It was the opening icebreaker at a retreat. We were sitting in a circle, relative strangers, and we were posed with the challenge of telling one another the stories of our names. We were skeptical at first. Many people insisted that their names didn’t have any real stories. But one by one, as we went around the circle, we found that we had a lot of things to say about our names. Some of us had stories about the people whom we were named after. Many of us knew what our names meant. A few of us had interesting stories about how our parents chose our names.
It turned out to be the best icebreaker any of us had ever done. We got to know each other in a personal, intimate way, simply by talking about our names.
It makes sense – our names are more than just words, more than just identifiers. Our names embody our histories, our ancestries, our personalities, and our very identities. There’s a reason that frustrated parents call out the full names of their children – first, middle, and last! And there’s a reason that we use our names when we swear oaths, or when we make wedding vows, or even when we sign checks or credit card receipts. Our names represent our very selves, and they are at once our power, our promise, and our deepest identity.
If we think about the depth and intimacy of our names, it helps us understand today’s readings better. Because today’s readings have everything to do with the connection between our baptisms and our names – God’s claim on us and our very identities.
There are many ways that the church talks about the sacrament of baptism. We believe that baptism is a washing away of our sins. We believe that baptism symbolizes dying to sin and rising in Christ. We believe that baptism is a vehicle of God’s grace. But central to all of the things we believe about baptism is the knowledge that, through baptism, God calls us by name and claims us as his children.
Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. This is the same John we know from Advent – the crazy guy in the desert who wore a coat of camel’s-hair and ate wild locusts and honey. John had been baptizing people from all around the region, proclaiming “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” John baptized people for the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus, the Word-made-flesh sent to free us from our sins, approaches John in the swirling waters of the Jordan to be baptized. His burial beneath the waters and his rising out of them foreshadows for us his eventual death, burial, and resurrection.
And when Jesus rises from the water, praying, the spirit of God descends upon him like a dove, and the heavens open, and a voice from on high proclaims “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” At his baptism, God proclaims to the world that Jesus is his son, and not just his son, but his beloved son. God bestows upon Jesus the identity “child of God” in whom God is well-pleased.
In our own baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. And when we are baptized, we are given the name “child of God.” Baptism isn’t simply about forgiveness. Baptism is about identity. When we die and rise to sin through the waters of baptism, we are clothed with a new identity, claimed by God in love and grace, and spurred on to live lives of faith and service.
Now let’s be honest: none of this happens because we deserve it. God does not claim us because we have earned it, or because we have done something to win his favor. Because the bitter truth is that we couldn’t earn God’s love even if we tried. We are humans, sinful and broken. We get impatient with one another. We hurt others and we hurt the creation. We make mistakes. We think evil thoughts, we get jealous, we are greedy, we are anxious and insensitive. We are fully human and fully imperfect.
And we walk this earth among other fully imperfect people, in a world broken by the powers of sin and death. This is why there are hungry people and oppressed people. This is why there is violence and fear. This is why we fight wars and experience pain and know suffering. All by ourselves, we are lost and scared and helpless.
In the novel Gilead, the main character and narrator, John Ames, is a minister. He recalls an episode from his childhood:
“Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula….I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”Just like that litter of cats, we come to baptism powerless and afraid, helpless and confused. But just like John Ames, God blesses us in baptism. God looks deep into our hearts, and really knows us for the creatures that we are. In baptism, our mysterious lives and God’s mysterious life come together, and all that we were and are and will be is now bound up forever in God’s hopes and dreams for us.
By the miracle of grace, we are blessed and claimed in baptism, and our sinful, hopeless, helpless souls are transformed into beautiful, forgiven, hopeful, beloved souls in whom God is well-pleased. In baptism, God makes the promise to us that we hear in today’s reading from Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;God has come to us and called us by name. We belong to God. This is the heart of our baptisms. God’s love and grace are not abstract notions, impersonal and distant from us. God loves each and every one of us as individuals. God’s love is personal, and God’s grace is offered to the deepest parts of us. God doesn’t just claim the good parts of us; God claims the whole of our beings – our flesh, our souls, our thoughts, our emotions, our passions, our fears, our greatest accomplishments and our greatest failings. Out of love, God calls us by name, claims us, and promises to be with us always. When we are overwhelmed by temptation and sin, God is there. When we are overcome by anxiety or fear, God is there. When the woes of the world seem too much to handle, God is there.
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
“Do not fear,” God says, “for you are mine.”
This is the ultimate promise of baptism. It is the promise that we cling to when we walk through hard times. It is the promise we rejoice in as we seek ever-deeper lives of faith. It is the promise we celebrate every time we come to the table. In Christ, God has relieved us from fear and destroyed the powers of sin and death. In Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we have been baptized into God’s family, claimed forever as sons and daughters of God.
My friends, this is the good news that Jesus brings us at the Jordan: God has claimed you and transformed your life from something broken into something sacred. Baptism is nothing more and nothing less than God taking hold of your life and claiming it forever. Baptism is when God looks at each and every one of us and says "you are my sons and daughters, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased."