Baptism and Identity
Luke 3:15–17, 21–22
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 baptize 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 baptize 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 baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized 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.’
If someone were to ask you the question, “who are you,” how would you respond? You would probably begin by telling them your name. Then, depending on the context, you might add a number of qualifying labels, for example, I’m a teacher; or a banker; or a nurse. You might say, I’m so and so’s mother or father; I’m from Connecticut; or Iowa; or Florida. You might identify yourself as a Democrat or a Republican, or perhaps more likely these days, as an Independent. It’s not too hard though, right? To come up with a long list of labels to apply to ourselves as we think about this question— “who am I?”
But what if someone were to ask you the question, “who are you in God?”How many of us would be completely stumped by that question? Upon some reflection, we might say, I’m a Christian— a Protestant, or maybe a lapsed Catholic. We might say, I’m a Congregationalist, or a Baptist, or maybe the ever popular, “I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious.” But beyond the labels— what then? Who are we, really, once we strip away all the superficial layers and labels? This morning’s Gospel text— the story of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John— may just help point us towards some answers.
For most of us, this is a familiar story. And given the assumptions that the average person holds about the purpose of baptism— that it’s all about God cleansing us of our sins— it can also be a somewhat problematic story. After all, if the purpose of baptism is to cleanse us of our sins, then why does Jesus have to be baptized in the first place? As the son of God, isn’t he supposed to be without sin? As John says to Jesus in the story, “shouldn’t you be the one baptizing me? This doesn’t seem quite right…”
Most biblical scholars would answer these questions by explaining that for Jesus, baptism was never really about the forgiveness of sins. Rather, it was about naming and commissioning him for his purpose in the world. This was the start of Jesus’ ministry, and in the moment of his baptism, his identity was made known—to him and to everyone around him— “this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus goes off to begin his ministry.
So we can be somewhat clear about what Jesus’ baptism meant. But how does that help us with our question this morning? How does this story of Jesus’ baptism help us come to a deeper understanding of our own sense of purpose and identity? How does it help us better answer the question “who am I and why am I here?”
Biblical scholar and preacher David Lose observes that never before have we lived in an age when our identity is so easily bought and sold. Never before have we lived in an age when there are so many claims upon who we are and who we ought to be. False promises abound in our world— promises that try to sell us on the idea that if only we are wealthy enough, successful enough, skinny enough, popular enough, powerful enough, whatever enough, thenwe will be happy with who we are. And as much as we might recognize, somewhere deep down, that these are false promises, we still buy into them all the time.It happens so easily. We become preoccupied with things like professional recognition, or that next level of financial security, or the admiration of our peers, and we give up so much mental, emotional, and spiritual energy trying to achieve or hold onto these things. Then before we know it, we’ve lost sight of who we really are and why we’re really here. We find ourselves constantly having to peel back those layers, constantly having to peel off those labels that we have applied to ourselves, or that we have allowed others to apply to us. It takes an enormous amount of our mental energy and can so often be a distraction from who we really want to be. And of course, that’s only if we’re self-aware enough to notice all of this happening. So many people go through life never even realizing that the identity they are striving so desperately to achieve will not bring them happiness or true fulfillment. Therefore, Lose argues, never before has the message and meaning of baptism been so important to remember. Never before has it been so imperative that we teach our children the true meaning behind this sacred ritual— which is that God has declared that we areenough and that God desires to do wonderful things for and through us just as we are.
There are plenty of theological debates about the meaning of baptism— what’s it for, why we do it, how we do it, and what actually happens in the act of baptizing someone. But those debates are mostly for theologians and academics. At the end of the day the scholarly debates about baptism will have little impact on our everyday spiritual lives and do little to help us answer the ultimate questions of who we are and why we are in this world. What matters most about baptism is not whether it happens when we are babies or adults, or whether it is a sprinkling of water in church or full immersion down by the river. What matters is not whether it is Protestant or Catholic, or even whether we remember it or not. What matters for us is that at some point, we recognize in our baptism our primary identity as beloved children of an eternal and loving God, that we are part of something so much larger than ourselves, and that we have a calling beyond our own small preoccupations with worldly success or personal status. What matters is that at some point we are able to recognize our baptism as an answer to those deep and eternal questions: “who am I?” and “why am I here?” In baptism, we are named and claimed as beloved children of an eternal God. In baptism, we become part of the Body of Christ. And when I say we become part of the Body of Christ, I don’t just mean we become part of a specific church, or a specific denomination, or even a specific religion. It’s about belonging— body, mind, and spirit— to God. In baptism we are given an identity which calls us to a very particular mission—that of Christ himself. In baptism we are claimed and we are commissioned for God’s ongoing work of reconciliation and restoration in a hurting and sinful world. That is our identity as baptized Christians. That is who we are. That is why we are here.
Now in this way of belonging there is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing is that we no longer have to rely on external forces to tell us who we are or to give us our sense of worth. We can stop constantly comparing ourselves to others. We don’t need to seek out constant affirmation and approval from others. Our identity and our worth is already predetermined. We belong to God. We are beloved. We are precious, and, as God said in the beginning of it all, we are good. That’s the blessing, and I don’t know about any of you, but for me, that’s a very powerful blessing. The challenge, though, is that it calls us to let go of some of our other attachments, or at least to understand that the places where we previously found identity and belonging are secondary, or even, sometimes, false. Our identity as beloved children of God comes first. And of course, the other part of that challenge is that if we truly acknowledge that our primary identity is as beloved children of God, then that also applies to everyone else. And this is where it gets really hard. People we dislike, people we don’t understand, people we are afraid of, even people we may have demonized. They are, first and foremost, precious and beloved children of God, just like us.
The implications here are enormous. Imagine a world in which we treated every other person as first and foremost, a beloved sibling in Christ. It is in many ways because of this challenge that I will depart this coming Wednesday for a week-long trip to our southern border. There’s been a lot of talk about the border in recent weeks. It’s currently the major point of contention in a government shutdown that affects my household and many other households in a very direct and difficult way. But beyond all the debate and beyond all the rhetoric, I feel called to recognize that before anything else, the people gathering at our border-- many of whom are waiting to claim asylum from terrible violence-- are my siblings in Christ. I am precious and beloved, and they are equally so. God does not see a border between me and them. But what God does see is the human suffering currently on full display. And so that is why I will go. To try and help alleviate that suffering in any ridiculously small way that I can. I’m honestly not sure what I can do, but I will go, knowing that the Christ that I follow was never afraid to cross boundaries and borders in the name of love. I will go, knowing that my identity as part of the Body of Christ calls me to Christ’s own mission of compassion, reconciliation and radical love.
But of course, this is just a one-week trip. The work of living into our primary identity and of living as our true, beloved selves, is the work of a lifetime. We will at times find ourselves being pulled away from it— distracted by the labels others seek to place upon us, and tempted by the other identities that call out to us with such persuasion. But other times we will feel the call back towards it. We will feel the gentle pull of the spirit calling out to us with our true names-- beloved, precious, child of God. Member of the Body of Christ. We will always be seeking to live into our true identity more fully. Sometimes we will succeed, sometimes we will falter. But our identity as beloved children of God will always be there for us to return to.
And so, siblings in Christ, as we remember our baptism today, may we also hear the voice of God reclaiming us from all other identities that hold power over us, and may we allow ourselves to be claimed and named by these simple words, “this is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.