by Rowland Croucher

Last Sunday I preached to an attentive group of worshippers from the Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22). When Baptists witness occasions when people who have chosen to be baptised are totally immersed, my experience is that the silence during that dramatic event is very profound. When, as a pastor, I’m standing in a baptistry with a candidate who’s about to be completely dependent on my strength to bring them up again from under the water (if they’ve chosen to be baptised backwards from a standing position: they have options to kneel and be baptised forwards if they wish) everyone is somehow identifying with the risks that one is taking, especially if they suffer from hydrophobia!

And I don’t help the hydrophobiacs by reminding everyone that trusting Jesus with one’s life is in a larger context similar to the trust our friend, the is placing in me. ‘I could keep you under, you know,’ I remind him/her mischievously!

I’ve occasionally agreed not to fully immerse someone who’s fearful about their head going under-water. Only the accompanying elder or deaconess would have known. (One such person came to see me the following week and asked to be ‘done again’: ‘I’ve come to believe God will reward my faith in him – and you, Rowland – if I trust him.’ After talking it over, we decided not to pursue a re-run of the event! Some women completely undo their hair so that ‘every bit of skin is bathed with water’).

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Here’s the Gospel reading: ‘As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.’

‘All around the world,’ I said, ‘today is both a celebration of the Lord’s baptism by John the Baptist, and also a celebration of our own baptism. And it’s a challenging day for people considering this act of obedience…’

Young and old, they were listening…

The story of Jesus’ baptism is mentioned in the three ‘Synoptic’ Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – and not directly by the Fourth Gospel, John. The three stories have slightly different approaches, so I rang a friend who’s a New Testament Professor and he made some interesting comments on those three passages. He noted one thing I hadn’t considered deeply: Jesus walked all the way from Nazareth – 70 miles or 113 kilometres, about the distance from Melbourne to Ballarat – to be baptised so obviously it was very important for him. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he commands his followers to ‘Go into all the world and preach the Good News… baptising people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…’ ‘We could spend hours unpacking that’, I said.

Another note on the Gospel passages: Mark and Luke tell us the voice from heaven said ‘You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ – apparently speaking to Jesus; but Matthew has the voice say ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ – apparently speaking to the crowd.

Question: how do we resolve that? There’s a whole industry dedicated to finding errors in the biblical manuscripts: but I reckon the voice was heard by everyone, saying something like ‘My Son, in whom I am well-pleased’, and people chose different recipients.

Something more: In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist mentions the purpose of his baptisms: ‘I baptise you with water for repentance.’ Paul affirms this in Acts 19:4: ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.’ John’s baptism was a symbolic representation of changing one’s mind and going a new direction. ‘Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River’ (Matthew 3:6). Being baptised by John demonstrated a recognition of one’s sin, a desire for spiritual cleansing…

Did you know the early Christians practised a form of confession-of-sin-to-another: ‘Confess your sins to one another, pray for one another, that you may be healed.’ (James 5:16). A lot of sickness – emotional, physical, spiritual – derives from carrying guilt with us through our lives. In our work with pastors and Christian leaders under the aegis of John Mark Ministries, many – a three figure number of these people – have done our two-day retreats which included a dimension of confession and absolution… Some wonderful healings have been experienced in those times…

At this point last Sunday I did a little survey: ‘Friends, you don’t have to raise your hand if you don’t want to, but it would be good to know what our varied experiences of ‘baptism’ are: 1. Baptised only once (as I was, actually) by immersion, your decision. 2. Baptised as a baby or small child, at the instigation of your parents/minders. 3. Baptised as a baby and then maybe ‘confirmed’ later.  4. Baptised twice – as a baby or as a child, but later you chose to be baptised by immersion or effusion/pouring. 5. Those who were baptised twice by immersion (as would happen in some American Southern Baptist churches: if you were ‘done’ somewhere else that doesn’t qualify). 6. Baptised by your choice but by effusion (‘that happened to Scottie who many of you know: he comes here in a wheelchair’). 7. Baptised as a baby in an Orthodox Church – possibly by immersion! 8. Not baptised at all. 9. Any others? Every category was represented, except the Southern Baptist one!

Let’s come at all this from another direction: imagine you’d come early to church this morning and were sitting on those seats outside at the place which might function as a ‘Conversation Corner’.  Someone asks you: ‘Do you belong to this church?’ ‘Sure’. ‘Why is it called “Baptist”? the stranger asks. How would you respond?

