Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 & Colossians 1:15-20

Our identity is God’s work: and God is big enough to handle it all

a reflection by Dan Spragg

Do you remember your baptism? I suspect many of you won’t, being that you were probably a little young to be forming conscious memories. Some of you might though if you came to baptism later in life. I do imagine most of you might know where you were baptised – take a moment to tell your neighbour where and when yours occurred. I remember mine. I was 17 at the time. It was something that I decided to do. And by that I mean I felt strongly led to it… it was a significant moment for me. Yes at the time, but mostly in hindsight. I wouldn’t say it changed me overnight, but in looking back I certainly see it as a marker in the sand. So maybe I was changed at that moment. Things were simply different from that point on, I saw things differently, I was conscious of new things.

Today in our service we have had the baptism of Emily Joyce, a beautiful ritual revealing the bigness of God’s love – truly a sacrament – the invisible has been made visible. And we have had the ‘Kirkin’ of the Tartan’. These two are, believe it or not, related as they both are to do with identity.

‘Who am I?’ or “Who are we?’ while perhaps not often being a conscious question we ask, tends to take up quite a bit of our time and energy. As groups of people we link together with common names, and common uniforms, associating with people who are like us, defining ourselves more often than not by what we are against, giving ourselves a common enemy, or a common cause to fight. As individuals, we do the same, not often consciously, but we still do it. A sign that we are engaged in the always, seemingly ongoing process of answering that question of ‘who am I?’ are those little voices in our heads. The voices that question our own actions and words or seek to justify them either for ourselves or for others. What sits behind this? Insecurity. 99% of us seem to not feel secure unless we clarify our borders. It seems simply part of the human condition that we have a need to strive to define our own identity.

Humanity’s tendencies to struggle with insecurity is a symptom of our being asleep to who we truly are. In this state, we need things to remind us of how things truly are so that we might begin to remember and therefore begin to live differently. God, as we have heard in the narrative of Baptism, calls to us and gathers us up and lays claim to us in the name of love. Jesus of Nazareth experienced this and his baptism can tell us something of our own. Firstly, Jesus Identity is made clear – he is a beloved child of God. To be called that speaks of acceptance, belonging, and relationship. Secondly, the work of baptism is God’s. All the beliefs around baptism whether infant or ‘believer’ (adult) baptism agree on this. God is the one at work – the spirit is the one who confirmes the work of God with us as we enter into the promise of God that is upon us.

The heading of today’s reading from Colossians is “The Supremacy of Christ”. It is a strong title worthy of all that it implies. If you ponder it for a moment, you will notice that its scope is immense. Immense enough that it means exactly what it claims. I’d like to read it again, just so we catch the enormity of it.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

In Christ, all things were created. In Christ, all things hold together. In Christ, is the fullness of God. In Christ, all are reconciled to God.

In Emily’s baptism today, she, if you noticed, wasn’t required to do anything. A baby, somewhat helpless, dependant on all those around her, receives the grace of God in the form of water – a visible sign today of what has and will always be true – she is a beloved child of God with no need to earn her place. Her identity is simply that she is this child of God, and God is the one who always makes the first move. Emily’s being found in Christ means that she has belonging, acceptance, and unconditional love. And we have been witnesses to this today. And we are reminded that what is true for her, is true for all of us. We have belonging, acceptance, and unconditional love. This is the work of God – God’s call to us to wake up to the truth of who we are and stop striving to fix our own insecurities. For all of everything is found ‘in Christ’ The name of that which encompasses and holds absolutely everything and everyone. What it means for all of us to be found ‘in Christ’ is that we are ok. We are ok. All are held ‘in Christ’ together with the fullness of God. That is where we are, that is who we are.

Bringing this into our everyday life isn’t straightforward. More often than not our actions and words, the repeating self-talk that plays in our heads, forgets who we are. And so we end up hurting ourselves and one another. We accuse people of this that and the other thing. We assume the world is out to get us. We seek to justify ourselves and our actions by tactics of attack and of defence. We go to war. We retreat to our tribes. We seek to build walls. We close ourselves off and we close ourselves down.

Detrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident wrote of his experience of living through the question ‘who am I?’ while held in Nazi prison. Listen to the intensity of his experience as he wrestles with this.

“Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house. Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command. Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”[1]

Jesus lived all this. Jesus lived just as we live. He was baptised. He was made a scapegoat and killed by the powers that be. And God made visible the risen Christ, the one who was before all things. And in Christ all of our humanity is gathered up; our lives, our loves, our hates; our wars, our suffering, our violence, our betrayal; our joy, our faith, our hope; our friends, our families, our communities. All of it. All of it in our diversity and in our unity. All of it in our striving to feel secure, our quest to know who we are. All of it gathered up into the fullness of God and God says yes, once, and always ongoing.

Emily won’t remember this day, the event of her baptism. But she can remember her baptism if she is reminded of it. Those around her can remind her of it just like those around each one of us can remind us of ours. That is our job as the church, to treat each other as we truly are, to remind one another that we are all beloved children of God. You belong, you are accepted, you are loved – all of every part of you.

How would you like to be treated as a child of God?

What could you do to help remind those around you that this is who they are too?

Remember this God says, remember who you are.

[1] See, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prison Poems.