Questions of identity

Jonathan Rowe, 15 January 2023

Isaiah 42: 1–9; Matthew 3: 13–17

Some of you may have noticed that someone has published a book this week. Even if you haven’t purchased your copy, I suspect that you will have stumbled across various news items and editorial comments. The book tells the story of a boy who lost his mother in tragic circumstances and, we have learned, is still trying to find his place in the world.

We all face questions of who we are – our identity.

The gospel reading this morning reveals something about Jesus’ identity. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. At Jesus’ baptism, there is water, the Spirit of God is present and a voice is heard.

Readers of the Bible don’t have to get very far to come across the same constellation of water, spirit and voice. Right at the beginning of Genesis, there is watery chaos. Over the chaos hovers the Spirit of God. And a voice speaks, creating the world and declaring, ‘This is good’.

The water, Spirit and voice in both creation and baptism led Christians to associate baptism with a new creation. In one of his letters, St Paul puts it pithily: ‘In Christ: new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5: 17).

In the same way that Jesus’ identity is affirmed at his baptism, baptism affirms the identity of each and every Christian. We can say, ‘Just as Jesus came up out of the water, receiving the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptised Christian the voice of God says, ‘You are my son/daughter’ (Williams, Being Christian, p. 3).

This baptismal identity doesn’t set Christians apart from everyone else in the sense of making them superior to others. Baptism is much more about recovering our true humanity. In a world where people often deal with each other inhumanly, Jesus makes us fully human.

Jesus did not do this by tinkering with the world from afar: God doesn’t sit at a divine computer and do a little reprogramming. Instead, he enters our world, our chaos and our confusion – he comes alongside us. It’s in what Archbishop Rowan Williams calls the ‘neighbourhood of chaos’ (Being Christian, p. 4) that Jesus reaches out to us. The ‘neighbourhood of chaos’ is an evocative turn of phrase. It sounds a lot like our world, a lot like our lives. And it’s here, to us, that Jesus comes to offer new creation.

‘In Christ: new creation’ declares St Paul. And so it’s natural that those who are baptised into Christ will also be found where he is, in the neighbourhood of chaos. Christians down the ages have been found where people are most at risk, most needy. At their best – at our best – we are drawn to be with Jesus where he is, attending to those Beyond Ourselves.

I know that many in our churches are involved with the chaos and need of our world. The presence and love of Jesus are reflected in ‘Have a meal on us’, Coffee Pot, the work supported by our Beyond Ourselves charities, as well the hours individuals spend with others in their daily work or where they volunteer.

The neighbourhood of chaos extends into our own lives, too – within us as well as outside us. So, baptised people should be able to look honestly at themselves. We catch a glimpse of this in John’s comment to Jesus, ‘Do you come to me?’ John knows his identity – its possibilities and limits – all the while secure in his particular calling.

Questions of identity press in upon us all. We sometimes find ours in work or relationships, sometimes in hobbies or vocation. Baptism declares that our fundamental identity is that we are Christians, people ‘in Christ’. It’s this foundation that was important to me when I assumed for myself the promises made for me at my baptism. It’s not that other personal and social identities were and are unimportant, but my identity as a Christian came to be the touchstone for all the others.

Baptism means being ‘with Jesus’. With him in the neighbourhood of chaos, whether in us or around us. But also in the depths of God’s love.

‘In Christ: new creation.’ Baptism means being ‘with Jesus’. With him in the neighbourhood of chaos, whether in us or around us. But ‘also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-recreating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be’ (Being Christian, p. 5).

This is the journey we commence at baptism. In this church, we usually pour water over the baby’s head using a shell – a symbol of pilgrimage – and I’d like to end with a prayer from the baptism service, asking God for his grace for our journey.

May God, who has received you by baptism into his Church,
pour upon you the riches of his grace,
that within the company of Christ’s pilgrim people
you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit,
and come to the inheritance of the saints in glory.