal absolution in 1530, it is doubly wicked not to put it back where it was removed in 1997 – unless something has changed about our sin and Christ’s forgiveness.
Confession and absolution is the ongoing work of Baptism. It is a return to the water, a sprinkling with the Word of Baptism that first brought us life and cleansing. So basic is confession to the Christian life, that the Large Catechism simply says: “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” Christians confess their sins and are forgiven. Unbelievers deny their sins and have no use for forgiveness.
Bonhoeffer calls absolution without personal confession a form of “cheap grace,” a cross-less Christianity. It is the attempt to have repentance without shame, contrition without guilt. It is the equivalent of an out of court settlement – just pay the money admit no wrongdoing. God wants us at the bar of His justice. There is no back room bargaining with the Lord. There is only the Law and the Gospel, our sin and the death of Christ for our sin.
The gift of holy absolution consists of two parts. The first part is that we confess our sins. To confess means to “say the same words,” to say back what you have heard, the way a little child repeats what he has heard. We may feel badly about ourselves, have low self-esteem, feel guilty or depressed or isolated. The Law says to us, “You are a sinner.” That’s what is wrong with you. It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. We confess, “I am a sinner.” That is the only truth which a sinner can say. “I am a sinner.” Sinner means rebel, enemy of God, idolater, one who wants to overthrow God from His throne, one who fears, loves and trusts himself or herself instead of God. That is the truth about ourselves, and we must speak that truth before God.
The opposite of confession is denial. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive our selves and the truth is not in us.” When we deny our present sinfulness, we are kidding ourselves, and the truth is not at work in us. How often do we become irate if someone says to us, “You are sinning” or calls us a “sinner.”? Yet it’s the truth. That’s what we are. “If we say we have not sinned, we make (God) a liar; and his word is not in us.” The past counts too. The past and the present testify against us. We have sin, and we have sinned.
Confession puts the past and the present into concrete words. We may confess generally, such as we do in church every Sunday: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We also confess specifically, those things that we know and trouble us the most. The Lutheran Reformers were not interested in the mathematics of “how many” sins to confess. Who can know all his errors? “Forgive my hidden faults”, prays the psalmist. There is no end to the lists one could make. By the same token, the Reformers were not satisfied with a generic confession, the kind that you, me, and 5 1/2 billion people could all say together. “I, a poor miserable sinner.” True enough, but what makes you say that?
General confession without specific confession runs the risk of simply bad-mouthing ourselves. That isn’t telling the truth, but covering over the truth with a lesser truth. Specific confession run amuck can become a perverse sort of pride, a personal pity party in which we brag about our weakness and run our dirty laundry out on the line for the whole neighborhood to see. Speaking the truth of our sin means neither kicking the corpse of our body of death, nor putting it on display.
Confession is directed in three ways – to God, to the neighbor, and to the pastor. A Christian always confesses to God, and can always confess to God directly, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and in our own personal prayers. That is your privilege as a baptized child of God. People sometimes use this privilege as a dodge and an excuse. “I can confess directly to God; therefore, I don’t need to confess before another.” That isn’t humility, but pride. The very words and deeds we are ashamed to admit before a fellow sinner, we were not ashamed to say and do in full view of the Lord of heaven and earth.
Though we may confess to God directly, He always deals with us through the external Word, the Word outside of ourselves – through Baptism, through the Lord’s Supper, through the preached Word. The person who boasts confidently, “I can confess my sins to God directly, and therefore don’t need the church,” misses the basic point. It’s not our confession, but God’s forgiveness that matters. And God always deals with us through the incarnation of Jesus, through earthy, creaturely means such as water, bread, wine, words, in this case sound waves that emanate from mouths and go into ear holes.
A Christian also confesses to the neighbor, especially when he or she has sinned against the neighbor. Whenever we hurt and harm another, we need to confess it to that person, and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. We need to let Jesus get between us, or else our sins will push us apart. That is the double absolution for which we pray in the Our Father – that our Father in heaven would forgive us as we forgive others. Our problem is that we are out of practice. Our tongues are tied in knots. The language of confession sounds foreign to our ears because we don’t use it. Instead we harbor grudges and resentments. We nurse quarrels for years. We isolate and alienate each other. And this ought not be, especially in the Christian congregation which God instituted to be a place filled with forgiveness. The Christian has the call and command of Christ to go to the brother or sister who has sinned, to be like Nathan to David, rebuke the sin and restore the sinner.
