The Baptism of our Lord: 1/9/22
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we have leapt from the visit of the wise ones to the adult ministry of Jesus, inaugurated by his baptism at the river Jordan. Jesus receives God’s benediction while he is praying after his baptism. Luke doesn’t tell us if other people witnessed the descent of the Holy Spirit and the blessing; but he does make clear that God is well pleased with Jesus, as a beloved child, before he embarks on his ministry.
Why is Jesus baptized? He hasn’t done anything that needs forgiveness. He doesn’t need to be washed clean of sin. But he wants to be fully identified with the sin-ridden world in which he lives and ministers. He wants to be in solidarity with the people he has come to save. Just as the Incarnation’s power lies in the fact that God became human like us, so the power of Jesus’ ministry lies in the fact that he is one of us, part of the community, standing together with all those who flock to the Jordan to hear good news. This includes all the broken and desperate people who become his friends and who are our neighbors. When we get in line to be baptized, when we renew our baptismal promises, we are getting in line with those same people, and Jesus is in line too. He belongs to the community of faith.
Where do you belong? Different stages of life might call for different answers. When I do premarital counseling with a young couple, I tell them: “Your primary relationship now will be your spouse, and no longer your family of origin.” It’s a reorientation of where you belong. Parents who find themselves with empty nests. People who have retired from active employment. People who receive a serious diagnosis. At any of these pivotal life moments we may wonder where we belong. Scripture has a simple answer for people of faith: we belong with God; we derive our identity and meaning from the reality that we are God’s beloved children.
Isaiah tells us that God has laid claim to us, and Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism echoes and reinforces that claim. When we commit ourselves to the way of love through baptism, we receive the promise that we belong to God. Before today our baptismal candidate Sophie already belonged to St. Paul’s. Today’s ceremony makes that official and also makes the promise that she belongs to God today and every day for the rest of her life. If she remembers that she will never have to wonder where she belongs in the world.
Baptism affirms our connection to God through our participation in the body of Christ, the Church, and through the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s Gospel the Holy Spirit is an active character from the beginning. Just in the first chapter of Luke the Spirit shows up four times: the angel tells Zechariah that his son John will be filled with the Holy Spirit; Mary conceives through the power of the Holy Spirit; Elizabeth is overtaken by the Holy Spirit when she meets the pregnant Mary; and finally Zechariah himself receives the Holy Spirit after John’s birth.
Now, as Jesus begins his adult ministry, the Spirit is back, blessing him, propelling him into the desert, strengthening him against temptation, and launching his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. From this point on, the Spirit is firmly established in the story as the driving force of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In the later part of Luke’s Gospel we will hear Jesus speak of the Holy Spirit only in the context of bestowing it upon others, and this is a key point. When we receive the Spirit, we are to share the Spirit. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, is all about the work of the Spirit in the early church, as the Apostles share the good news with all the world. The Spirit is meant to be shared, as we are sharing it with Sophie today.
When someone is baptized their name is an important part of the formula. There’s an unwritten tradition of the priest asking the parents and godparents to “Name this child” at the font. When you are named, you become somebody. You are not simply a category or a condition but a unique individual: that’s what being named means. And there is power in naming. In Genesis, God gives the first man the power to name the woman and all of the animals. Here in Luke, when angels appear to the parents of both John the Baptist and Jesus, they give each promised child a name. “He will be called John … you will name him Jesus.” And later in the Gospel, Jesus renames Simon as Peter, the Rock, as a sign of his future leadership. Names are important and names are sacred.
I’ve been trying to sort out some muddled thoughts about names.
A name declares who you are. It conveys identity – in a family, in a lineage, in an ethnic group or nationality. It can convey expectations when a child is named for a hero or a famous ancestor. But names can also be used for less honorable purposes. There is a history in this country of immigrants losing their names as a condition of being allowed in. A colleague from my days in New Hampshire told the story of his grandfather arriving on Ellis Island from Poland, giving his family name, and being told “Your name is now Clark”, because the immigration official found Eastern European names too hard to pronounce and spell.
In the era of slavery, African-American people were given names by those who bought and sold them, sometimes getting a different name by each “owner”. In the days when children often died in infancy, several successive children in a family might be given the name of a deceased sibling, as if they simply replaced the lost child.
And there are other ways to misuse names. What does it do to someone when they hear their name mispronounced all the time? How do you feel when people assign you a nickname that you haven’t chosen for yourself? What does it mean when you are required to choose another name, a saint’s name or a European name, for baptism or for employment purposes? How much stress does it add for a person transitioning when they realize that their name misgenders them, and they have to struggle to change it? What does it mean to be expected to take your spouse’s name when you marry?
All of these involuntary namings have a common thread: they chip away at an individual’s identity. They diminish a person. They deny the uniqueness and beauty of a child of God. They go against the promises we make in baptism to uphold the dignity of every human being.
I know that our failure to pronounce unfamiliar names is often accidental and inadvertent. Brain scientists tell us that our brains are permanently programmed for particular sounds and languages in our first year of life: that’s why it’s so very difficult to speak a second language like a native. It takes effort to learn how to pronounce a name that has an unfamiliar cadence. But as followers of Jesus, as baptized Christians who believe that every human being is the beloved child of God, we are obliged to make the effort to name people correctly, as they wish to be named. I appreciate Brooks’ efforts to provide phonetic spellings of names in our prayer list so that the intercessors can say them correctly, because it’s not always obvious, and it matters.
During Communion later/at the 10:30 service this morning we will hear the second US performance of “Our Better History”, a new work by Nicholas Olsen for oboe and organ. It’s a meditation on Scripture and on a portion of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address. On this baptismal feast day, on this weekend when we remember the distressing events at the US Capitol last Epiphany, his words seem especially apt:
“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
One of our baptismal promises calls for us to help the baptismal candidate to grow into the full stature of Christ. Growth in Christ, Christian formation, is a lifelong journey. It’s never too late to learn a new language, to establish new habits (how are those New Year’s resolutions going?), to make new efforts to bring about a world of equity and justice. As we renew our baptismal promises today this is my invitation to you: to grow in your faith by fully acknowledging the worth of every human being and giving each beloved child of God the dignity of their name.