What’s the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you? The thing which made your stomach turn over and your heart to race? For me it was having to start a new school halfway through a term. By then everyone had already got their friends, and sitting next to them. I can remember that first day, walking into a class full of children, all staring at me, and none of whom I knew. I did make friends pretty quickly, but what I suppose I remember above all, was the awful feeling of not belonging.
The first day I went to university I had the same sinking feeling in my stomach. I remember walking through the college looking for my rooms. It was staircase V, I remember. Eventually I found the door, and then…I saw it…painted carefully in small white letters above the door: G. R. Tristram. My name. I felt so happy. I really belong here!
One of the most awful things in life is to feel we don’t belong. “Belonging” gives us our sense of identity: who we are. And we all have precious signs which we look after and value, because they show us we belong. Our birth certificates, our passports, photos of our families in our wallets or on our desks. I belong to them and they belong to me.
I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. We don’t belong here anymore. How terrible to belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, “cleansed” or fled in terror from their homes to a country where they don’t belong, where they don’t speak the language.
Yet this sense of not belonging, of being an exile, is not confined to refugees. It also describes a spiritual malaise. The Bible is convinced that this experience is common to everyone. The poignant story in the Book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are ejected from Eden, expresses that terrible human experience of alienation, of feeling not at home on the earth, cut off from God, spiritual refugees, spiritual orphans.
Pope John 23 was once asked, “What was the most wonderful day of your life? When you were made priest, or a bishop? When you were elected Pope?” He answered without a pause, “The most wonderful day of my life was the day of my baptism, for on that day I belonged to Christ and his Church.”
Baptism is the great sacrament of belonging and of identity. When we know who we belong to, we know who we are. Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. And for Jesus, his baptism was supremely the moment where he learned his deepest identity, when he learned to whom he belonged. Matthew tells us, “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit comes down upon Jesus, the Father expresses his delight in Jesus, but most importantly, Jesus’ essential identity is proclaimed – this is my son. Remaining faithful to his identity as Son of God would ultimately lead Jesus to conflict and death.
And so it is no wonder that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to be tempted. All the temptations are about denying his true identity. Each temptation begins, “If you are the Son of God.” If.
The time of withdrawal for Jesus was a time of inner struggle to accept and embrace his true identity. It is only after he has gone through this inner struggle that he could emerge and begin his public ministry. Jesus’ baptism was about belonging and about identity. And that is true about our baptism. When we know whose we are, we know who we are.
There is that wonderful moment in the baptism service when the sign of the cross is marked on our forehead, and the priest proclaims: “Geoffrey, Mary, Jane, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Marked as Christ’s own – I know who I am – I am Geoffrey – because I belong to Christ. That is my truest identity – and it is your truest identity. You are Christ’s own forever!
That has the power to set us free. No longer do we have to struggle to establish an identity, to feel worthy of God’s love, to feel accepted. We already belong to God, and God already loves us more than we can imagine.
Our struggle is to become what we already are! We find it hard to accept and celebrate and truly embrace that unique person that God created us to be. So often we spend time wishing we were someone else – better looking, more intelligent. A wonderful story from the rabbis illustrates this.
Some students were talking with their Rabbi. One said, “Rabbi Zusia, I’m afraid when I appear before the holy one he will ask me, ‘Why did you not have the faith of Abraham?’” Another said, “I’m afraid I’ll be asked, ‘Why did you not have the patience of Job?’” The third was afraid he’d be asked, “Why did you not have the courage of Moses?” Then they asked Rabbi Zusia, “Rabbi, what question do you most fear?” Rabbi Zusia answered, “When I appear before the holy one, I’m afraid he’ll ask me, “Zusia, why were you not Zusia?”
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness to struggle to become and embrace his truest self – God’s Son. It was only after that struggle that he could emerge and begin his public ministry. We, too, are called to share in that ministry – and in a moment we will be recommitting ourselves to that ministry of healing and reconciliation.
Perhaps on this day God is also challenging you, like Jesus, to embrace your truest self, to become more fully that unique person God created you to be. Perhaps you need some time in the wilderness – some retreat time, or time of serious prayer. Time for honest self-examination before God. Am I becoming more fully the person God created me to be? Or are there parts of me that are not really true? A façade? Where have I compromised on my beliefs? Where, for the sake of an easy life, have I allowed myself to settle for less than the full stature of the child of God – which I am?
Lord, how might I become more fully that wonderful, unique person you created me to be? Give me the courage to rise up and become the person you know and love.
When you come to the altar today to receive the body and blood of Christ, come and adore the One who has called us by name, who has marked us as his own through baptism, and who has prepared for us a heavenly home, where we belong, for evermore.
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