Quinquagesima| 2002| 1 Corinthians 13
When St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle Lesson that we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds he’s telling us to consider what actually happens in baptism. We see water and we hear words spoken. It may be in a church with a baby in the pastor’s arms over a little font like this one. It may be in a river with an adult immersed entirely under the water. Or it may be in a deep font with an infant immersed under the water. The amount of water and the age of the one being baptized are not important. What is important is what happens. For when we know what happens in baptism, then we can understand how God renews our minds and enables us to worship him.
Worship comes from the old English. Literally, it means ascribing worth to God. Today’s Epistle Lesson talks of worship as our “reasonable service.” The word “service” here is where we get the word liturgy. But the apostle isn’t talking about what we do in church. He’s talking about what we do outside of church. True worship takes place where we live. Where you live is where you present your body as a living sacrifice to God. You do so by serving your neighbor. Get to the job on time. Speak respectfully to those in authority over you. Don’t cheat on your taxes, but pay what you owe. Speak kindly to your children and don’t insult them. Treat your wife like a lady, and don’t speak harshly or rudely to her. Treat your husband with respect and don’t criticize him for his weaknesses. Keep yourself sexually pure. If you are not married, keep your hands where they belong and avoid situations where you might be led into sin. If you are married, remember that God gave you your husband or wife, and no one else should be like a husband or wife to you – only the one to whom God has joined you for the rest of your life.
This is what St. Paul calls the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” for your life. The reason folks think that these simple standards of conduct are unimportant is because they have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. So St. Paul continues to urge us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. People who live as if the feelings, needs, and wants of others aren’t important are living in service to themselves. But if you want to serve God, if your living is to be a Divine Liturgy for God, then see to it that you live for your neighbor. And your neighbor is not just the fellow next door, he’s your wife or husband, your son, your father, your boss, your employee, and the fellow at work that you wish would just go away and not come back.
God doesn’t need your service. Your neighbor does. God wants you to worship him by serving people. God loves all people. We know he loves us each individually because we know that he loves everyone. If he didn’t love everyone, we couldn’t know that he loves each one of us. And so it was for everyone that God sent his Son to be born, to live obediently, to suffer, and to die, and then to rise from the dead. The whole world is covered by the blood shed on Calvary’s cross. There isn’t a sinner you have learned to hate that God doesn’t love. There isn’t a sin that has hurt you that didn’t hurt Jesus as he paid for it on the cross. Who is it that has done you wrong? Jesus bore that sin. And this is why we must bear one another’s burdens and cover one another’s sins. If God does not look upon our sins, we shouldn’t either. This is what love is all about. Love forgives.
Only one man ever lived who needed no forgiveness. That’s Jesus. This is why John was shocked by Jesus’ request that John should baptize him. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was not a sinner and did not need to repent. He didn’t need to be baptized. Baptism couldn’t give him anything.
But he could give baptism everything. You see, no sins have ever been forgiven except for Jesus’ sake. How can water take away sins? Water can’t take away sins. Repentance can’t take away sins. Being sorry for what you’ve done wrong doesn’t make it right. You break the vase and you cry. So what happens to the broken vase? It stays broken, that’s what happens. Being sorry for doing wrong doesn’t turn what is wrong into what is right.
So of what value could baptism be? I suppose it could be a sign or public testimony of the sinner’s sincere intent to stop sinning. It could be a promise to live a pure life. But my promise may be broken. My testimony may be silenced. My intent may falter. If this is all baptism is, baptism is nothing more than symbolic of my own power. But that’s the problem. My own power isn’t good enough to keep me from falling.
This is why Jesus had to give baptism what he gave it. Without Jesus standing in the Jordan, baptism would have been nothing more than our own human promise to God. But listen to how Jesus explained himself to John. He said, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is a powerful statement! Jesus didn’t say, “This is something right to do.” He said, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Think of it: All righteousness! There is nothing good that needs doing, no righteous deed, no act of submission to the good and acceptable and perfect will of God that is not fulfilled. Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness. And that’s just what he did.
