Often when a person begins a new effort, or turns over a new leaf they do so by wanting to “get back to basics.” We most often see this when people make New Year’s resolutions or students and parents start a new school year. There is a desire to focus on what is important and truly necessary, and not get side-tracked by secondary concerns or activities. Whether we are thinking about our health, or study habits, or getting on a good schedule, or making sure our relationships with people we love are in good working order, we often find ourselves deciding that we have to focus on the basics, on what is central and important. This is instead of focusing on whatever seems to be clamoring the loudest for attention, or being pulled into the orbit of people or influences whose values are not our own.
So it seems very helpful that every year, right near the beginning of the new calendar year, we have the opportunity to “get back to
basics” in our faith and in our relationship with God and with ourselves. Every year on the Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, and we hear one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan River, before the beginning of his public ministry.
In this year’s telling of the story by Luke, all of the elements of Jesus’ baptism are there: attending one of John the Baptist’s public baptisms out in the wilderness; going down into the water; having an experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit; hearing God saying to him: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And all of this takes place before Jesus has begun his preaching and teaching, even before he was driven out into his forty-day long retreat of fasting and prayer and discernment in the wilderness. It’s as though Jesus has been standing in the shadows for nearly thirty years, waiting for the right time to step onto the world’s spiritual stage. When he appeared, he didn’t just put a toe in the water, he jumped in at the deep end!
And what did that gain him? From the experience of his baptism, Jesus had a very clear confirmation of his identity: "You are my Son, the Beloved;” the voice from heaven said. “With you I am well pleased." Jesus is the Son of God, not just by birth, but also by belovedness. God is well pleased with him, just for who he is – Jesus has done nothing yet that anyone would take notice of, that God would reward. Jesus’ identity is affirmed in his baptism, and it becomes the cornerstone of his life and ministry.
Well, what about us? What’s our identity? Most often our identity is shaped by our relationships – we are a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a spouse, a mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, friend, co-worker. Or we sometimes think about our identity as being defined by what we do – an engineer, an attorney, a teacher, a musician, a designer, a construction worker, a systems administrator, a nurse, a priest. And those professions and jobs can go pretty far in shaping the way that we think about ourselves. But often that way of defining our identity gets all caught up in how well or poorly we do our jobs.
One of the reasons (among others) that I did not become a musicologist (a professional music historian) is that some of the skills that I would have needed for that profession were not up to par, and it would take a very long time and a lot of effort to make that so. If my value and worth as a person had been ultimately wrapped up in my identity as a musicologist, I would have been in pretty bad shape. Maybe some of you have had the experience of wanting badly to be “X___________” but for whatever reason “X________” never came to fruition, and so you had to go about thinking of yourself in a different way, adjusting your expectations, and the way you saw yourself.
One of the most fundamental questions we grow up asking ourselves is “Who am I?” That is an age-old question. And the more
the world around us lets go of social supports and structures, the harder in can be (in some ways) to answer that question. Rather than having at least some of those answers in place for us because of where we were born, or what kind of education we got, or what our parents’ values were, we live in a world where all of those questions are much more fluid, and open, and harder to figure out some times.
And that’s where baptism comes in.
Baptism is fundamentally about identity. It’s about our identity as a beloved child of God. When Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to receive John’s baptism, he took us all with him. The Spirit descending on him like a dove, and the voice from heaven saying "You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased," were meant for us, as well. In the Episcopal tradition, most often, children are baptized before they can talk or reason or make decisions for themselves. This shows us, so clearly, that baptism is God’s initiative; that we start from a place of God reaching out to us in love and blessing. We have not earned the right to be baptized; it comes to us as a gift from God. We have not, as small children, won brownie points with God – in fact, adults don’t either! That’s not what baptism is about. Baptism is about our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God –each one of us, loved beyond measure, beyond death. We are God’s beloved – whether we think we deserve it or not; it’s just who we are,
because that’s the way God wants it; that’s who God is.
How much better is that – to be loved by God “just because” - and not have God’s care and regard be dependent on how good we are, or whether we are perfect, or what kind of job we have, or what our relationships with other people are like, or whether we have been successful in any number of areas in life? You are God’s child; I am God’s child; we are loved. Period. Now that doesn’t give us a free pass to behave badly, or burn bridges in our relationships with others, or act as if we are the center of the universe.
God does ask us to act with integrity and goodness and compassion. But we can really only do that because we are God’s beloved son or daughter – not the other way around.
Our faith is rooted and grounded in the fact of our identity as people loved by God; that’s the basic, central, hard-and-fast bedrock for us as Christians. We have an opportunity to remember that this morning. That’s a fact that goes with us when we leave Church today. It’s a fact that goes with us when we head off to work or looking for work tomorrow morning. It’s a fact that will stay with us and sustain us no matter what the week may bring or the world may throw at us. Each day is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the fact of God’s love for us, and our identity as God’s beloved child. When we wash our face every morning it can be a refreshing of our baptismal identity; when the water hits our face we can say to ourselves “By the grace of God, I am baptized and beloved.”
That is our core identity, and carrying it with us wherever we go will help to steady us, to keep us focused, to remind us of the basics of a faithful life. Remembering that we are baptized and beloved will guide our decisions and the way we order our relationships. Knowing that there is nowhere we can go outside of God’s love will give us the strength to reach out to others – to offer our friendship, our prayers, our encouragement, our effort, our dollars.
This morning we are called, once again, to renew our own baptismal promises, to feel again the water of the font and the river, to
re-commit ourselves to the basics of the Christian life where everything we do springs from the fact that we are God’s own – baptized and beloved.
Let us pray.
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your
Son Jesus Christ, that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be
renewed in the spirit of our minds, and live in righteousness and true holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of
the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 253
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
The Baptism of our Lord
January 13, 2013