by Martin Ramsden.
‘… and Jesus was baptized. All at once, as he came out of the water, suddenly the heavens were opened, and he saw God’s spirit coming down like a dove and landing on him. Then there came a voice out of the heavens. ‘This is my own beloved one,’ said the voice. ‘I am delighted with him’. (Matthew 3.16-17)
First of all, let me apologize. On this publication day, the last Theology Everywhere article before Christmas, I really should be writing something more explicitly connected with the incarnation. However, we are still in the season of Advent and, as Tom Wright’s recent guide to Advent readings makes clear, the baptism of Jesus does have relevance here. In addition, the liturgical Sunday on which we focus on the Baptism of Jesus comes very soon in 2017. Indeed, Matthew 3.13-17 is the Gospel reading which is set for 8th January.
Quite a few years ago now I led worship in a semi-rural church on the outskirts of Doncaster. My opening hymn was God is here as we his people. The second verse of this hymn says:
Here are symbols to remind us
of our lifelong need of grace;
Here are table, font and pulpit;
Here the cross has central place.
Before the service began I had a look to make sure that we did, indeed, have table, font, pulpit and a central cross. We almost had a full set – all except for the font. I asked the stewards if it might be possible to display the font. Panic ensued. Eventually the font was found at the back of a cupboard. It was dusted off, placed upon the table for the duration of the service and then was promptly returned to its place in the cupboard. I was reminded of this experience recently when a Local Preacher came to lead worship at my home church. She chose the same opening hymn and as I sang verse 2 I looked for the symbols of our lifelong need of grace. Again, I could see almost a full set. Table, cross and especially pulpit were clearly visible. The font, I later discovered, was hidden behind some hymnbooks on the front pew.
Have the Methodists of this land forgotten that our baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace and also so much more?
In 2015 27% of the 7,633 baptisms of under twelves in the Methodist Church were conducted in 2.7% of the 4,541 Methodist churches. This means that a very small number of churches are conducting a very high proportion of Methodist baptisms. Whilst it may be that those churches which hardly ever have a baptism, like my first example, may have forgotten that baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace it also could be true that those churches which have one or more baptisms each week have also lost sight of the connection between baptism and Christian discipleship.
29 of the 123 churches that reported 10 or more baptisms in 2015 are in the North East. Needless to say this is a big issue for a significant number of presbyters and deacons in the North East of England. At a recent reflective practice session for baptismal practitioners in the North East of England that I facilitated I was asked a question, ‘to what extent does the number of baptisms for those outside of the regularly gathering church prevent the regularly gathering church from seeing the treasure of their own baptism?’ A good question!
In the early church, baptism, if not regarded as a treasure or a sign of our lifelong need of grace, was regarded as significant for the life of discipleship. Indeed, in the early centuries in Syria and Alexandria, baptism was deeply significant for the Christian disciple’s understanding of Christian identity, vocation and ministry. This is because Christian baptism was very much interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own baptism. ‘“This is my own beloved one” said the voice. “I am delighted”’. The resonances with Is.42.1 and Ps.2.7 notwithstanding, I wonder what it would mean for us to grow into the Lord’s delight? I wonder if a helpful understanding of holiness might be growing into the Lord’s delight or, put another way, growing into our baptism. For, to be sure, the Lord sees much more in us than we are able to see in ourselves. As Ephesians 3. 20-1 puts it, ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’.
This Christmas, throughout 2017 and through all of the years to come, may we grow more fully into God’s vision for us, into the Lord’s delight. To put it another way, may we grow more fully into the grace of our baptism.
 As translated by Tom Wright in Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Advent: A Journey Through Matthew (London: SPCK, 2016) p.36
 Back then I chose this Fred Pratt Green hymn from Hymns and Psalms no. 653 (London: Methodist Publishing House, 1983) now I would find it in Singing the Faith no. 25 (London: Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2011)
 I am very grateful to Alan Piggot from the Methodist Church Statistics for Mission Team for providing this data for me
 See Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999) pp.47-50 and 56-7.
3 thoughts on “… and Jesus was baptized”
Perhaps many Methodists do not see baptism as significant because they were baptised as infants? Therefore (1) they did not choose baptism for themselves (2) they have no memory of being baptised?
Yet Catholics, Orthodox and Copts see a great deal of significance in their baptism and are also often baptised as infants. The issue is, I believe, not so much the time of baptism itself within a person’s life but rather the failure of the churches’ worship and discipleship to enable proper baptismal memory. The liturgy of the Catholic Church, and its rites and pietistic culture (such as crossing one-self with holy water upon entering a church), continually reminds one of the place a disciple has in the Body of Christ through the grace of baptism. This can also be done in more reformed settings – when I attended Calvin College’s ‘Worship Symposium 3 years ago, the services all included the pouring of water into a bowl or font at the point of either confession or absolution, a symbolic reminder of God’s grace received and revealed at baptism. Perhaps a revision of the Covenant Service might include a more explicit reminder of our baptism so that at least annually each member of the congregation is reminded of their baptism? Of course, the most effective ways of encouraging memory are physical actions, something we protestants still seem particularly wary of, despite the successes of the liturgical movement, so whatever we do, it won’t be a simple fix. I do think, though, that this is something churches should be encouraged to think about more in relation to how they conduct their worship.
What do the statistics say about growth or decline within churches that baptize a lot and within those that hardly ever baptize?