By Justin Rossow
The Back Story
“I was baptized by a Nazi spy.” That little bombshell was dropped during a table discussion in a St. Luke bible class last fall. It’s extremely cool for at least two reasons: it shows us something about family discipleship and it shows us something about baptism. Here’s the story.
I was teaching on baptism in our Foundations of the Faith class and I asked people to talk at their tables about their own baptisms. Four generations from the same family were at the same table, and as they reminisced, great-grandma came out with this gem: “I was baptized by a Nazi spy.”
Her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter had never heard the story, which, it seems, goes something like this: back in the early 1930’s, there was some real bad blood between Great-grandma’s Dad and the local Lutheran pastor, so much so that his daughter was not even baptized as an infant. But as confirmation drew near, Dad relented and had the despised pastor do the baptism on Confirmation Sunday.
Just a couple of years later, the same pastor fled the country suddenly. It seems Great-great-grandpa had good reason for distrusting his clergyman: this German Lutheran pastor turned out to be a Nazi spy.
I love this story because it sounds like the plot of a black-and-white melodrama, and yet it’s not only true, it happened to one of our own St. Luke members!
I love it even more because this family story had been tucked away for years until a faith conversation in a Bible class brought it to light. And that’s the first thing we can take away from this brief example: family faith conversations matter for discipleship.
Family faith conversations matter for discipleship.
Sometimes it takes a formal setting like a Bible class or retreat. Sometimes simply having dinner together and talking through your week is enough. But whatever the setting, don’t keep your faith—both the struggles and the joys—to yourself. Your faith journey belongs to your faith family.
So find a time to talk with your spouse, your children, a friend, the person who always sits next to you at church, and tell the stories of your faith: how and when were you baptized? What Bible verse is helping you through this week? What is God speaking into your life? What are you going to do about it?
Discipleship is a team sport. Find ways to hear and to speak the stories of your faith. As you do, you will find the questions and experiences of other followers of Jesus help you understand and experience more fully your own journey of faith.
Discipleship is a team sport.
Kind of like the great-grandma who was baptized by a Nazi spy—not only is that a cool story, it raises a serious faith question: can I be sure my baptism is valid, even if the baptizing pastor turned out to be fraud? What makes baptism work? What does the Church do with a pastoral failure?
Baptism as God’s Action
The history of this question in the Church predates even Nazi spies. In the early 300’s in North Africa there was a considerable crisis of faith. Under threat of execution, local church leaders gave up their rare and sacred scrolls (i.e. sections of the Bible) and denounced their faith. They saved their own lives, but cast doubt on whether or not they had every truly believed what they preached.
All of a sudden, almost every Christian in the region had to come to the grips with the fact that they were not only under severe persecution to the point of death, but their own pastors and leaders had denounced the faith. It gets personal fast when the person who baptized you publicly declares he was just faking it the whole time.
It gets personal fast when the person who baptized you publicly declares he was just faking it the whole time.
Some claimed the moral failure of these leaders meant everything they had done, from baptizing babies to consecrating the Lord’s Supper, was now null and void.
So the Church had to struggle with the question: is a baptism performed by an imposter still a valid baptism? That question begs another: what makes a baptism valid in the first place?
The struggles of this fourth century family of faith half a world away help bring force and focus to our own baptismal promises. Baptism, as a means of grace, depends on God’s Word, God’s action, God’s promise.
So as we follow God’s instructions—in this case, combining water with God’s Word—the promise of God Himself makes the baptism a real, true, valid washing of renewal, forgiveness, and life.
Baptism depends on God’s Word, God’s action, God’s promise.
The quality of the water doesn’t matter. The quality of the person doing the baptism doesn’t matter. What matters is the promise: as we baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune God Himself is active in and through that word in the water for the removal of sin and the birth of the life of faith.
Share Your Story
So Great-grandma was baptized by a Nazi spy; and whether the spy meant it or not, God Himself showed up with His promises that day.
And when Great-grandma shared that story with her family, they also had the chance to reflect on the God who promises to show up in their lives. That’s how discipleship works: telling and retelling the stories of our own faith walk so that the others around us come to know the same God of grace and power at work in their own lives.
Even if your story isn’t quite so dramatic, take time to share it with someone this week. And ask them to share a part of their story with you. That mutual conversation is how the people of God encourage each other on this journey of faith.
January 26, 2014 is a special Baptism Sunday at St. Luke—Ann Arbor. If you or someone you know has not yet been baptized, please consider joining us that day. Contact Pastor Justin Rossow if you are interested.
All are also invited to a special Family Discipleship class on baptism, Sunday, January 19 at 9:45 AM. Janette Haak and Pastor Rossow will help provide some tools for you to help you and your family celebrate and experience the promises of baptism.
For more on the Donatist Controversy in North Africa in the 300’s AD, see this link: http://www.theopedia.com/Donatism