The Church in my City

Chapter 9 Baptism

As John the Baptist had begun to do, Jesus made disciples by baptizing them to begin learning about the good news he had brought from the Father. . "The Pharisees had heard, 'Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John' -although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized" (John 4:1-2). This meant that anyone who wanted to learn about the good news of the Kingdom could be enrolled immediately. There is not one case of delay or probation for baptism in the New Testament..

This model of the purpose of baptism has huge implications for evangelism (making the good news known). Instead of coming as a sign of having repented, accepted forgiveness, and committed oneself to Jesus as Lord, baptism takes on its original meaning as an invitation to begin learning (this model is set out in Go, Make Learners). Nobody should be asked to believe and swallow a whole creed before having a chance to explore what it means. The Apostles' Creed is a syllabus, not a declaration that one has understood it all. I am sure there are many people in my city who would welcome an opportunity to learn about Jesus without having to commit themselves to a particular denomination (see chapter 5). Baptism is not into a denomination but into the world-wide school of the Messiah.

By that definition there are huge numbers of people in my city who are already disciples (enrolled learners) from Jesus. In my city of Kingston, Ontario, and the surrounding area that it serves, there are about 150,000 people. By far the greatest majority of them have begun to learn about Jesus. Most have been baptized as babies or later in life. Many have attended Sunday Schools. Older people encountered Jesus in public schools. They sing carols about him at Christmas. Young people meet Jesus in the compact disks they listen to. Just about everyone hears the Word of God when they attend baptisms, weddings and funerals. Many of them find it helpful to learn more in a church building. Others learn in a Bible study group. Alpha is a very popular and effective way for those who want to grasp what Jesus had in mind.

If baptism is an enrolment to begin learning, nobody should be forced to deny their nationality, citizenship, race, or culture. This was the tragedy of many of our missions before we discovered that people did not need to wear a suit, sing our hymns, or adopt our culture to go to church. After some time when they have been taught by the Spirit they may want to change certain practices that they inherited, but a change of lifestyle does not precede baptism, nor is it a requirement of baptism. The only purpose is to explore what God is like and what he has in mind for us.

But now we need to add that no merely human exploration can ever arrive at the heart of God. The revelation of who Jesus is as Messiah Son of God and head of the church has to be imparted by the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). In the case of Peter the revelation took place two or three years after his baptism as a disciple (learner). "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven" (Matthew16:17).

That means that Jesus ordered a baptism with water as a means of inviting people to begin their exploration. But this must be followed by a baptism by the Spirit to experience Jesus as the Son of God and become part of his body (as we saw in chapter 4). John the Baptist used baptism for people to enrol and begin learning, but he was the forerunner for the one who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 3:11). As Paul explained, "No one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God" (1 Corinthians 2:12).

The two stages are clearly separated when Philip the Evangelist baptized numbers of Samaritans, but they were unable to begin functioning as a church of the Spirit till the apostles sent "Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:12-17).

Similarly in Ephesus when Paul found some disciples he asked "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:1-2). So he explained to them the difference between the baptism to begin learning and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When he laid hands on them and prayed "the Holy Spirit came upon them" and they were able to begin functioning as part of the body of the Messiah in the city.

When I came to Kingston in 1976, there was very little emphasis on this experience of the Holy Spirit. Among Anglicans the only congregation where this was important was Christ Church, Cataraqui during the ministry of Ken Coleman. He was unfortunately viewed as a CHARISMATIC who was upsetting our tradition.

After all, we practiced the laying on of hands in confirmation. In the Book of Common Prayer, after reading the two Scriptures we have just quoted the Bishop was required to say that the candidates had already been regenerated in their baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Then he laid hands on each one and said "Defend, O Lord, this thy servant with thy heavenly grace that he/she may continue thine for ever, and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit." In our 1985 Canadian Book of Alternative services this was partly corrected to "Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their baptism." Then the Bishop laid hands on them individually and said "Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N with your Holy Spirit; empower him/her for your service."

This change allowed for a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit at a later date after baptism. But it still misses the fact that baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the experience of an individual. It is an incorporation into the church as a body (as in the two Scriptures which we quoted in the old Prayer Book). Paul made this crystal clear. "Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with the Messiah. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). It is impossible to light one log alone for a fire. But if it is added to others which are already on fire, it can play its part with them. Could this be the meaning of "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11)?

In this city of Kingston there have been denominations that stressed a second work of grace. The Holiness groups stressed an experience of the Holy Spirit that freed individuals from sin. Pentecostal groups described an experience of speaking in tongues. But by making this an individual experience they both missed the experience of being part of the body. In the sixties some Charismatics began to offer a community of the Spirit with many gifts of the Spirit, and when people were able to worship with them, they caught the fire (see The Church: An Organic Picture, 1968).

Happily now after twenty-four years in this city it is exciting to see many congregations and house groups are experiencing the baptism of the Spirit as a charismatic body. And the Cursillo and Alpha groups in all the major denominations have been used to bring very large numbers into this experience. The problem, as Paul recognized among the Ephesians, is that life in the Spirit can result in division. "Making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:3-6). As new expressions of the power of the Spirit emerge in our city, we should rejoice in the organic growth of the body without feeling threatened that some members will move from our little empire. Membership is not being on the list of our own denomination. It is exercising a gift of the Spirit in the body of the Messiah in our city wherever he chooses to do his powerful work (for a definition of church membership see 1 Corinthians 12:14-27).

Chapter 10