A promise was made to my older brother roughly 50 years ago. He was just an infant and had no idea that this promise was being set upon him. It was a promise that wasn’t his to fulfill. It carried with it no stipulations or loopholes that could void it. It was a one-sided agreement to protect and keep him. The most he could ever do was reject it, but even that would be difficult to do. When the water poured out down over his infant head at baptism, the promise was sealed. God would call this child-my brother-His own. The catholic priest would have no understanding of this promise. To him, he was washing away original sin. Our parents would have no understanding of the promise either. At worst, baptism was a tradition of the faith they were raised in and at best, maybe like the priest, they thought they were getting a sinless child to mold. But still, the right words were spoken, and the clear, clean water was poured over him. In that moment a promise was made. Every drop of water that fell on his infant face carried with it hope, mercy, and limitless grace.
Growing up, going to catholic school, receiving other sacraments mixed in here and there, we all lived fairly nominal religious lives in our family. I imagine every one of us had opportunities to “go to church” alone, which meant we’d stop by long enough to grab a church bulletin to “prove” we went, at least before we went somewhere else. And what kind of catholic would I be if I didn’t do midnight mass. I mean, it was midnight! I was out and I got to stay up late! My poor attempt at humor aside, I’m making the point that my brother, my sisters and I and were far from sinless and none us probably ever wondered much about having water splashed on our heads as babies. It was a thing that happened and faith didn’t play a major part in our lives, except to say that God was protecting us (despite ourselves) from falling and failing worse than we had. In other words, God was quietly keeping His promise that we had no clue about.
When I do consider my later youth and specifically when thinking of my brother, I realize now that I saw the “simul” life in him. The Lutheran view of being simultaneously sinner and saint. Though I’d have to say at the time, He was certainly more sinner than the saint in many ways. The promise of his baptism, and any possible outward manifestation of good that may have come from it, were drowned out by a life of torturing his little brother. That is something I can personally attest to. But still, there were moments when compassion would breakthrough. In-between tormenting me, he found time to bring stray dogs home and as he got older he would find himself at a job caring for people with special needs. It seemed like he wouldn’t even blink an eye as he wiped feces from people’s backsides. There was definitely, by God’s providence, kindness and compassion in my brother as well as that devil who would harass me.
Still, during that time there was no thought given of that involuntary baptism that happened so many years ago. No thought, and seemingly no manifestation of the promise it was supposed to bring. The biggest example of this is that for a good number of years my brother struggled heavily with drugs. He was cross-addicted to multiple substances and it lead to great trials and struggles for us as a family and for him as well as he moved from rehab to rehab and finally to a halfway house.When that happened, it wasn’t the end of his struggles, but it was the beginning of a movement towards life. A life that involved a faith in Christ.
THERE IT IS! DO YOU SEE IT!
Here is the promise of God in his life being manifested and kept! God says to the child in the promise of baptism as water runs over his face, “You are mine!” Those waters say, “I will pursue you as my child, even as you reject me.” This is a promise of God and it was being fulfilled when God protected him while he did drugs. It was being fulfilled when he finally walked away from his addictions. It was being fulfilled in the forgiveness of sins he had before he knew he needed it. He knows this now, and he is grateful. God kept him until his ears were open by the gift of faith given to him.
While this article was primarily about my brother, his life and how God washed him and saved him, I can see these significant waters elsewhere now. I see it in one of my sisters, who has her own struggles. I see God protecting her throughout her life so the promise might eventually be fulfilled. I see it in my own life. How God has protected me over and again. Even now, I see how he restrains me from the worst of what my mind can offer as distractions from life. I see it every time someone “comes to God” of his own free will, only to find out he was washed in baptismal waters as a child. Despite our theological differences, “I grew up in the Catholic Church”, is not a phrase to cringe at, but a matter of grace, as each child is sealed by the waters poured over them. God uses that baptism to rescue us. He uses it to mark his children and call them. Those waters held the promise in place till they’re eyes were opened to the faith God gifted them. I can also see those waters at work when people come to God from completely irreligious backgrounds. The desire to be washed no matter what someone tells them about their “personal declaration”, comes from God’s own Spirit, putting in them a desire to be sealed by water. It is so much more than an act of obedience. It is an Act of God upon your life and my life. I see it much more clearly than ever before.
I see it in those baptized who’ve yet to come. God’s promise to us in baptism is always working and calling. We can fight it and reject it, but we don’t fight against nothing. We fight because there is resistance. There is something creating tension in our lives that we push back against. I would submit that it is God, promised in the waters calling to us. He is that resistance and He is cause of that struggle. His promise is always to save and it is fulfilled in the person of Christ and His saving work of atonement at the cross. Even the smallest reminder of this in the life of someone turned away begins to cause friction.
In the same way, Christians don’t and can’t love God with ALL their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. I think it may be impossible for someone baptized to hate God just as completely. They may hate Christians and the church for a variety of reasons (sometimes good reasons), but if there is resistance, then God is honoring His promise. The hope is one day that war ends and they no longer fights against what God has given them.
Life and Salvation.
A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?