Even the secular psychologists have caught on, at least in a small way. They are beginning to speak of “forgiveness therapy” – husbands and wives intentionally and specifically forgiving one another, parents and children confessing their sins against each other and absolving one another. Of all places, the church ought to be a laboratory where the conversation of confession is practiced and applied among the baptized children of God. But then again, “Who does that kind of thing anymore?”
Christians also confess to their pastor. There are several good reasons for doing this. First, he is ordained to hear confession. That’s what we put him there for. It is one of the tasks laid on a pastor at his ordination. Second, he is equipped by practice and training to help others sharpen and deepen their confession and to square them to the Word of God. Third, he is bound by solemn vow to secrecy, something that a close friends is not. For a pastor to break the seal of confession is grounds for dismissal.
Fourth, the pastor is a public, corporate person. He holds an office. The pastor does not speak for himself but for Christ and for the whole church. The pastor is a minister, a servant of the Word, a steward of God’s mysteries revealed in Christ. He is not there as superior, but as servant. He serves not “from above” but “from below.” He is there not to condemn but to forgive. He is under holy orders to forgive. A friend may forgive you simply to keep you as a friend. A family member may forgive you for no other reason than to keep peace in the family. Friends and family we have aplenty. Pastors, we have precious few. A pastor forgives by the divine order of the crucified, risen, and reigning Son of God, “in his stead and by his command.” He represents the person of Jesus, not his own person. Even if the pastor doesn’t like you, or even if you don’t like him, his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness, sure and certain, addressed to you. And that’s really all that matters.
That brings us to the second part, and more important part of confession, which is the absolution. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Absolution is spoken forgiveness, release, freedom. God releases the sinner from his or her sin; He puts our sin as “far as the east is from the west;” He buries it in the death of Jesus; He cleanses us with His holy, precious blood. He surrounds us with His innocent suffering and death.
God is faithful. He is trustworthy. He has promised to forgive. We can approach Him with confidence. He will not treat us as our sins deserve. “I forgive you,” God says to us, and who dares to contradict Him? To say, “No, it can’t be,” is to deny the cross of Christ. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Jesus did not die for me.”
God is also just. His justice demands a judgment, a verdict. God is just, and He justifies the sinner in Christ. He made Jesus into our sin. He judged Jesus guilty, and put on Him what we deserve. He condemned Jesus in our place. In Jesus, that is, baptized into His death and believing on His Name, God judges us innocent, righteous. God justifies the sinner in His Son.
“I absolve you. I forgive you.” This is no cheap, idle word. No “smile, be happy, God loves you,” saccharine sentimentality. This is a costly Word from God to you. It cost the Son of God his life. He sweat and suffered and bled and died so that this word might be spoken. It is a Word anchored in the past, nailed to the bloody cross of Golgotha, a Word that reaches into our present, into the here and now of our lives. It reaches into our ears and minds and hearts, a divine Word that says, “Christ Jesus died for you.” It is a word authorized and approved by the crucified and risen Son of God Himself, freshly risen from the dead with the wounds to prove it, who breathed His Spirit and words into His disciples and said, “The sins you forgive are forgiven; the sins you retain are retained.”
People are sometimes offended by the absolution. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The unbelieving Pharisees asked that of Jesus. “How dare that guy speak as though he were God!” People should be offended. The absolution is as offensive as the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is as offensive as the God who wears diapers and sleeps in a manger, or the God who hangs naked and bleeding on a cross. Only God can forgive. That’s true. And God only forgives through His Son, who became man, who speaks through His Church and the Ministry He ordained to speak. It is the living voice of God that we hear when we hear the absolution. “So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a man God looses and absolves him from his sins” (Large Catechism V.14)
Do we have to go to confession? Does a thirsty deer question whether he has to drink from a cold mountain stream? Does a hungry person ask whether he has to eat a free meal offered to him? Does one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness ask whether he has to hear a Word from Christ? Does a Christian ever ask whether he or she has to be forgiveness? Do we have to go to confession? Oh, you already know the answer. Of course you don’t have to go; God never forces anyone to be forgiven. You get to be forgiven; and always as a gift.
