Luther, reviewing what the scriptures have to say about God's revelation of himself to us, said that there are two ways in which God reveals himself to us as a gracious and loving God, two "means of grace." He reveals himself in his words and in his actions or, as Luther called it, in "word and Sacrament." Through these means, he inspires faith in us and brings us new life.
God addresses us in his Word - in the Bible, in the good news about Jesus that is proclaimed from the pulpit, in the good news that is shared among God's people, and especially in Jesus - the Living Word of God, and the Word that lives in the hearts and among God's people. The Gospel, the “good news” about Jesus and God’s love for us that he proclaimed, is the “lens” through which we view, not only scripture, but also the world. “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son....” That speaks to us of the grace in which we live.
But God does not only give us this good news through his Word - he also acts in our behalf. He has revealed himself as the God of history and of creation. We cannot find God by escaping from the real world. God is not, as one song has suggested, "looking down on us from a distance." Nor is God untouched by his creation. In fact, he has entered into his creation in Jesus, taking on himself human flesh – that’s what we call the “incarnation.” Jesus reveals to us a God who gets his hands dirty, who is at work in his creation, and who works through history to bring about his loving purposes.
So Jesus gave us two events to act as "touchstones" to get in touch with this "hands on" love of God, so that we can know him, not only with our heads, but also with our hearts.
Luther says that there are two things present in any sacrament - a physical element, like water, bread or wine, and God's Word of promise attached to it. Both the element and the promise are necessary to the sacrament. The water is just ordinary water, just as the bread and wine are just ordinary bread and wine. They are - and remain - simple earthly elements. That's important to our understanding because we, too, are just ordinary people - we are not some kind of "Super Christians." Most of us haven't done too many miracles lately, unless you count getting up for work every day for thirty or forty years a miracle. We are ordinary people - yet that is the promise of the sacraments - that God uses ordinary people - people like you and me - to do his wonderful work. It's not the ordinary elements, but God’s Word of promise attached to our life that gets the job done. That’s part of what living in God’s grace is all about: we have a God who uses ordinary things and ordinary people to do extraordinary things - if we will only trust him. That is the promise of the sacraments - that he has attached his promises to your life. The sacraments are constant reminders of his grace in our life.
The first of these two sacraments is Baptism. I like to think of it as the "Sacrament of Life." If informs us concerning who we are, it tells us how God feels about us, and helps us understand how we may walk in God’s grace. It is a wonderful picture of justification by grace through faith - it is a picture of what that doctrine looks like as we try it on for size in our daily life.
The symbolism of the water is important. In the beginning, as our rite tells us, God separated the waters of creation, and brought life out of the water. In Noah's time, water was a means God used not only to cleanse the earth, but also to save Noah and his family, placing afterward the rainbow in the sky as a sign of deliverance and hope. In the Old Testament, the great events of life - those dealing with life and death issues - were sealed by the pouring of "living water," water capable of sustaining life. Jesus reveals himself to the Samaritan woman as "Living Water" - he is the water of deliverance, health and healing. "All who drink of me," he says, "will never thirst again."
That is what Baptism is about - not whether we pour or immerse, not saying the right formula, or doing a piece of "holy magic." The word, "baptism," refers to an object that is put in the water and becomes "wringing wet" with it - as if you would take a sponge, place it under water and squeeze all the air out of it, then let it go. Baptism is about being immersed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - "putting on Christ," as Paul says. In fact, as he talks about baptism, Paul uses the term, "'en Christo," which means, "in Christ" or "into Christ." Baptism immerses us into Jesus' death, life and resurrection, like a sponge dripping wet - until we are infused with his life and his presence, with hope and promise. Because we are soaked in his life, our life is no longer bound by sin and death - our sins are forgiven, our mistakes are not the final word on our life - there is always a tomorrow in him, with new possibilities - even where reason and the world seem to dictate otherwise. God has the final say, and his Word over us is a promise of new life. Which is another way of saying: we live in grace.
