Sunday, February 12, 2012

How Much Will We Charge for a Baptism?

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12, A+D 2012
Trinity and St John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
2nd Kings 5

How much will we charge for a Baptism? 
     This past week I was blessed to have two different conversations with people seeking to be baptized, making this past week a very good one.  We have celebrated a number of Baptisms in the past, and Lord willing we will celebrate many new ones in the coming months.  Today, after hearing our Old Testament reading, and considering what God gives in and through the washing of Water with the Word,(Eph 5:26) it seems reasonable to consider the question:  How much will we charge for a Baptism?   

     Just because we’ve never done it before doesn’t automatically mean it’s a crazy question.  And there are several ways we might determine the proper amount to charge for baptizing people.  One way is to consider what it’s worth.  What is the value of Christian Baptism?  Man, if we could somehow manage to charge an amount for baptizing that even partially reflected it’s true value, we’d be rolling in cash.  What a great way to pay the light and the heat bill, and the other costs of being a congregation, to somehow get people to pay even a fraction of what Baptism is worth.  Because Baptism is priceless, beyond compare.  For, as Paul says, those who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ, (Gal 3:27), they are clothed in God.  And when people, especially people of means,  understand something to be of great worth, they’ll pay whatever they can, whatever it takes. 

     Just like Naaman.  As this Syrian general, the subject of our Old Testament reading, prepares to go meet the Israelite prophet, who, according to the little Israelite slave girl, can cure Naaman of his disease, he is ready to pay a king’s ransom, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes, all to pay for the privilege of receiving the promised healing from the prophet in Samaria.  In our day of cheap and high quality machine made textiles, including ten changes of clothes in with the gold and silver may seem strange.  But we can all grasp that ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold sounds like a lot.  And it was.  Translating the value of Biblical fortunes to modern American dollars is always tricky, but Naaman brings a fortune, more riches perhaps than any one of us will ever own.   

     Now, it’s true, Naaman does not go to Israel seeking Christian Baptism, mostly since Christian Baptism would not be instituted for another 800 years or so.  And, Naaman doesn’t even know he’s going for any kind of washing at all.  But he was seeking to be healed, and that healing came in a baptism, that is, in a washing with water, which is the simple meaning of the word ‘baptism.’  And the washing that Naaman would receive would be in the Jordan River, the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land, the river where John the Lutheran, I mean John the Baptist, did his baptizing, the river where Jesus Christ Himself would come to be baptized. 

     So no, Naaman did not receive Christian Baptism, but he did receive a baptism, a washing in water, that was given for healing, based in the authority of the Word of God’s prophet, an Old Testament baptism rich in connections to the New Testament Sacrament of Holy Baptism. 

      But wait, there’s more!  If you read on in 2nd Kings chapter 5, you’ll discover Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, which resulted in the physical healing of his leprosy, also caused Naaman to believe in the True God, the God of Israel, the God who is ultimately revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  And so Naaman’s washing was an awful lot like Christian Baptism, even though it preceded it by 8 centuries. 

     So, given the riches Naaman offered for his precursor to Baptism, how much will we charge for a Baptism?  Well, we could try to charge a fortune for a Christian Baptism, but I doubt we’ll get it.  Not everyone is as wealthy as Naaman.  And not everyone feels their disease as acutely as he did.  Despite the depressing depth and breadth of our sin, (Gen. 8:21, Psalm 51, Isaiah 51:6, Romans 3:9-20), despite the promise that Baptism washes away our sins, (Acts 22:16), despite God’s promise that Baptism saves you from eternal separation from God, (1 Peter 3:18-22), regardless of all we know that God’s Word says about it, I doubt very much that we will ever get people to give us most, or even a significant portion of their wealth, in order to be baptized. 

     A better question to ask might be, “What will people pay?”  That is, after all, how prices are set in the marketplace.  Can I speak in terms of the marketplace?  Well, if, just for the sake of argument, I dare to use the language of the marketplace, then, in the “marketplace of religions,” what is the demand for Christian Baptism?  Well, while we had a good week last week, in general, the demand for Christian Baptism isn’t that high these days.  Now, many babies are still baptized, which is good.  But given the depressing frequency of baptized children not being raised in the Church, it isn’t clear that people truly value Baptism, or even understand it.  Before I leave the terminology of the marketplace behind, perhaps forever, let me say I suspect that trying to get top dollar for a Baptism would drive a lot of people out of the “market.” 

