Water is everywhere and it is essential for life. Seventy one percent of the surface of the earth is covered by water. We find our locations of dwelling on that minority of space – the twenty nine percent where there is dry land.
About sixty percent of the human body is made out of water. And because such a large percentage of your body is water, the continuing replenishment of water is essential to life. Without enough water, your cells cannot function. Under the very best conditions, you may be able to live up to a week without water. Most likely you can only make it three or four days.
And of course, it’s not just people who need water. Plants and animals need it too. Without water vegetation and crops cannot grow. Without water animals cannot live in an area. Where there is abundant water, life flourishes. Where water is scarce, life is barely present.
Beyond the essential needs of sustaining life itself, water is used for washing. We use water to wash off dirt and grime from our bodies. We use water to wash our clothes and the items we use for cooking and eating.
It is therefore not surprising that our Lord Jesus took up water and used it when he instituted the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. He was not doing something brand new. The essential character of water for life and its use in washing had caused water to be used by many religions. And more specifically, Yahweh had already included water in the rites associated with the temple and in the language of the Old Testament. He promised through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”
And of course, John the Baptist had already used water in his baptism – a baptism of repentance. People submitted to John’s baptism confessing their sins, and by doing so they demonstrated that they were repentant and were looking for God’s kingdom – his reign – to arrive. In a surprising turn, Jesus himself had come to receive this baptism. It was the beginning of his ministry as he identified with sinners and took on the role of the suffering Servant. Jesus stepped into the water so that he could begin his ministry that led to the cross.
While there had been other washings in the history of God’s people, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism was something that was completely new. It did not exist until Jesus instituted it after his death and resurrection. It did not exist until Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Jesus took water and added to it his word – his word to baptize “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He commanded his Church to do this – to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And so the Small Catechism explains that, “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.”
Our Lord Jesus gave baptism and we confess its most fundamental purpose every time we say in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Those words are drawn from our text for tonight.
On Pentecost the risen and ascended Lord poured out his Spirit on the Church, just as he had promised. Peter preached to the crowd that had been drawn together because of the sound like a rushing wind. He confronted them with their role in the death of Jesus. He spoke the sharpest Law as he concluded by saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The Book of Acts tells us that they were cut to the heart. Convicted of their sin they said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s reply was direct and simple. He said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. For there to be forgiveness, there must be repentance. There must be confession of sin to God – the admission that we have not loved God with all that we are; that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
To this Peter adds baptism in the name of Jesus. Baptism does not stand on its own. Otherwise it would be plain water. Instead through the Lord Jesus’ institution it is water that has been brought into contact with the saving death and resurrection of Christ. It is water that now gives and delivers what Jesus has won for us – the forgiveness of sins.
God’s Word compares sin to dirt or a stain. And so Ananias said to Paul after his Damascus road experience: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” And in the same way Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Jesus won forgiveness for you as he died on the cross of Good Friday. But that forgiveness must be received. It must be applied to each person. And the Lord has instituted the located means of water and the Word to do this. He has attached his promise of forgiveness to the water so that it can be received by faith.
The Church of the first few centuries had no doubt about this. Baptism forgave sins. But some also developed the strange idea that baptism only forgave the sins committed up to the time of baptism. For this reason, many Christians considered the ideal practice to be baptism on one’s death bed.
Holy Baptism is something that is done only once. But the forgiveness it gives is not limited by its timing. Instead, it is the promise of God that always stands ready to be grasped in faith. Through baptism the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been applied to you. This saving work provides forgiveness for every sin. Where faith believes this promise of God, the Christian has exactly what our text says, “the forgiveness of sins.”
The only thing that can limit baptism … is you. For the gift to be a blessing, it must be used. For baptism to be a comforting means of forgiveness, it must be thought of and believed. It stands always present, always ready, with the God’s comforting promise. Christ has given you one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. How do you know you are forgiven? You’ve been baptized! How do you know you are saved? You’ve been baptized! How do you know that already now that eternal life is yours? You’ve been baptized! Now there is good news that you never want to forget.