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:7-8)
I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:15-17)
If Holy Baptism is our daily garment, the clothing we wear on our journey from the Red Sea of Baptism to the promised land of the Resurrection, then the Lord’s Supper our daily food. The new life that is born in Baptism, that is bathed daily in the Word of forgiveness, is also nourished by the Word and the Meal. Word and Sacrament, Sermon and Supper are the provisions of our pilgrimage as God’s people. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus is our daily food. Jesus is the bread of life. Eat of this bread and you will never go hungry. Believe in him and you will never thirst. Jesus is Living Bread come down from heaven as the manna did for Israel in the wilderness. Eat of this living, heavenly Manna, believing Jesus’ words, and you will have what what His words promise: life, eternal life.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:54-55)
When Jesus first spoke those words in the synagogue at Capernaum, the people were scandalized. What sort of nonsense was this? Eating flesh and drinking blood! The Jews were offended. People left Him and wouldn’t follow Him anymore. They thought He was crazy or a blasphemer. Even the disciples were deeply disturbed by Jesus’ words. What could the Teacher possibly mean?
And then came that fateful night, the night of the Passover, the night Jesus was to be betrayed into death. An upper room had been prepared. The unleavened bread baked. The Passover Lamb had been sacrificed and roasted. Jesus sat at the head of the table with His Twelve, His Israel, His family. He took the large piece of unleavened flat bread that signaled the opening of the Passover meal. He gave thanks to His Father for the gifts. He broke it and handed the pieces to His disciples. Thus far theirs had been a Passover like any another Passover, recalling God’s grace to Israel when He brought them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom through the blood of the lamb smeared on their doorposts.
Then Jesus spoke. He spoke at a moment that called for no speaking. There were no words for the distribution of the bread in the Passover liturgy. What Jesus said at that moment had never before been said at a Passover meal. “Take, eat. This is my body, which is for you.” And again, after the supper, Jesus took the third chalice of wine called the “thanksgiving or blessing cup,” gave thanks and then said something that had never before been said at a Passover meal, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Jesus was treating the Passover as though it were His own. It was. Jesus is the Lord. This is the Lord’s Passover.
With these words, Jesus put Himself into the Passover meal. With the bread, He gives His body as food – the body He received from His mother Mary. The body that was conceived in her through the Word spoken by the angel in the power of the Holy Spirit. The body that was wrapped in diapering cloths and laid in a manger. The body that was whipped and beaten, spit at and slapped. The body that was nailed to the cross, laid in the tomb, raised from the dead on the third day. “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Of course it is. His words declare it to be so, and His words are true. His body Jesus gives as bread to eat. This bread, in His hand, and in the disciples mouths, is His body.
With the cup, He gives His blood. With the wine, He gives His blood as drink. This is the blood of God’s Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. The cross is the doorpost of the world, and the blood of Jesus is the blood of the Passover Lamb. The medieval artists who depict a chalice at the foot of the cross and a stream of blood pouring into it from the wounded side of Jesus understood the force of Jesus’ words. The blood that was shed on Calvary’s cross is now our drink, our cup of thanksgiving, our eucharistic cup. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?” Of course it is. Jesus’ words declare it to be so, and His words are true. His blood, Jesus gives as wine to drink. This wine, in the Lord’s chalice, and in the disciples’ mouths, is His blood.
To eat and drink is to incorporate and absorb all the blessings and benefits of food and drink. When we eat and drink, our bodies absorb all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats contained in the food. The energy of the sunshine, the nutrients of the soil, the blessings of the rain, all are incorporated by our bodies through the act of eating. When we eat bread, we release and incorporate the energies and nutrients of the wheat. When we drink wine, we release and incorporate the energies and nutrients of the grape.
