When a scripture reading begins with “Now when they heard this…” it sort of begs the question of what it is they heard. Like when you find “Therefore” in scripture and ask, as you should, what is the therefore there for?
In this case the things that the people heard about were things about Jesus, specifically Acts 2:36, which reads, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Not “this Jesus, the Son of God” or “this Jesus” period, but “this Jesus, whom you crucified.” You did this, Peter says, pointing the finger at the very people who are beginning the church.
This gets at a strange tension in what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we are people who follow God, but we are also people who would probably nail our God to a cross again if we were given the chance—probably not knowing what we were doing. These people in Acts were the original big tent church, spirit-filled, Pentecostals of a sort. These, of all people, were ready to receive the body and blood of Christ in communion with the words “Given for you” or “Broken for you” or “Shed for you.” And yet, these were also the people who betrayed Jesus to be crucified. At least they were by association. To be a Christian is to be a person who is saved by Jesus even while we are people who killed Jesus in the first place. As with these people in Acts, that cuts us to the heart.
So we repent. We ask forgiveness. Not cheap forgiveness; not “because we got caught so we sort of feel bad about it” forgiveness, but real, tough forgiveness. The kind that sits with us. This is evident enough in what Peter tells us to do: Repent, be baptized, participate in the life of discipleship through teaching and visiting and eating together and praying together. All of this happens as a gift of God who, Peter says, calls us to him. God calls us; we respond by how we live.
This is really what the sacraments are about: God’s gifts pushing us to respond by living out of gratitude for the grace we have been given.
In the Lutheran church we practice two sacraments—baptism and communion. Luther once said that there could be any number of sacraments—indeed, anything can be a sacrament—but we practice these two because they are given to us by Jesus and they include both a word of promise and a tangible element: Water, bread, wine—that kind of thing.
Often, I hear questions about these sacraments because there is a deeply held assumption that baptism holds the keys to salvation. This is true, sort of, but not in the way many think about it. Mostly this confusion stems from the fact that scripture has a bunch of different kinds of baptism. John the Baptist was baptizing people in the river not once and for all but as a repeated means of forgiveness. His baptism is more like our communion. Jesus ordains a baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a forever kind of claiming. Peter’s baptism seems like a mixture of the two. Here’s where things get confusing. In our baptism we are freely given salvation by grace through faith. We don’t earn it by coming to the waters, and it’s not given to us based on how holy we are. Finally, and most importantly, after Jesus’ death for us baptism is a process that begins with water and a word of promise but is not completed until our death. As Paul says in Romans, “We were buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).
So, knowing this, here’s my response to the two most common questions people bring about baptism.
1. Do I need to be baptized?
Answer: “Need” is the wrong word. Baptism is the freely given gift of God—it is a means of grace—what is the point in not getting baptized?
And then the follow-up question:
2. What about those who aren’t baptized?
Answer: Baptism is not law. It is Gospel. It’s not something to philosophize about—just do it. If you feel moved, just do it. It is freely given and should never be held back. It is simply God’s gift to us. But here’s the kicker: Let’s say you’re unsure. Let’s say you want to wait, assess all the options, and look for the giant “catch” in this whole baptismal promise thing, and let’s say in the meantime you die—possibly unexpectedly—because let’s face it that’s what we’re worried about. Or we’re worried about a baby stillborn who wasn’t baptized, as if God is going to withhold promises to them because we couldn’t get to baptizing them fast enough. Well, baptism after Jesus is baptism into death. So, if you’re thinking, “Shoot, I’m going to be meeting Jesus face to face and he’s going to ask ‘Are you baptized?’ and I’m going to have to answer either A) Nope, didn’t get to that, sorry! Or B) Yeah, Jesus, I was baptized! And hope he isn’t paying very close attention. Then, here’s the crazy thing: After Jesus, baptism is baptism into death, so baptism happens one way or another when die. That means the moment this life ends we are baptized into something we share with Jesus. You don’t need to be baptized—you get to be baptized now—or you will be baptized later at the end of your life.
The advantage of baptism down here is that that you get to experience grace now; you get to live more freely; you get to experience a little sip of salvation now. The big death is over for those of you who have been baptized. It’s done. Finished. If you think the death at the end of your life on earth is a big deal, let me tell you about the baptism you had.
You see, we don’t do a good enough job of talking about the importance of baptism not because it is something you have to do—it is far more important than that. As the purest form of Gospel, baptism is grace to be free from worry. Death? Been there, done that!
So, when Peter tells these guys and gals, “You killed Jesus. Repent and be baptized!” it sounds like law but it is freedom; it sounds like something you have to do or else, and maybe the motivation you need to do it, but there’s a brilliant turning around that happens in those waters. Your old self is drowned and the sucker isn’t done spinning around the drain before you are freed to live out as a little Jesus in the world.