     The world has always tended to degrade the value of Baptism, and today everything associated with Christianity is subject to devaluation.  You and your Church’s hospital or school don’t want to pay for ‘morning after’ or ‘Plan B’ pills, that is, you don’t want to be forced to pay for chemical abortions?  Too bad, the Department of Health and Human Services says you must, religious convictions be damned.  If the world doesn’t value something as easily understood as a Christian’s opposition to ending the lives of the unborn, how can we expect the world to understand the value of something as mysterious as Baptism?     
     And concerning the understood value of Christian Baptism, we must admit that we the Baptized don’t help much.  Do you value your Baptism?  Very few of us ever miss an opportunity to recognize and either celebrate or mourn the anniversary of our physical birth.  What  about your Re-Birth?  (John 3:1-17)  Do you know your Baptismal birthday?  More to the point, do you rely daily on the incredible value of being one of the Baptized, a sinner adopted by God the Father, given the Holy Spirit, joined to Jesus Christ?  (Galatians 3:26 – 4:6, Colossians 2:9-14)  Do we follow up on the commitments we make as parents and sponsors and pastor to the babies we baptize?  Are we doing all we can to see them raised in the Church, teaching them toward a good confession of the faith into which they are baptized, that they might take the seat at His Table which the Lord has prepared, to feed them with His Body and Blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins? 

     These are hard questions, because they are all about the life that should flow from Baptism, the life of faith and works that God desires in His people.  And every time we stop to take stock of how well we are doing in our Christian walk, we always have to admit we are falling short.  But don’t despair.  Remember the good news:  Baptism is for sinners.  Only for sinners.  And always for sinners.  It is not too late for you and I to learn again of God’s promises delivered in Baptism, not too late for us to rededicate ourselves in joy to the life of good works that is God’s plan for the baptized, not too late for us to celebrate and rest in the power of Christ’s Baptism.  This joyous life of forgiveness and new beginnings God offers to you and to me daily, because we are the baptized. This is the life that God began in you, in your Baptism. 

     Even though it seems so weak.  Baptism isn’t outwardly impressive.  Kind of like the Jordan River, which Naaman thought was a poor candidate to be used as a leprosy cure.  Are not the Abana and the Pharpar, the clear, cold mountain streams of Damascus, better than the muddy Jordan?  For fishing, probably.  But God promised through Elisha to use the Jordan River to cure Naaman’s leprosy.  And today God says, “Use any water you wish, as long as you join it to my Words of Institution, and I will make it a Baptism, that is, a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.”  (Titus 3) 

     Baptism brought you here today.  As we began today’s service in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Baptismal formula, we were reminded that this is a gathering of the Baptized.  And even if you are not yet baptized, God brought you hear today to hear the promises He has made to you in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, promises which He delivers to you, into which He seals you, by Holy Baptism.   

How much will we charge for a Baptism? 
     One could argue that we might charge a great deal, or at least as much as we can get, for Baptism.  But in the end, the proprietor sets the price for an item, and we are not the proprietor.  Oh yes, I baptize people, as a regular part of my vocation as Christian pastor.  And oh yes, any Christian, including you, should in an emergency also baptize, if there’s not time to do it in a regular gathering of the Church.  Baptizing isn’t hard.  Get some water.  If you want, say the Lord’s Prayer, read some Scripture, but in the end, just apply water to the candidate’s head, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. When confessing Christians do this, God promises it is a Baptism, a life giving water, in which you were sealed with the Holy Spirit. (2 Cor 2:21-22)  This is what He has sent His Church to do, for all the nations, for you, and your children, for all whom the Lord will call to Himself. (Matthew 28:16 – 20, Acts 2:36-41)   And so, we are reminded that we are not the proprietor of Baptism, God is.  And as the proprietor, God sets the price for Baptism. 

     Which is far too high for you or me to pay.  The price of Christian Baptism was the life of Jesus.  For the power of Baptism flows from the Cross of Jesus.  In order for your Baptism to have the power to wash away sins, and bind you to God, to give you a new heart and a new future, in order for Holy Baptism to be as valuable as the Bible says it is, Someone had to pay for the sins of the whole world.  Someone had to accept the full punishment, and so rob Satan of his power to accuse sinners.  And Someone has,  Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who entered into His own creation to be born of Mary, and was sought out by the masses for teaching and miracles, but then abandoned by the crowds, and by His friends, when He submitted to evil, to false arrest, a sham trial, and crucifixion.  And so, Christ alone has given Baptism its power by submitting to the Baptism by Divine Fire that was HisCross.  (Luke 12:49-50) 

     And now, in a miracle of grace, God gives away this most precious gift.  For free!  No good works required, no suffering needed, there is nothing left to pay, Jesus has paid, once, for all.  God by the resurrection of Jesus has declared peace with sinners, peace found in and through Christ.  To declare this free gift to anyone who will listen is the privilege of the Church.  To deliver this miracle is the highest honor we forgiven sinners could receive, to freely give to others the gift of forgiveness that we have freely received, and so to share joyfully in God’s ongoing work of salvation.  We will of course charge nothing for a Baptism, and rejoice! 

     Maybe we should be careful who we tell.  What if people find out?  What if we are overrun with sinners seeking the same forgiveness that we have, and that we continue to receive, forgiveness that makes us rich in God’s love?  I guess we can risk it.  We have plenty of water, and God is still speaking His Word. 

     The Lord grant that we rejoice in our Baptism, and that He use our joy to draw others to the Water and the Word, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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