To eat and drink the Passover, was to incorporate all the blessings and benefits of God’s grace in the exodus. By eating and drinking this meal, and hearing the story of the exodus, all the blessings of the first night were brought home to you. You couldn’t go back to Egypt on the night that Israel walked to freedom through the blood of the Lamb, but the benefits of the exodus were delivered to you through the Passover meal. By eating and drinking the Passover, you were united with all of Israel and participated in Israel’s life and freedom. You couldn’t go to the exodus, but the gifts of the exodus could come to you in the Passover.
In the same way, by eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper, you participate in the life and freedom of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. He was offered up for our sins. Christ did His own exodus by being baptized, by suffering, dying and rising from the dead. His death and life He now gives as food and drink. His broken body is our living Bread. His poured out blood is our Wine. Where body and blood are separated, there is sacrifice. Christ was sacrificed once for all on the cross. We can’t go back to Calvary, but the blessings of Calvary can and do come to us. On the cross the forgiveness of sins was won for the entire world. There the Son of God gave His life for you. In the Supper, Jesus’ body and blood once offered on the cross for our sins, is now delivered and distributed to us as a Meal. Here the Son of God gives His life to you.
You have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” It ordinarily is not true. People who eat carrots do not become carrots. People who eat pork, do not become pigs. People who eat chickens, do not become chickens. Ordinary, what you eat becomes what you are. The food you eat becomes bone and blood and muscle and skin.
But the food of the Lord’s Supper is a different kind of food entirely. It is extraordinary, heavenly, miraculous food. With this food, you really are “what you eat.” “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). We eat the body of Christ, we drink His blood, hearing His words “given and shed for you,” and we become what we eat – the body of Christ! There is no greater union that we can have with Christ and with one another as believers in Christ, than kneel together at His table and eat His Supper.
In His Supper, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation. These are what is released when we eat His body and drink His blood trusting in His words – the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation from sin and death. We seem always to be in search of the perfect food, the food that will cure our ills, the food that will give us energy and vitality and health. We run after the latest food kicks – oat bran and olive oil, to name but two. We pop vitamins and minerals, we down elixirs and potions, we shell out hard earned money for the latest diet fads, all in the hope of reversing the ravages of death at work in us, or at least stalling it for a while. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us the very food we’ve been looking for. It is food for eternal life. The Large Catechism calls it, “a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body.” Christ puts His very body and blood into us. Think of what that means. It means that He goes with us, even to the grave, because He will never abandon His own body and blood.
It’s a strange thing, that people who would not think of skipping a meal, or neglecting their daily dosage of vitamin supplements, think nothing of going weeks, months, or even years at a time without eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ. Luther was amazed to find that when people no longer had to go the Lord’s Supper, they no longer did. He would be even more amazed today. We let foolish and trivial things stand between us and this life-giving food – the music, the length of the service, the style of worship, the building, personality conflicts. If I told you that this food could cure cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and whatever ails you, would it matter much to you if we served it on china with classical music or on paper plates with country? If you believed that this Supper delivered resurrection from the dead and eternal life, would you let anything get in the way of your eating and drinking?
I believe that many of the problems that we have in church life today are because we do not wholeheartedly believe our Lord when He says, “My body given for you; my blood shed for you.” Everything else simply pales by comparison. Think of what most people will put up for great food – long lines, bad parking, crowded seating, surly waiters, bad lighting, noisy conditions. But if the food is good, hey, it’s worth it, isn’t it? If we had as many excuses for not eating our daily food as we have for not eating the Lord’s Supper, we’d starve to death within a month.
We need to revive our appetite for the fruits of the cross, our hunger and thirst for righteousness that come to us in the Lord’s Supper. Luther noted three appetite stimulants for those who feel no hunger or thirst.
Examine yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror of the Ten Commandments. See how things are going within your heart. If you are indeed truly pure and upright, if you have no sin, if you feel no guilt and shame, if you have kept every point of God’s holy Law perfectly, then you don’t need to come to the Lord’s Supper. You also have no need for Christ, and He has no need for you. But if you see your sin and your brokenness, if death is smiling back at you in the mirror, if you are weighed down and heavy with guilt, if you are ashamed of the things you have done in public, where everyone sees, and in secret where no one but God sees, then by all means, go to the Supper for refreshment, as Jesus invites, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Second, look around you a bit. Check to see if you are still in the world. If you’re not sure, check with the neighbors. They’ll be able to tell you. If you are still in the world, then you are in a wilderness, a war zone. There will be no lack of sin and temptation all around you. Try to reflect the love of Christ into the world and see what happens. You will quickly discover that the prince of this world, the devil, is prowling about and raging. His time is short, and He knows it. You never know what misery and misfortune he can suddenly bring you. You never know from what side you will be attacked. You shouldn’t have to look far to see that the enemy is all around us as well as in us. Were it not for Christ, we wouldn’t be safe for a single moment. We need all the help and strength we can get. Only a fool goes into battle without eating.
