Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2013
I recently saw the new movie version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I don’t think it will ruin the plot for you if I tell you that as the film begins, we see an incarcerated man being released from prison. Both the guards and the man himself refer to this person as “24601.” He has no name, no identity other than the one the prison system has given to him. We see him struggling—as so many people still do today—to find a job and a community as an ex-convict. Seeing his desperation, one day a kind priest invites “24601” to have dinner and stay the night in the parsonage.
“24601” observes the abundance of the household, and takes advantage of it. He tries to sneak off in the middle of the night with a bag full of silverware and other expensive items, but is caught by the police, who bring him back to the priest. The priest, however, insists that he gave these items to “24601,” and not only that, but that his “guest” left without the most precious items—and presses him to accept some silver candlesticks too.
In the absence of a victim, the police have to free the thief. What follows is a song that encapsulates so much of what today’s Scripture readings are about. The thief ruminates on who he was before his imprisonment, and on who he became during his imprisonment. Finally, in light of the priest’s kindness, he wonders who he could become now.
Appropriately, the song is called “Who Am I?” Is he really a beast, as the prison system and majority of society have pegged him? Or is he a man worthy of dignity—of food and shelter and trust—as the priest’s actions would indicate? He resolves to give up the identity of 24601 and live into the identity the priest has offered him. He reclaims the name he was given at birth—Jean Valjean—tears up his parole papers, and flees to another part of the country where he leads a respectable life, eventually becoming mayor of his town.
I’m not going to tell you the rest of story, although I truly love it and highly recommend it to you (despite the fact that Russell Crowe is a disaster as Police Chief Javert). What I am going to do is invite you to think about identity. Who are you? Not 24601 or Jean Valjean, but you. I remember back when I was a military wife how much I resented being reduced to a social security number. Not only that, but to the military I wasn’t even my own number—I was my husband’s social security number! Who are we besides the numbers on our checking accounts, driver’s licenses, and other documents? What makes us who we are? Is it our careers or our families or our marital status that determines our answer?
What is your answer to the question, “Who am I?” Is it “I am an immigrant/jazz lover/mother of triplets?” Is it, “I am unemployed/allergic to peanuts?” Is it “I am a Republican/bisexual/Norwegian?” Is it “I am a sister/an alto/a dog/cat person?” Who or what determines who you are? What specific people or events or choices along the way have made you the person you are today? Where and with whom do you belong?
These are deep, significant, spiritual questions, and worth exploring. In the life of a Christian, however, this kind of wondering invariably leads us to one place: the font. Here, in Baptism, we find our identity. Here we hear our own names called, an echo of God’s long-ago promises recorded in Isaiah: “Do not be afraid; I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. I regard you as precious, and I love you.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children. It confers on us the promise of God’s unconditional regard. Whatever else determines who we are—whether we live in the same neighborhood as we always have, or we move across the world; whether the people who gave us birth or to whom we have made promises are still living together as a family or not; whether we switch political parties or gender identities….whatever the circumstances or actions are that have shaped us—even in our own uncertainty about who, exactly, that IS!—we have this assurance. In our baptisms, we know who we are because we know whose we are. We are God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family. Baptism is a tangible sign of that.
It’s worth noticing that even Jesus gets to (and maybe NEEDS TO) this kind of affirmation. At his baptism, the voice that comes from heaven speaks to Jesus personally, “YOU are my beloved child; with YOU I am well-pleased.” Not the plural “you all” but “you,” individually. How often did he, like Jean Valjean, wonder who he was? Were there ever times when he, like the rest of us, needed to return to this assurance of his identity, this promise that he was important and loved? Did he ever question whether or not living a life of complete love and self-giving was worth it, given how much conflict it caused? And if he did, did he cling to his baptism as a reminder that whatever happened and whoever he was, he belonged to God?
In the Lutheran church we make much of the fact that in Baptism we receive forgiveness of sins. But that does raise the question, “Then why was Jesus baptized? Wasn’t he the only sinless person to ever walk the face of the earth?” Indeed, Jesus was perfect. He chose to be baptized, however, in order to enter into our lives completely, so that he could identify with us humans in every way. Perhaps, in his willingness to take on our role, we are empowered to identify with his as well. As he was called God’s beloved child in his baptism, so we are called God’s beloved children in our own baptisms.
But doesn’t that make you wonder about the question of choosing to be baptized, choosing to take on Christ’s purity in the face of a sinful world? I think there is a profound treasure in the Lutheran teaching that Baptism is wholly God’s work (and God’s holy work). Unlike many denominations, we don’t teach that God is waiting for us to invite him into our hearts, or that we have to understand what it means in order to be baptized. We certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that we must repent and reform before God will accept us as God’s own. Instead, we live by faith that Baptism is God’s action, God’s reaching out toward us, claiming us.
That is why we typically baptize infants. It reinforces our understanding that belonging to God has nothing to do with what we have done or not done. It has everything to do with God’s embrace. So as a baptized child grows up, we can be confident that no matter what that child does, or fails to do, nothing can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God is the one and only relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, tear up the certificate and throw it away, but we cannot destroy it. God loves us too deeply and too completely to ever let us go.
In a world of uncertainty in which so many relationships are fragile or tattered, it is good news that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. In fact, trusting that this relationship is in God’s hands, we are freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives. When “24601” claims his identity as Jean Valjean, he is choosing to live in a particular way, not as a prisoner, but as a free man who has been treated with mercy and can offer mercy. Likewise, as daughters and sons of God, we arise from our baptisms with a new sense of who we are and how we are to live. When Jesus rises from the baptismal waters, he begins his ministry. Because he is rooted in God’s grace he can do the work he is called to do. The same is true for us.
Though God never stops cherishing us, we tend to forget or doubt or ignore God’s love for us and for the whole world. Sometimes we even overtly decide who deserves mercy and grace, and who does not. Unlike the priest in Les Mis, we don’t always extend second chances to people who have wronged us or with whom we disagree. But God DOES. So how can we return to our baptisms, to God’s framework for living that seeks us out and shapes us into ambassadors of hope and healing?
Given the ubiquitous role water plays in our lives, how about we make an effort to remember our baptisms every time we wash with water this week? The sacrament of Baptism is only conducted once in a person’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s a once-and-done event. It is a blessing that renews daily. What if this week, every time we took a bath or shower, or washed our hands before meal time, or did laundry, we said out loud, “I am God’s beloved child”? What if we paused at least once a day to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross, reminding ourselves that God has named and claimed us? I don’t know if it would make a difference in the way we face the trials and triumphs of our daily experiences, but it might. In any case, I don’t think it could hurt.
And then what if each of us looked for a person who seems beaten up by life—someone ill or lonely or angry—and tried to shower that person with the assurance of his or her worth as well? Maybe that means making a phone call, or offering to pick up something a person dropped, or just a smile at a hassled employee at the check-out counter. Maybe it’s as simple as calling a person by name in a voice that conveys love. Again, maybe none of these actions would be significant. But what if they were? What if a little gesture marks the moment 24601 becomes Jean Valjean? Maybe it would make the difference for that person between forgetting and remembering who he or she is. Maybe it would be a way of putting flesh on God’s assurance to a people in exile: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, the west, the south, the north. I will gather everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” To spread that message is our baptismal calling.
So let’s try it, knowing and remembering that—no matter what else is true—we are God’s beloved children and with us God is well pleased.
~Pastor Susan Schneider