May the peace and blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, be with you all today, as we meditate upon His Word.
Acts 22:12-16 “Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, 13 "came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.' And at that same hour I looked up at him. 14 "Then he said, `The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. 15 `For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 `And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.'“
Anyone who’s been around the Christian faith for even a small amount of time can most likely recognize the significance of the Sacraments. A Sacrament is a word we use to describe something significant that God has given to mankind in order to build and strengthen our relationship with Him. We have two such blessings which earthly means that fit this definition, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In these simple activities, God promises to attach His blessing of forgiveness to us. You see, God is the Creator of everything but He doesn’t use everything to establish faith in His Son, Jesus. The Sacraments, as we call them, are very special and unique because of this quality.
Sometimes, though, the Sacraments can dominate a person’s thinking, so much so that they block out other important parts of God’s Word. There are many dangers which allow this to happen. For instance, over-focusing on the Sacraments is not beneficial if it leads us ignore or forget other parts of God’s Word. Another danger is that people fatigue of the Christian faith because of constant arguments about the Sacraments. This latter point has caused many offenses among people throughout history. Because of the special nature of the Sacraments, long-standing divisions within Christianity have formed because of difference in understanding and practice. We shouldn’t overlook these differences; they are important. But it’s sad when, because of their historical prominence, people will think only and always about these things when they consider the basis of the Christian faith. The Sacraments are only good for us if they lead us to Christ, not when they become so prominent that they even overshadow Him.
Today, we have a rare opportunity to witness the use of both Sacraments in the worship service. Actual, we will witness the entire package of God’s means of grace, as we combine the preaching and hearing of the Gospel with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, as we share in these blessings today, it is fitting that we would look at them in a deeper context. With everything that has been said about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper throughout the ages, we could study these things for the entire year. But today, let us set aside the temptation to focus only on the factional alliances based on the Sacraments, and return to the simple testimony of God’s Word.
We look first at Baptism, since God uses this Sacrament as a way to establish faith in a person’s heart. We see examples of this in John the Baptist’s ministry and in the work of Jesus and the disciples, as baptism was a regular part of their work among the people. We also get a glimpse of the power of Baptism to create faith on Pentecost Sunday, as Peter, and other apostles, added 3,000 souls to God’s Church that day, through the Sacrament of Baptism. Everywhere that Baptism is mentioned in the Bible it is connected with the ability to create faith by attaching an individual to the redemptive work of Jesus.
But, there were also times when those who already believed were baptized. It’s fitting that we consider such a circumstance since that is the very event before our congregation today. We take our discourse from Paul’s own recollection of his baptism. Last weekend we read the account of what happened on the road to Damascus when he was converted. Today, we hear it from Paul’s own words as he recounted it for some of his fellow Jews.
From the context of these words and other sections of the book of Acts, there’s little doubt that Paul was already a Christian at this point. Ananias calls him, “Brother Saul,” a term of affection used by believers to other believers. The earlier record in Acts 9 tells us that Saul called Jesus “Lord” well before his baptism. Whether Paul believed at this point or not may never be answered, but there’s no doubt after the moment of His baptism. Ananias tells Paul: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
Whether these words came before or after the beginning of Paul’s faith matters very little. What remains unchanged is that through Baptism, the Lord Jesus washed away Paul’s sins. This is the quality of Baptism that shows us how it is unique in comparison to other Christian practices. The Lord attaches this tremendous blessing to it, no matter whom it is for.
If we wanted to we could choose to focus on everything that isn’t said here. How does baptism do this? Why would God choose to bless us like this? What did it matter so much if Paul already believed? Couldn’t he have believed just fine without baptism? The list of questions could go on and on, but God simply gives us the bare facts. Baptism was important, even though Paul was already an adult, possibly already a believer. And baptism granted Paul forgiveness of sins by the power of Jesus. And really, that’s all we need to know.
Given this knowledge it’s easy to let the Sacrament itself become more important than that which the Sacrament connects us to. In other words, making baptism more important than the Gospel itself. For some that happens. I’ve spoken with many Christians, from many different backgrounds, who look at Baptism and the Lord’s Supper on a higher level than other teachings from God. Some even think that the Sacraments are the only major difference between Christian churches. And even some have given up the discourse entirely. That’s the caution we must recognize if we allow one part of God’s Word to dominate too much. People will weary and tire of it. And to a large extent that has displaced the joyous descriptions of Baptism as we are given from Paul in sections like Acts 22.
Care must be exercised. Fatigue from papers, studies, and debates on Baptism is not healthy, but equally dangerous is giving up the truth of the matter. We must also understand that the historical differences of teaching of the Sacraments continue to exist to this day, and therefore they are just as important to us as they were to the first Lutherans. And these differences are often the cause of other divergences from God’s truth as well. When Baptism is questioned as an effective means through which God delivers salvation and forgiveness to us, whether as an infant or as an adult, we begin to question when and why we believe at all. If I can’t be assured that it is God’s power alone that is working, then I must take some amount of responsibility of the gift that is being forgiven. Every notion to that end leads us away from Christ. And, therefore, every notion of that sort is worth fighting against.
The single blessing of Baptism, namely that it forgives our sins through Christ, does not change across time, culture, age, gender, or anything else. We can take stock that God is speaking through Ananias to us, just as much as he was to Paul when he said, `The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. 15 `For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 `And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.'
You may live in different circumstances than Paul did. You may serve God in different ways. But everything that applied to him in those words, applies to you, and you should remember that when we think of you Baptism. It’s easy for that simple truth to be overshadowed, whether because we over-emphasize the institution, the practice or we de-value the significance of Baptism. But, that’s why we return again and again to the Word of God. It re-corrects our focus, it helps us understand the truth, it guides us in the way of God, and it attaches us to the righteousness of our Savior, for strength, peace, and life.