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09 January 2011

Baptism as a Way of Life: Musings on metaphors in Luther's teaching.

In our catechism class last Wednesday we talked about the powerful metaphors Martin Luther uses to indicate just how central baptism is for all of his theology. We mentioned three (the blackboard, the dog's house, and butter), and today I discovered another one, as I was reading an Epiphany sermon he preached on January 6, 1534.

THE BLACKBOARD is what Luther used when he felt under attack by the devil. He would write on that blackboard three words: ICH BIN GETAUFT, German for "I have been baptized", and as he kept looking at the words, he would find peace for his soul.

THE DOG'S HOUSE -- very unlike what Americans associate with "being in the dog house" -- stands for the protection Luther felt his baptism provided. It was the place to which he returned when he was out of sorts, spiritually and otherwise. "I crawl into it," he said, and then felt completely safe, reminded that even though he would fail again and again, the promise of salvation (embodied in baptism) would not.

BUTTER stands for how little Luther trusted faith without the tangible "signs" that were connected with it and grounded it: water, bread and wine. "Faith alone", he said, "is butter in the sun", because human beings are prone to fall for all sorts of seductive forces, unless they have something to hold on to that reminds them why their faith makes sense and is grounded in God's promise.

AQUAVIT. The metaphor I just discovered is that of Aquavit. In his Epiphany sermon, Luther makes fun of those theologians who think of baptism as "just water":  

"To be sure baptism is water. But today some are saying it is 'plain water'. ... My dog Tölpel (German for "blockhead"), a wild boar, and a cow know that. But what else is here? Without doubt, in baptism we get God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- and all the angels! ... The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in the water; it is the bath water of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Father. This makes it water that takes away sin, death, and every sadness, and helps a person into heaven. Water becomes a precious ointment and medication because God has stirred himself into it. The Father can bring a person to life, and he is in this water. That’s why it is the genuine Aquavit."  (Epiphany Sermon)

Long before the vodka companies rediscovered the word -- even in Luther's day -- Aquavit was a common term for distilled spirits. Luther revitalized baptism as a sacrament by not treating it like "something that happened a long time ago", but as a way of life; thus, his image of drowning Old Adam daily, so that a rejuvenated person would go forth into each new day.

"To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit and purpose of baptism is to save. ... To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever."  (Large Catechism)

Matthew 3:1-18

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