Some Reflections on Baptism

Helping candidates prepare for their baptism and sharing with them on such great God-honouring occasions is for me one of the most joyful privileges of ongoing pastoral ministry.  

Without question, baptism is an important step of obedience to the command of the Lord Jesus as each one freely chooses to respond to God’s gracious call to follow Christ’s example by the help of the Holy Spirit. Yet I have also come to realise that to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to be immersed into Trinitarian dynamic of the life of God. The implication is that our discipleship ceases to be just a response of duty and becomes a participation in the creativity, compassion, energy and life of God, the missionary God. Therefore, the Great Commission is not merely something God commands and that we do. It is something God initiates and we are invited to partner with him in what he is doing.

 John’s version of the Great Commission captures this sense of movement well: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. And with that he breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’’ (John 20:21)

Think also about Jesus’ own baptism as described in the synoptic Gospels. Mark uses striking language ‘As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven bring torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my beloved Son, whom I love: with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:9-11) As it was for Jesus, so it can be for us too in baptism and beyond. Although the relationship between the believer and God has already begun before the moment of baptism, it can now be deepened in a special moment of encounter.

It is essential to realise that baptism is not reserved for mature, ‘got it altogether’ Christians (and I seriously doubt if there is such a thing!?). No, it’s for people who, knowing that their shortcomings have been covered by Christ’s righteousness, come ... come, knowing that their deepest needs are and will always be met in God’s tender and strong embrace.

Baptism is about new beginnings, about washing away the past, wiping the slate clean. It is about dying to the past and rising in newness of life. As a person comes in faith to the baptismal pool, the triune God meets him or her with gracious presence which transforms his or her life. So if anyone is questioning ‘Am I really ready to be baptised? ‘The kind of things to ask include:

‘Am I …

  • Turning from my sins to God in repentance (Acts 2:38)
  • Trusting in Jesus as my Lord and Saviour (Mark 16:16)
  • Teachable – knowing a little, am I hungry to know more and to allow His Spirit to fill, shape, empower and guide my whole life. (Matt. 28:19-20)
  • Taking my place, playing my part in the family of God’s people and in the work of God’s mission. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, Galatians 3:26-29)

Baptism is like passing through customs at the airport and entering the departure lounge. Baptism is not our destination, but it surely denotes our journey with Jesus is well under way. It is, as someone once said to me, ‘the end of the beginning.’ In baptism, we anticipate God’s future in the here and now.

I had the joy of leading worship and preaching on Resurrection Sunday morning at Chester Road Baptist Church in my home town of Sutton Coldfield a few years ago. As I prepared, I recalled from College that it was customary in the early patristic period for churches to hold baptismal services on Easter Sunday. It dawned on me that it was exactly 25 years since I had been baptised as a believer and in that church too. With this as my cue, I took the opportunity to preach from Colossians 3:1-3 on the challenge of not just holding firmly to the historical facts of Christ’s resurrection (credibility firmly based on the twin pillars of the absent body/empty tomb and the many witnesses to his risen presence) but more especially to the living out of a vibrant Easter faith in our ongoing, everyday lives. The danger is that we robustly defend the Easter fact but fail to adequately demonstrate the life of Easter faith.

 This ‘Easter faith’ is expressed and encountered and experienced vividly and vitally in the baptismal waters. (Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:11-12) In application of the message, I encouraged the worshippers at the service to renew their baptismal vows, something they did with surprising enthusiasm. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to notice that baptismal services are memorable and meaningful occasions and, I believe, this is intentionally so. It’s kind of difficult to forget the time when you got ‘dunked’ and in consequence thoroughly soaked in the presence of friends and family. Yet, each time we witness a baptism, we are surely challenged to recall our own baptismal vows, and to allow fresh opportunity for our life’s purpose to be shaped and sustained by the central foolish message and scandalous claims of the cross.

There is one added dimension to baptismal services held here at Pershore. It is the necessary to rearrange the lay out of the church to face the doorway for this is where the baptistery is situated. In some ways this may seem inconvenient or point to an ill thought out baptistery. I strongly beg to differ. It offers us a profoundly simple and prophetic symbolism. Baptism, properly viewed, is the historic entry point into the life of the faith and of the faith community. Yet, as we witness each baptism, we are also turning again to recall the central truths of our faith, namely the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:1-3) Moreover, we turn to face outwards, toward an open door (Colossians 4:2) of manifold opportunity to share together in God’s own mission.

If you forget all else, remember this: We are baptised into the life of the triune God and live to share God’s mission, his amazing movements of love in Christ and by the Spirit to transform the whole cosmos. This includes you and me!

 Yours because we are His