Pre-Pentecost baptisms in Berlin
On March 19 Pastor Gerold Vorlaender of the Berliner Stadtmission (Berlin City Mission) stood before of a congregation of Iranians, Germans, at least two Lithuanians, two Canadians and more. Preaching on 1 Peter 2:6-10, he focused on verse nine’s spine-tingling declaration: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Spine-tingling because, while speaking God’s Word to all gathered worshippers, Pastor Gerold was most directly addressing seven Iranians dressed in white, with embroidered red crosses over their hearts. They were just a few of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who’d poured into Germany over the last two years fleeing war, religious persecution and hunger in their Middle East and African homelands. What’s more, these seven were about to be baptized.
Rev. 7 in miniature
Pastor Gerold then made a stirring segue to Revelation 7’s “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches.”
Though the seven Iranians were not holding palm branches, they were surely standing before the throne along with all 100 or so worshippers. We filled the plain worship space at Stadtmission headquarters one block from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (Central Railway Station) for this remarkable service. The seven had become Christians since fleeing Iran and meeting with Iranian lay pastor Stefan Rostami and the Farsi congregation he and his wife Sousan established in Berlin since their own flight from persecution in Iran four years ago.
Farsi church growth in Berlin
This was not the first baptism service of former refugees. Six months earlier the Farsi congregation celebrated baptisms in a nearby lake, as a video of the ceremony shown before the current baptisms blessedly recalled. That congregation has grown from only three to over 40 worshippers. The Stadtmission offers these newcomers sufficient space for worship. Since this late winter service didn’t permit outdoor baptisms, an inflatable pool was brought into the sanctuary and filled with water.
In the last two years the Stadmission has developed a relationship with the Farsi congregation as an evangelistic response to the refugees who have made new homes in Berlin. Christian Reformed World Missionaries David Kromminga and Mary Buteyn work with the Stadtmission to mentor emerging immigrant congregations and to encourage relationships between these congregations and majority-culture German churches. This baptism service was one of the bilingual Farsi-German language combined services held every two to three months. They build not merely a bold sociological bridge between different ethnicities; this one also offered a mid-Lenten pre-Pentecost portrait of Revelation 7’s “great multitude.”
Jesus’ new people
Pastor Gerold’s concise but profound sermon offered a grace-filled prelude to the baptisms. He continued addressing the baptismal candidates: “This is the people into whom you are baptized. You’re not united by language, custom or nation. We’re here from Lithuania, Canada, the U.S., Iran and Germany. When we are baptized, we become and belong to a new people through a Person.
“Strong persons have led nations, but not one has made a new people. The new people to whom we belong have been attacked, insulted, persecuted by strong persons like the Shah of Iran, Putin, Hitler and Trump. But Jesus makes new people by giving himself, creating people of reconciliation, people with changed hearts – as we see by the red cross over your hearts.”
The Heidelberg in Berlin
At that point the baptism service itself began, having been introduced early on by Pastor Tomas Sakas, recently arrived with his wife Asta from Klaipeda, Lithuania. (There he pastored the Reformed congregation that CRWMissionaries Steve and Chris Van Zanen attended.) Pastor Tomas drew on deep Reformed roots by reading Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer number 69 about how “holy baptism reminds and assures you that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is for you personally.” I felt right at home.
Immediately before the baptisms, Pastor Gerold asked each candidate three familiar, ever-profound questions: “Do you wish to be baptized? Do you reject Satan and all his works? Do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in the Church of Jesus Christ?” Continuing the mini-Pentecost spirit of the day, the questions were asked in German and translated in Farsi. When the candidates responded both in Farsi and German, I almost saw tongues of fire waving on their heads.
Risen with him in baptism
While that may have been only my vision, the baptisms themselves were visionary, prophetic and deeply moving. The candidates moved one-by-one to the baptismal pool, after being presented with mementoes on heart-shaped plaques bearing their picture, each inscribed with a different dedicatory Bible verse.
With Pastors Gerold and Stefan supporting them, they were lowered into the water, some holding their noses. All emerged with wide smiles, some weeping with astonished, infectious joy. During the baptisms the congregation sang “I’ve Been Redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb” in German and Farsi, all the while standing, clapping, moving about to take pictures, embracing the newly baptized.
Singing continued as members mopped up outside the font-pool and the baptized moved off to dry and change their clothes. When they returned, worshippers offered Prayers of the People with praise, intercession and thanks, again in Farsi and German.
Two kinds of gifts
To conclude the service, the combined congregation engaged in a touching exchange of gifts. The Farsi congregation presented small bird cages with tiny, open doors to Pastors Tomas and Gerold and Pastor Stefan and Sousan. Outside each cage stood a cross, symbolizing Jesus’ gift of release from sin’s captivity. For the newly baptized, those cages surely also pointed to freedom from physical danger in their new home.
Since I attended that service, two significant questions keep ranging through my thoughts: Will these new Christians and the many other refugees continue to find freedom from danger in their new land? Will Christians and churches in Germany and elsewhere – including Canada – not merely evangelize and baptize new Christians, but might those refugees actually ignite a holy fire of renewal in our churches?