We like to think that we know ourselves, that, better than even our closest friends and family members, we have the most accurate picture of who we are. The truth is very different, however, because sometimes other people see things in us that we do not or cannot see in ourselves. My sons have, over the years, made comments—sometimes in anger, to be sure—that caused me to really look at myself with a different eye. Sometimes I like to blame my blindness on the stresses of post-modern life, but really I suspect we humans have always had a problem seeing ourselves clearly.
William Willimon reminds us that this question, “Who am I?” is the question that dominates our lives. No matter what age bracket we fall into, we all struggle with this question. It haunts us, it informs some of our worst decision-making, it brings us a different perspective. Our North American culture has its own answers to the question, of course, based entirely on where we are in our life.
If we’re young, the culture has expectations for us: we are supposed to go to college, partying every weekend—which by the way, begins on Thursday nights on campus, for those of you who need the 411 on that.
If we’re middle-aged, we should own our own home, have a successful career, have 2.5 children and be slim and fit. It’s OK if you’re in debt with your collection of credit cards because you have a long time to work and pay them off. Dining in fine restaurants, drinking only good wine, enjoying the best of what life has to offer is what it’s all about.
If you’re a senior, your 401K should be sufficient to take care of whatever needs you have. You shouldn’t have to work past the age of 62 and then you travel the world, spending your children’s inheritance.
Many of us have bought into these stereotypes, thinking we would find fulfillment and an answer to our deeper innner needs—and maybe we’ve started to forget who we really are outside of the activities and spending habits we’ve embraced. So, who are we anyway??
One of the most important things we claim for ourselves is our status as sons and daughters of God by virtue of our baptism. Scripture records the story of John the Baptist preaching about the same sort of identity crisis that people have always had to face. Word was out that something lifechanging and important was happening with this John, so people came from all over to hear him and take his words to heart. John told them that superficial changes would have no effect: they had to change their lives. So many came to hear him on the banks of the Jordan that John decided to use the water as a powerful symbol of their desire to become pure, to become who they wanted to be.
Jesus himself steps into the water and as he was praying, the Spirit comes on him. In a moment of revelation, Jesus realizes he is the Messiah—the one who is to bring God’s message to humanity. However he had thought of himself prior to that moment, he now knows his real identity. As he leaves the Jordan that day he knows that from this day forward, his life will be different. In a real sense, then, Jesus’ life really began in the waters of the Jordan River.
Early Christians retained this idea of baptism, and we believe that through it God acts to enlarge the family of God and to mark us forever as called to the same life of service as Jesus himself. In baptism we are cleansed, forgiven, initiated, chosen, embraced, adopted, gifted, reborn, and sent back into the world. If you were to peer into the water inside this baptismal font, you would see a clear reflection of yourself. This is who you are. This is who you are called to be.
In ancient times, when a child was baptized, it was the Church that renamed the child. Even today among cultures in some parts of Africa, when a person becomes a Christian, they replace their given name for a Christian name. They want to express this profound identity change–like when Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul. Name changes signify a new beginning, a radical break with the old.
A number of years ago, Jesse Jackson began worship in his inner-city Chicago congregation with a two-line call and response. He would shout to the congregation, “I was a nobody!” And they would reply in unison, “But now, thank God, I’m somebody!”
The people around them, the culture in which they found themselves had been telling them for years that they didn’t matter. The Church dared to claim a different name for them, and made it clear that were God’s children, so they mattered very much. This is the core of the Christian message, that we matter, that we are “somebody”.
And so, as a Church, every time we baptize someone, we rise up as the People of God and proclaim: “This one is ours. This one belongs to us. God has a lot of promise riding on this one.”
Baptism says that not only are we named but that we are committing ourselves to God. Despite our disappointments or pain, our doubts and fears, we belong to God, and our commitment to God remains. In times of personal doubt and despair, when the Reformation seemed about to disintegrate, Martin Luther says he would sometimes touch his forehead and say to himself, “Martin, be calm, you are baptized.” In those times of our greatest trials, confusion, spiritual dryness, and hopelessness, we, too, need to remind ourselves of who we really are, and to whom we really belong.
In a scene from the Roots miniseries many years ago, Kunta Kinte waits while his master attends a party. He hears strange music coming from the slave quarters out back, so he goes to investigate. When he joins the group of slaves making music, he remembers the melodies from when he had been a child in Africa. He discovers that one of the men is from his village, and they speak in their native tongue about home. That night Kunte Kinte goes home a changed man. He lay on the dirt floor of his cabin and wept, weeping in sadness because he had almost forgotten; weeping for joy because he had remembered. Slavery had almost erased his memory, but music brought it all back to him.
It is easy in the confusion and stress of this life to forget who we are and more importantly, to whom we belong. The Church, which this parish family represents, is here to remind us and to support us. We are here to remind each other that we have been named for God, and that we are loved unconditionally. That’s why we exist. That’s why 2010 is our year to grow as a parish and to incorporate those who are hurting and in need of the love of God. This is who we are. This is who we are called to be. By our baptism, this is the covenant we have freely made with God. And when we come to church, to this place where we belong, our souls recognize the music God has been playing for us all along. Our soul hears the music more clearly, and we remember who we are.