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Well, if you’re a church member, you’ve probably done a course in ‘Baptist Distinctives’, and you’ll probably say something like this to the enquirer: ‘We believe in the baptism of people who want to follow Jesus – people who request baptism – who know what they’re doing – and we generally baptise by immersion. Our Baptist ancestors got persecuted for this strange practice, but they did it for these reasons:

(1) Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River – at a part of the river where there was sufficient water to do it this way, as John in the Fourth Gospel takes the trouble to tell us

(2) Jesus told his followers to go into all the world baptising people in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

(3) The early Christians did it this way. Paul uses the metaphor of death: ‘We are buried with Christ by baptism into a kind of death’ – and usually dead people aren’t sprinkled with dirt, they’re buried

(4) So it’s only for believers. It follows Christian conversion, which happens when people choose to ‘receive Jesus as their personal Saviour’…

And then your friend has a ‘Yes, but’ question: ‘Well, then why do most churches especially the Catholics, baptise mostly children?’ And because you’ve studied that question you’ll respond: ‘To get rid of the effects of Original Sin.’ As a Catholic theologian puts it: ‘As the Bible tells us, the promise is to you and your children (cf. Acts 2:39). When you explain infant baptism in the context of original sin and sacramental baptism—of being born into a state of original sin and being born again into a state of grace—you make a very powerful argument on behalf of the Church’s teachings in this area. And they do it straight from the Bible.’ [ ] https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/to-explain-infant-baptism-you-must-explain-original-sin

At this point your questioner will probably shrug their shoulders and walk away, really puzzled…

So let’s bring the discussion inside: There’s another question Baptists have been asking. So what if you were baptised as an infant: what if you ratified that in a later confirmation class? Do you have to be done again  – by immersion – to join this church? Did you know that most Baptist churches in Australia forty years ago had a rule: you’ve gotta be done again when *you* choose – and it’s got to be by immersion.

But the times are a’changing. It’s a good question: thanks for asking. My hunch is that 50% of all Baptist churches in Australia these days are ‘Open Membership’ churches: that means people don’t have to be baptised again – or sometimes even for the first time – to earn a ticket for membership.

Let me take you to a Deacons’ meeting in a church not far from here where the pastoral team raised the issue about what kind of baptism is Ok with how much water for a person to be a member. That church made the shocking discovery that there were at least a few people who were members and had snuck in the back door by transfer from churches in South Australia where the Baptists were sometimes a bit lax about all this: they’d either been baptised just as infants, sprinkled and without a sufficient amount of H20 – or they weren’t baptised at all. Why make a fuss about all that? Why not let ‘Grace reign’ rather than precedent or law and let people themselves choose how they’ll be baptised – or whether they’ll be baptised at all? One deacon at that meeting used an old trick to suddenly close down all the discussion: ‘Over my dead body!’ he said. (Well, I was with his dead body – and with his wife at his bedside, when he died. And he hadn’t changed his mind before (until?) then!)

Probably about a quarter to a half of all rural Baptist churches haven’t changed their mind on this question. Imagine: a Salvation Army officer who’s never been baptised retires to a town with a Baptist Church they’d like to join. But unfortunately they learn they can’t officially belong to the membership of that church unless they submit to baptism by immersion. Baptised teenagers can but not that veteran mature Christian leader.

Now a doctrine or a practise that results in those outcomes has got to have something wrong with it eh?

Sure has: I was asked to give a paper at Whitley College on all this where I listed the six general practices of Baptist Churches around the world, and the ten things wrong with a legalistic approach to the subject: if you consult Professor Google with my name and the title ‘Open Membership in Australian Baptist Churches’ you’ll read those ten arguments  – for grace, rather than law. [ ] http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/9024.htm

—->>>> Let me add quickly that I’d give a tick to the church where I’m a member for its position on all this: Here’s the wording of this church’s constitution:

2. MEMBERSHIP 2.1. Membership in the Church is open to any person who declares faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and who is willing to commit to the Church Covenant. 2.2. A person becomes a Member on being accepted by the consensus of a Church Conversation. 2.3. The normal practice of the Church will be to accept into membership only those who have been baptised upon profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, in particular circumstances, membership may be open to those not baptised upon profession of faith but who are accepted for membership by a Church Conversation upon the recommendation of the appropriate Working Group. 2.4. A person ceases to be a Member when his or her name is removed from The Roll in accordance with this Constitution.

So let’s come back to us. What’s today’s lectionary reading saying to us? If Jesus came all that way – a hundred-plus kilometres – to be baptised in the Jordan, it must have been important for him. And if he’s commanded his followers to preach the necessity of baptism it ought to be important for them.

Where do we go with that?

If you’d like to talk more about baptism that’s why we have a pastor – Julia – and she’d love to talk with you about that. (And if you’re really desperate I’d also be happy to have a chat sometime with you on this – or anything else!).

Let us sing a famous song of commitment, attributed to the famous Indian Christian Sadhu Sundar Singh:

I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.

 

The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

 

Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

 

My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus;
My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus;
My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.

 

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back, no turning back.

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[ ] [Written by Simon Marak, from Jorhat, Assam. However, according to Dr P. Job, the lyrics are based on the last words of Nokseng, a Garo man, a tribe from Meghalaya which then was in Assam, who along with his family decided to follow Jesus Christ in the middle of the 19th century through the efforts of an American Baptist missionary. Called to renounce his faith by the village chief, the convert declared, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” His two children were killed and in response to threats to his wife, he continued, “Though no one join me, still I will follow.” His wife was killed, and he was executed while singing, “The world behind me, The cross before me.” This display of faith is reported to have led to the conversion of the chief and others in the village. The fierce opposition is possible, as various tribes in that area were formerly renowned for head-hunting. The formation of these words into a hymn is attributed to the Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh.  The melody is also Indian, and entitled “Assam” after the region where the text originated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_Decided_to_Follow_Jesus