The same waters that cleansed Jesus cleanse us—drowning the sinner so that the saint might live
■ By Erin Armstrong / Contributed
Well a New Year has begun. I used to be into the tradition of making resolutions—I’ve made many of the stereotypical ones like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to spend more time with family” or “I want to be better at saving money.” All of these and other resolutions are good things to want, but I seemed to always find myself failing miserably at them within a week of the New Year. I bet many of you have already cheated or given up completely on your resolutions. How quickly does the hope and promise of a New Year give way to feeling bad about ourselves! I always end up feeling like I’m simply not built to keep my promises, even to myself.
Which probably sounds like an odd thing for a pastor to say, right? Am I not in the business of keeping promises? Doesn’t the fact that I’m Christian mean I am automatically better at keeping promises than others?
Unfortunately, not. In fact, Martin Luther had a saying that all people, even (or perhaps especially) Christians, are both “saint and sinners.” If left to our own devices, human beings will always default to being selfish and sinful. It’s often the far easier route to take. It’s why our resolutions are left lying on the floor in the wake of our New Year’s parties. It’s why we ignore the needs of our neighbors when helping them would require just a small act on our part. It’s why we separate ourselves based on age, race, economic status or political party, rather than doing the hard work of reaching across boundaries. Being a sinner is easy, and requires very little from us.
On Jan. 8, the Christian tradition celebrated the Baptism of our Lord—a festival that celebrates Jesus’ baptism by John and invites all to reflect on their own baptism. Lutherans baptize people of all ages, so most in our tradition were baptized as infants. And yet, no matter when one was baptized, the significance is the same: baptism is a moment of promise, a moment when the saint in us overtakes the sinner. But the saint doesn’t reign because of anything we do, or because of the promises we make, but because of the promises God makes in that moment.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3: 16-17
Every baptism is reminiscent of the one Jesus received. We read in Matthew 3 that “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” The same voice that called Jesus “beloved,” calls all of God’s children beloved. The same waters that cleansed Jesus cleanse us—drowning the sinner so that the saint might live. The promises God makes to Jesus to be with and to love him throughout his ministry are the same promises God makes to us.
And yet, I forget these promises all the time. I give into my sinner instinct instead of living like the saint God calls me to be. Instead of acting like a beloved child, I act like a spoiled brat. So I have to come back to the water, not to be re-baptized, but to remember what God has already done for me. When I want to give into selfishness and separation, I come back to the community of the baptized. I don’t come to be with a bunch of sinners or with a bunch of saints, but I come to be with other imperfect yet beloved children who are also trying to remember. Perhaps it will be here that I hear the promises anew.
My hope for you all in this New Year is not that you will keep your resolutions. You won’t. I hope instead that you remember the promises God makes to you each and every day. I hope that when you feel like you can’t keep all the promises, you will remember that you don’t have to. Because God keeps God’s promises, and God calls you Beloved.