by Dan Mueller

A few weeks ago, I welcomed 60 inquisitive Year 6 students to our worship centre as part of their Christian Studies class. Immanuel Lutheran College, a Prep to Year 12 school, is co-located with Immanuel Lutheran Church in Buderim, on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, where I currently serve as the congregational pastor. These 60 students were visiting to learn about the sacraments, including baptism.

The first question I asked them was, ‘What does the word “sacrament” mean?’ After a few good guesses, we learnt together that ‘sacrament’ is a Latin word meaning ‘sacred oath’. God makes promises and attaches his oath to physical elements, such as the water in baptism or bread and wine in holy communion. Interestingly, before this Latin word, a Greek word was used instead: ‘mysterion’, from which we get our English word ‘mystery’. As a sacrament, baptism is a ‘mysterion’ – a mystery. No matter how hard we might try to explain what baptism is – for example, using Luther’s Catechism – it always remains a mystery! Baptism is God’s promise, spoken by his word, that he attaches to water. What a mystery!

How does one explain this mystery to 60 Year 6 students!? That was my challenge for the afternoon.

One of my go-to books for teaching about baptism is Daniel Erlander’s Let the Children Come, which is handily available from Australian Christian Resources.

I like this book because it has pictures! I’m not joking. It literally has pictures – each page is wonderfully illustrated with interesting and funny characters by the author.

But the book also has metaphorical pictures – it draws heavily upon biblical word pictures used to describe the mystery of faith. Metaphors and word pictures are, in my humble opinion, better than so-called ‘literal’ renderings, because they unleash the power to redescribe reality, to paraphrase the famous philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Word pictures have the power to describe the divine mystery of baptism, so that even – and especially – children can understand. In a metaphor, the abundance of divine truth is poured into shallow human words.

Here are a few biblical metaphors to help us make sense of the mystery of baptism. Baptism is …

  • Dying and rising with Christ to a new life (Romans 6; Colossians 2:12,13).
  • A new birth, a change so complete that it’s like being born anew, born from above (John 3).
  • A cleansing bath that washes away the stain and dirt of sin (1 Peter 3:21,22; Titus 3:4–8).
  • Being clothed in a white robe – the robe is Jesus Christ himself – being covered by his forgiveness and right-ness (Galatians 3:27,28; Colossians 3:9,10; Revelation 7:9).
  • Being adopted into a new family, becoming a daughter or son of royalty, a child of God (Ephesians 1:3–5; John 1:12,13; Galatians 3:25–29; Romans 8:14–17).

Each metaphor is a thread that is woven together to form a beautiful tapestry. Putting all the metaphors together helps us to make some sense of the mystery of baptism. It is dying with Christ in the tomb and walking free with him; it is being born again; it is sin being washed away; it is being clothed with the right-ness of Christ; it is being adopted into God’s family, and so on. The power of God’s word added to plain water makes all of this happen in baptism. Wow! What a mysterious mystery!

I’d love to tell you that all the Year 6 students were blown away and asked to be baptised immediately on the spot! But it was 2.30pm at the end of a long school day. So, I pray seeds were planted that may someday bear fruit (another metaphor!).

May you make sense of your baptism each day. May you know that through your baptism you have been made a child of God, washed clean, clothed in a white robe, and have died and risen again with Christ. May you live each day wet.

Rev Dr Dan Mueller is pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church Buderim on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

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