Third, cling to the Scriptures. Luther says that if you truly do not feel any sin and do not see the evil around you in the world, which is most unlikely, then take your hand, stick it in your shirt and check to see if you are made of flesh. And if you find that you are made of flesh, then turn immediate to St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians where you can read that the works of the flesh are “adultery, immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, murder, drunkenness, carousing, etc.” St. Paul says, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, there dwells no good thing.” And if the apostle can say that about himself, we dare not pretend to be any holier or better. It is something to be feared, when we no longer feel our sins or the pressures of the Law bearing down on our conscience. It means that we are so utterly dead in sin that we no longer hear God’s Word or fear His judgment. That gives us something to say to those who say, “I don’t feel a need to go to church.” As Luther put it, “The less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason you have to go to the Sacrament and seek a remedy.”
Examine yourself, look around you, cling to the Scriptures. Even more, recall the great price that the Son of God paid to make you His own, by giving His body and blood on the cross, and the words with which He gives these gifts to you – “Take, eat, this is my body given for you; take, drink, this is my blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” It is the Lord’s Passover. Amen.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the communion, which is the Breaking of the Bread, and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, own translation)
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)
To eat and to drink with God is the highest form of fellowship that we can have. Table fellowship with God is the ultimate fellowship. It is to come into His presence with thanksgiving, to be welcomed at His table, to eat His food and drink His wine, to be guests in His house. People pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to have a cup of coffee and a danish with the president or a round of golf with a high ranking congressman. But table fellowship with God is free, a gift of His grace, purchased with the blood of God’s Lamb, His Son Jesus poured out on the cross.
The Lord’s Supper is the Lamb’s High Feast. It is the Feast of feasts, a meal in which our Lord Himself is the cook, the servant, and the meal itself. His Body and His Blood, given under bread and wine. The Lamb of God roasted on the cross in the fire of God’s wrath against our sin and His burning love for sinners, here is our Food and Drink. He gives us His body and blood with His very words, spoken through His minister, “given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” Christ is speaking to you, Christ is feeding you, Christ is your food. This is table fellowship with God in the most complete way. Never before had God so dined with His people as in this meal.
The Lord’s Supper is a feast that takes up and fulfills all the great feasts of the Old Testament. We remember Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel on Sinai, of whom the Scriptures say, “they behold God, and ate and drank.” And the annual passover meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread. The heavenly gifts of manna and quail in the wilderness. And the communion sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple in which a penitent ate of the sacrifice in the presence of the priest. And the miraculous meal of bread and water that took Elijah 40 days across the Sinai desert.
The Lord’s Supper takes up and fulfills all the new testament feasts as well. We recall Jesus’ feeding of the four thousand and on another occasion five thousand. And His love for eating and drinking with the tax collector and the Pharisee, the prostitutes and the religious. It seems that Jesus never turned down a dinner invitation, so that he quickly got the reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard” among those who notice such things. We recall the Emmaus road on the Day of Resurrection, when Jesus appeared to two of His disciples walking on the road. He preached a sermon to them from the Scriptures and revealed himself in the breaking of the bread.
For nearly two thousand years thereafter, the church has devoted herself to the preached Word and the Sacrament, to the apostle’s teaching and table fellowship. Sermon and Supper were so much the rhythm of the first day, the Day of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, that for over 1500 years it would have been unheard to have the Lord’s Day without a Lord’s Supper. Sermon and Supper were one whole thing, not to be divided. It was the radical reformation, not the Lutheran Reformation, that broke table fellowship with the Lord and made the ongoing feast of God into an occasional thing, three or at most four times a year, instead