I don’t know about you, but the first person to come to mind when we begin thinking about baptism, is John The Baptist. The authorities of Jesus’ day were puzzled by John the Baptist, They were confused about who he was and what he was doing. They even asked him “who are you? What do you say about yourself?“ and in his response, we hear that he is a man of great authenticity, who knew full well his identity and mission.
He knew was not the light, but his role was to give testimony to the light. He was not the Christ, the Messiah, but he felt called to prepare, through his ministry of baptism, those who he wanted to recognize the light when it arrived. For John, the act of baptism was not only to wash and cleanse those who came to him of their sins, but also to help open their eyes to the revelation that Jesus was on his way, just over the horizon; the one whose sandals straps John was not worthy to untie. His ministry of baptism was an act of hope, witness and preparation – helping to make straight or clear the path for Jesus’ arrival – God incarnate.
We too must answer the question “Who am I?” to live with authenticity. If like John, someone asked you “Who are you?” what would be your response? What moves you? What is the heart of your identity. Many of us might begin with saying what we do; I am an accountant, I am a political science student, I am an engineer at Chrysler. OR perhaps we would define ourselves by our relationships; I am Cindy’s husband, Tom and Susie’s mother, I’m Robert’s son. OR perhaps we would respond I am a woman, man, or non-binary, I am Catholic, a Buddhist, an atheist, I am a republican or a democrat, I am an American.
All these are valid identity statements, but if we had just an elevator minute, a one sentence opportunity, to express all that we are in this world what we would include?
We may wonder what does it mean to say “I am Baptized.” What does this statement say about us? If we flesh it out, these three little words surprisingly say quite a bit about us. It says both who we are and who we are not. ‘I am baptized’ identifies us as a member of the body of Christ and an integral part of the on-going incarnation of God into our world. Baptism says that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
When asked about why he baptizes people, John’s says it is so we are able to recognize the “one who is to come.” We believe that our baptism enables us to recognize and receive the revelation of God in Jesus. We realize that the mystery of the incarnation was not some 33-year experiment that ended with Jesus’ death, but we believe that the Spirit of God continues to be with us and IN us as the body of Christ AND as members of his body, we believe that God wishes to communicate his very self to us, and through us to the world, if we are open to be that conduit. (Rolheiser)
In baptism, our I’s become a WE. We recognize our unity and how essential our collaboration and connectedness is to God’s original dream for our world. Alone, we are not the Messiah, we are not perfect – we as individuals are not the whole enchilada, so to speak. But, we are also not powerless or expendable. Each of us are unique and important pieces of God’s good creation, equipped and called to make a special contribution to sharing the transforming love of Christ in our world. As Helen Keller once said “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” As church, we are called to be the sacrament of God’s grace and love to the world.
On the day that Jesus began his public ministry, he got up in front of the assembly and read these words from Isaiah “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord. Then he closed the scroll and added, much to the chagrin of his audience, “today, in your hearing, this scripture is being fulfilled.”
Odd though it may seem, by God’s design, we play a part in this fulfillment. WE are the vehicle of choice for God’s grace; God’s on going revelation and self communication. By saying ‘we are Baptized’ we recognize that WE are the poor, the broken-hearted. WE are the captives of self-hatred and depression. As Brene Brown says, “Our Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” Our greatest hurt is the one we are called to minister most authentically from. We are called to heal one another by virtue of our faith in the power of the Body to which we belong.
Through our baptism we are both the message and the messenger of this grace – God’s saving love to the world. So, when we say “we are baptized” we are also saying that “we are loved” beyond measure. We teach that God loves us unconditionally, but seldom, if ever, do we take this truth seriously enough. In our history, God was sometimes imagined as someone with a big stick, ready to punish us for every weakness and infidelity, or as someone with a book, recording every one of our sins in preparation of some great future reckoning. We have moved a bit beyond this image, but it still looms and lingers in our Catholic imagination. Sadly we still tend to project our smallness of heart and petty ways onto God. As the saying goes – God created us in his own image and we have been trying to repay the favor ever since! (Rolheiser)
Certainly one of the major road blocks to authentically living out our baptismal call to spread the good news of God’s love for us is that we still haven’t heard the news ourselves. How can we share what we ourselves have not even fully received? Think of the person who loves you most in this world. Could they ever withhold love and forgiveness from you? Yet, so often we believe God to be less compassionate than even we are!
It’s interesting to note, Jesus never desired worshippers, but rather followers (aka disciples) and our baptism, opens us up, plunges us into the love that is God – and helps us recognize and receive the love that enables us to live out our calling – to follow Christ in being compassionate agents for the transformation and restoration of our world. In short, we belong to God and this belonging is at the heart of our truest identity. In baptism our false notions of self – those that are inflated or deflated – are shed. We are not the Messiah, we are not perfect, but we are loved, valued and an essential part of this Body of Christ.
A good exercise that I was taught as a child was that when we walk in the door of church and sometimes unconsciously dip our fingers into the baptismal font and cross ourselves – we can with confidence hear the words that God spoke to Jesus on his day of baptism “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased.”
This acceptance is the very heart of the good news that is, indeed, almost too good to be true – yet, we are bid to believe it and to live in the freedom that this lavish love affords; to share this unconditional love, in gratitude, with others, even our enemies. Our job is to muster the courage to accept this acceptance, to claim our belonging and identity as a beloved child of God and to live authentically out of it.