He fulfilled all righteousness by doing everything right. But he didn’t do it for his own benefit. Jesus is the eternal Son of God and has always been righteous. He didn’t need to assume human nature and become a man in order to become righteous. But he did need to become a man and live a life of holy obedience to God in order to fulfill all righteousness. It was for us. It was in our place. It was as our substitute. This is why he was baptized. The sinless Son of God doesn’t need to be baptized. It is we who need to be baptized. But if baptism were merely a symbolic washing that would show to God and the world our sincere intent to follow God, there would have been no need for Jesus to be baptized. We didn’t need Jesus’ example. We needed his righteousness. And this is what baptism gives us. Baptism joins us to Jesus. As St. Paul says, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27) The water of the Jordan in which Jesus stood is the water of our own baptism. What Jesus put into baptism is what we take out of it. And what Jesus took out of baptism is what we put into it. When Jesus was baptized, he put into it his own righteousness. We receive this same righteousness in our baptism. And when Jesus was baptized, he took out of it our sin. This is how baptism washes away our sin.
St. John puts it this way in his first Epistle, chapter 5, verse six: “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood.” He came by water. He was baptized. There it was that the Father called him his beloved Son. There it was that the Holy Spirit descended upon him. The Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was there revealed. The Father spoke from the open sky. The Holy Spirit appeared as a dove. The Son stood in the Jordan River. His innocence was publicly revealed to the world. His Father’s approval was upon him. He was there as our representative. He was there as our champion. He was there to do for God and for neighbor everything you and I failed to do for God and for neighbor. He was there to offer himself in service to God, as one whose mind would be perfectly conformed to the will of God.
Not only by water, but by water and blood. It was there that he was ordained as the Lamb to be slaughtered. It was necessary for us that the Son of Man suffer and die. We are invited to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God because he offered his body as the bloody sacrifice for God. Our lives of giving ourselves in service to God and to one another are pleasing to God and receive God’s loving approval. Why? Because God’s beloved Son in whom he was well pleased offered himself to the penal justice of God and bore in his body and soul the pains of eternal hell for all sinners.
How is it that baptism can give you and me the righteousness we need? Because Jesus put that righteousness into the water, that’s how! How is it that baptism can wash away our sins? Because Jesus purchased forgiveness of all our sins by his sacrifice on Calvary and Jesus put into baptism the same forgiveness he won. When he said to John that he had to fulfill all righteousness, he wasn’t just talking about getting wet with the water of the Jordan. He was talking about sweating blood in Gethsemene. He was talking about the mocking, the whipping, the lies and the cruelty. He was talking about bearing the sin of the world. Baptism joins us to Jesus. So it is that baptism puts God’s name upon us.
I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. There is no other God but the Triune God. All other gods are idols. Only Jesus can bring us into fellowship with the Father. Only the Holy Spirit can open our hearts to receive Jesus. And this he must do for us, not just on the day we are baptized, but on every single day of our lives.
I’ve heard folks argue that since there is only one God this must mean that all those who worship someone they call “God” must be worshipping the same God. Jews, Muslims, and others who believe that there is one God must all be believing in the same God. This argument completely misunderstands faith. Faith isn’t saying there is one God. Faith is trusting in Jesus. Faith is being joined to Jesus. It is putting on Jesus. Faith and baptism go together. By baptism we are called to faith because baptism gives to us all of the treasures that faith receives. We receive God’s name. We receive Christ’s righteousness. We receive the Holy Spirit. The events of Jesus’ baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection are brought into our life and become ours.
Right after Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He continued to fulfill all righteousness. It began in the Jordan River. It continued as he defeated the devil in the wilderness and on the cross. It was finished on the cross when he said it was finished. And it bears fruit in our lives today. At the altar we receive into our bodies the body and the blood of Christ. His righteousness is thereby sealed unto us. The promise of our baptism is renewed. We are justified by Jesus’ blood. This is a wonderful meal. This is more precious than any treasure we have on earth. It is a foretaste of heaven. This is body and blood of our Savior Jesus who, in fulfilling all righteousness for us, received the approval of heaven. Having confessed our sins, we come to receive the body and blood by which they are forgiven. God continues to transform us and renew us. Baptism sent Jesus to the cross. It sends us to the altar where we receive the righteousness we need to live lives acceptable to God.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus