Let’s start with a short history lesson. Though hardly any notice is given to him, Philipp Melanchthon was one of the most influential figures during the Reformation. We might even say that along with Martin Luther, Melanchthon is the primary founder of the Lutheran tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Perhaps most notable is that Philipp Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession on which we Lutherans and Roman Catholics at St. Paul base our unity. So with that little bit of history in hand, a quote from Melanchthon’s writings: “Christianity is nothing else than a life that is certain of the mercy of God.” Let me repeat that: “Christianity is nothing else than a life that is certain of the mercy of God.”
Today, Johan Vellinga will receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism at our new-old baptismal font. This hand-carved-in-Denmark font was originally given to the now-defunct Bethany Danish Lutheran Church by the church’s Sunday School classes in 1914. Without spending time on all the details of how the font came to be here, I’m just going to refer you to the June-July newsletter that will be available on-line late next week. But back to Johan who will be baptized today at our new 101-year-old font. In Holy Baptism Johan begins a journey that doesn’t come to an end for him or for any of us until we die. The journey of the Christian begins with Holy Baptism – the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; already at the font, God declares God’s friendship with all who are baptized – a friendship in which all is already forgiven. All of Johan’s sins will be washed away in baptism – all his sins, past, present, and yet to come. The problem, however, for Johan will be – as it is for all of us – to truly trust in that baptismal promise.
Look, for many – if not most – of us this unconditional promise of mercy is problematic. Too much of the church and most of the larger culture are built upon the notion that God’s friendship, God’s mercy, are obtained by our good works, our good deeds done for the neighbor. We, myself included, also fear that if we fail to do good works, or if we lapse into sin (which we do everyday, every hour, every minute) – we fear that if we don’t continually do good but instead continue in sin, we fear that God will yank the rug right out from under us. While good works and the avoidance of sin are certainly a part of our life, these are not done to secure either merit or mercy. God’s promise of mercy – and that very mercy – are unmerited, absolutely free, and without any conditions. And therein lies that challenge of our baptismal journey.
As a called and ordained minister of Christ’s grace, for the sake of Christ who is one with the Father, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Advocate, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins (+) – and this for free – for in Jesus Christ, contrary to what you might have heard – in Jesus Christ, there really is such a thing as a free ride.
Part and parcel of the problem, as I’ve already alluded – the problem is that the cultures of which we are a part – and that includes church cultures – the cultures of which we are a part are by and large built upon merit and not upon grace – grace meaning something freely given. We are bombarded – especially in this media culture – we are bombarded by messages that tell us that our worth lies in what we achieve, lies on how we look, lies is what we wear, drive, eat; our worth lies in our homes, lies in what sort of furniture we have, lies in what we eat and drink and where we travel and where we go out to dinner. It’s tough – very tough – to live a life certain of God’s mercy freely and unconditionally given – very tough in a world where everything has a price and nothing is free. Johan will, along with all of us, face uncertainty about God’s mercy as he makes his baptismal journey.
But neither Johan nor any of us is left to ourselves on the baptismal journey. We have the Holy Spirit – or as Jesus says in today’s gospel – we are given the Paraclete – and no, the Paraclete is not a bird. The Greek work from which our English word comes is παράκλητος – which literally means “one who speaks for another” or “one who advocates.” The Spirit speaks on behalf of Christ who himself speaks on behalf of his Father with whom he is One. The Spirit advocates on behalf of Christ – advocates on behalf of God – but not just any God – but the God of endless and unconditional mercy. On our baptismal journey we are not left alone — rather the paraclete, the advocate, the one who speaks on behalf of another is continually at our side.
This advocate, the defender of God’s cause, however is not generally available out in the world. Nor is this advocate on behalf of God, this defender of God something we can summon up from inside ourselves. The advocate defender is not some mysterious substance that floats around in the air we breathe. No, the Advocate defender comes to us through ordinary means. The defender of God’s mercy comes to us through water and the spoken and sung word. It comes to Johan today in the one baptismal promise for the forgiveness of sin. It comes to us in the rite of confession and absolution when we hear with our own ears that all our sins are unconditionally and completely forgiven. It comes to us in the telling of God’s story; it comes to us in the preaching of the Word who is Christ; it comes to us in the true body and blood of Christ, given and shed for us that we receive God’s mercy into our very bodies. “Faith,” says St. Paul, “comes to us through hearing,” through spoken word and through the Sacraments – which are themselves the Word made visible for us. And this assurance of God’s mercy, the voice of the one who advocates with us on behalf of God, it is completely free – no works of any sort involved. And this assurance, this voice of the Advocate – it is here – for you each and every week.
Now, does this mean we have to be here each and every week? Absolutely not. We don’t have to be here at all – rather, we all need to be here each and every week. As I’ve already said, we are surrounded for six-plus days by a world where our worth is continually questioned and determined by what we do and by what products we consume. This means that all of us – me too – need to hear and receive the good news that God’s mercy shown forth in cross and resurrection is ours – for free. And as a reminder of this promise given in Holy Baptism, during the baptismal rite this morning, you will be sprinkled with the waters of baptism – not a rebaptism – but a reminder of the baptismal promise – so that God’s Advocate, the Holy Spirit, come upon you once more – that you be strengthened in your baptismal journeys – that you continue your journey toward becoming some one who is “certain of the mercy of God.”
So now hear this: As a called and ordained minister of Christ’s grace, for the sake of Christ who is one with the Father, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Advocate, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins (+) – and this for free – for in Jesus Christ, contrary to what you might have heard – in Jesus Christ, there really is such a thing as a free ride. And it is for us to remind Johan and one another of this over and over and over that we become more and more, day by day, certain of the mercy of God. Amen.