To ask Luther's question, "What does this mean?" First it means that my life isn't one long chase trying to get away from death. The center of life isn't trying to make enough money to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I don't have to spend my life trying to defend myself from others, or from everything that may happen to me. People are a gift; every day is a gift. Life is not about building walls to protect ourselves, but about tearing down the walls that are between us. Life is about loving, about celebrating precious relationships; it’s about giving ourselves to the world and to one another - it is about those things that give real meaning and purpose to life. If we get hurt in the process because of that old Adam that still roams in the world, that is still o.k. - there is always tomorrow, and a God who holds our tomorrows, who loves us and heals us, and doesn’t let go of us. He is big enough to deal with all of our hurts. The end of all things is not death, but life - if we will just trust him, and give it all into his hands.
Communion, on the other hand, is a sacrament of community. As we come up here, we look up and down the table – or around the congregation, in this case - and we see our brothers and sisters in Christ who share in the promise with us. They eat the same bread and drink the same cup. We are, as Paul says, sharers in Jesus’ body and blood. Our lives are bound to theirs by the body and blood of our Lord. In communion, we are made brothers and sisters, members of the same body, sharing the same past of sin and failure, but also sharing the promise of forgiveness and healing. We share also in the same present - the gift of the Spirit that unites us, that binds us to one another, that gifts us so that we can encourage and support one another. And we share the same future, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, a time of promise and hope. All of these promises are played out over our life at the table of the Lord: another picture of the life of grace that surrounds us, and of the incarnational nature of our faith, as God reaches out to minister to us with human hands, human voices, human hearts.
When I talk to the kids in confirmation about the sacraments, I like to use one illustration that I'd like to use with you. I tell them that it's like God has given us a check. It's a big check. Not for a thousand dollars, or a million dollars, or even a billion dollars. It's a check that says on it, "Everything I have is yours. Payable to the bearer of this note." Now, some folks won't - or can't believe that. They say that no one gets something for nothing. There has to be a catch. You have to earn what you get. So they throw the check away. No one is going to play them for a sucker.
Others will say, "Well, that may be a good check, but if I try to cash it, I may look like a fool. Besides, I'm doing alright. I don't really need it. But I'll keep it around for things that I can't handle by myself, if that day ever comes - just in case.
Then there are those crazy few that say, "What the heck - so I may look foolish! A little humiliation never hurt anybody! And think of what kind of life might be available to me if I do cash it!" So they go and cash it in, and they live out a wonderful life of freedom and love. And all the other folks look at them, and wish they could be like that, and wonder how they got that way.
It's strange, isn't it, that the very thing our hearts desire most is exactly what God gives us - to love and be loved; to be accepted just as we are, warts and all; to not be judged for our faults and weaknesses; to have a sense of purpose in our life; to know that we really matter - that we are a gift that is considered most precious to the one person who really matters and knows about these things; to have real life inside of us. All these things, God gives to you as a gift - a free gift, no strings attached. It is the gift presented to you in the sacraments, in Baptism and Communion. It is his promise which he has placed, like a rainbow, over your life.
As Luther says, we get all of these things even without the sacraments, in his Word. But we are, after all, flesh and blood people. And so he not only tells us of his promises, he gives us the sacraments as ways – pictures, if you will – of what he is doing. And because they instill faith in us, in these sacraments, he accomplishes exactly what he has promised: they grant us life and forgiveness in him, as our hearts cling to his promises. We can go back to them, again and again, and be reassured of his love, and of the grace-filled relationship we have in him.
Trust in these gifts. Believe in them. Live in them. Nothing else is worthy of your life. You are God's dear child. You live under the sign of the rainbow and the water. Your life is hidden in Christ's, in his body and blood. Your life is full of wonderful possibilities, no matter how broken it has been in the past, no matter what your history - or how much of it. You are called to hope by the God who provides abundantly far beyond anything we can think or ask. Trust the gift. Trust the giver.