The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. 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’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and 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 and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
Yet this sense of not belonging, of being an exile, is not confined to refugees. It also describes a widespread 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 a priest, or a bishop, or 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. So, more precious than my two passports, is my baptismal certificate, which states that I was baptized, actually on January 10th, at St Isan’s church, Llanishen, in Cardiff. My passports tell me who I am. My baptismal certificate tells me WHOSE I am: ‘I am Christ’s own forever.’ For when we know whom we belong to, we know most profoundly who we are.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. And for Jesus, his baptism was supremely the moment where he learned his core identity, where he learned who he was and whose he was. St Mark tells us that just as Jesus was coming out of the water, having been baptized by John, ‘he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’ The Spirit comes down, the Father expresses delight in Jesus, but most importantly, Jesus’ essential identity is proclaimed – ‘You are 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. And all the temptations are precisely about doubting and 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 also 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, ‘John, Mary, 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, my fundamental identity – and it is yours. 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 now, is to become what we already are! Immediately after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the desert to struggle to become and embrace his truest self. It was only after that struggle that he could emerge and begin his public ministry.
One of the most poignant and heart felt phrases I have heard spoken many times since the events which took place on Capitol Hill, is, ‘This is not who we are’. These are words about identity. The events which took place not only shock us morally, but wound us at the deepest level because they so violate our understanding of what it is to be a citizen of this country. But I believe that God is challenging us to an even deeper response. When I look at my baptismal certificate, I actually look at it as if it were another passport. It tells me and reminds me that I am also a citizen of God’s Kingdom. As I was praying for this country and the events of these past days, and reflecting on my baptism, I felt a really powerful challenge from God: as an American citizen you feel outraged by this violation of the values of this nation; ‘this is not who we are.’
But you are also a citizen of the Kingdom. Do you feel as outraged when ‘Kingdom’ values are violated, as they are every day, throughout the world, for the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden?
Well, this morning we actually have a wonderful opportunity to reaffirm our identity as people of the Kingdom: An opportunity to renew our Baptismal Vows: To proclaim aloud the values of the Kingdom which we hold as sacred, and which we pray will form us and make us into God’s holy people, and citizens of the Kingdom. As we promise to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace for all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, we are proclaiming before God, before ourselves, and before all the world, “This is who we are!”
Year B Epiphany 1
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